The Ableism of Internet Map Directions

For most of us, it is easy to get transit directions to get from Point A to Point B. You just go onto Google Maps (or maybe Bing or Yahoo Maps), type your starting point, type your destination point, and get directions from there. It seems simple enough.

Simple enough for able-bodied people.

If you are wheelchair-bound, or told by your doctor or your own body to try avoiding stairs, obtaining directions are not that simple for one reason—to my knowledge, not a single internet map provider gives people an opportunity to select wheelchair-friendly directions.

The problem is especially noticeable in my hometown of New York City, where the subway system is so unfriendly to wheelchairs that it is in the midst of lawsuits right now. Given the lack of wheelchair access with the subways in New York, and with transit in many parts of the world, there is a severe need for wheelchair-friendly directions.

Yet, not a single internet map provider gives you the opportunity to plan out wheelchair-friendly directions. Google Maps may allow you to switch directions depending on whether you prefer the subway, the bus, fewer transfers, less walking, etc., but it does not allow you to switch directions depending on whether you need to avoid using stairs. Bing provides you fewer options than Google and fails to show wheelchair-friendly directions. Yahoo provides fewer options yet than Google and Bing, and Mapquest (AOL’s internet map service) does not seem like something you use if you need mass transit directions. Regardless of options, none of these internet map providers do the job of giving people wheelchair-friendly directions.

So if you can’t use stairs but want to make a day trip to the American Museum of Natural History, for example, you will find that all map providers are useless because of the lack of wheelchair-friendly directions. That is because the subway station for the museum lacks wheelchair accessibility, and there is nothing on any internet map provider which tells you that. Hopefully, people who suddenly lose the ability to use stairs will realize the uselessness of these internet map directions before starting out on their journeys.

Wheelchair Access Google
Google Maps lets you know whether you want the “best route,” “fewer transfers,” or “less walking,” but there is no option for “wheelchair accessible.” This picture was taken by me.

Between a lack of wheelchair-friendly transit (both mass transit and walking), and map providers such as Google and Bing failing to provide you with wheelchair-friendly transit directions, the result is that someone who desperately needs to avoid stairs will need to look hard for directions, and look much harder than able-bodied people like me.

The lack of wheelchair-accessible directions is an injustice, and an injustice I was blind to until recently. Yet, all it takes is something like a broken leg or a car crash that paralyzes part of your body, and suddenly you need to rely on wheelchair-friendly directions. If such an unfortunate event ever happens to you, you will not be able to rely on internet map providers for your transit directions. You will need to figure out directions through other means because internet maps, like so many other things, are made for an ableist world.

5 Replies to “The Ableism of Internet Map Directions”

      1. I wish it didn’t.

        I hope other people have accessible ways of getting around the maps.

        For instance, you could talk to the map or ask Siri for accessible directions.

        And I hope the little dots and the Internet of things can help.

        The burden should be on the map-makers and map-distributors.

        In the Melway we have mobility maps, and there are also shopping centre mobility assistants/assistants.

        I wondered if Expedia, long ago, had wheelchair-accessible directions?

        Unfortunately, as they are private businesses, they are not immediately – or ever – obliged to provide these directions.

        Internet maps were made for an ableist world.

        I also use Carto and another map-maker – will go through my Progressive Geographies folder to see what is possible.

        And then there are student campaigns and competitions for innovative design and implementation.

        Liked by 1 person

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