Essays · Information Technology

On the Topic of Campus Accessibility: Access Illinois


Written whilst listening to: The Fusion – Omnia & Ira


By now, the majority of you probably know that my friends and I made an app integrating Google Maps and the campus accessibility maps at the University of Illinois, and subsequently won a Hackathon with it. If you don’t know this, I’ll give you a tl;dr. Our campus provides accessibility maps for students with disabilities to navigate around campus and discover accessible entrances, doors, classrooms, etc. in various campus buildings. This is good, but the maps not been updated in the better part of 5 years, and don’t provide a good means of directions for those that have spatial awareness disabilities. By integrating Google Maps, we’re able to provide a better means of travel for them. They are able to see the entire streets, intersections, bus stops, and more. Google’s API is rather robust in the information that it provides. If you’re curious to read more, here’s a link to our report.

We are certainly looking towards the future and working on some shortcomings and bugs that we’ve encountered. Most notably, Google used to provide support in their JavaScript for adding multiple floors to a building in image overlays, which is what we used to put the building floor plans onto the map. However, they don’t allow that to be done anymore for reasons that are a bit vague. We tried very hard to make sure that the maps included everything that a student would need, but of course it is not entirely helpful if you can’t have an entire building floor plan in one place.

It would also be ideal to include some sort of directional input as well, so that students or users can see directions as they’re walking somewhere as well. Currently, the Google Maps app does very well, but the point remains that it should be integrated into one location to facilitate ease of access. I would love a way to integrate this with our mapping system, though in my knowledge, I’m not sure how easy this would be done.

Much of this I have already detailed in our presentation and report for this project, but I thought it would be good to reiterate especially if someone is new to this. NOW THEN.

On Inclusive Design*

Image result for inclusive design microsoft
Inclusive Design @ Microsoft

Inclusive access is important for a few reasons. Mainly, it’s like the image above. It facilitates access for a wide range of people in the best possible circumstances. In one case, you may have someone who has one arm – this would be something like a disability. In others, you may have someone holding a baby, they also have one arm available, but this is a situational impairment- this can be easily overcome. However, designing interfaces and systems that can accommodate all these types of situations is radically (yes, that phrasing is intentional) important. Similar to universal design, inclusive design aims to reach the broadest audience possible.

Where it differs, however, is that universal design is generally thought of as trying ONLY to target and include those with disabilities, rather than seeing the forest for the trees. While this is indeed necessary, it can sometimes be a pitfall or a trap for designers, or can be seen as something of an afterthought. When discussing inclusive design with regard to Access Illinois, we sought to make sure that we can have something usable by everybody.

Now, this would include:

  • Somebody who’s new on campus needs to get around,
  • visiting scholars or faculty who need to know where a certain door is or where is best to park their car with the best walking route to get somewhere,
  • students using a wheelchair or have a cane need to get around in an easier way and know where the accessible entrances to a building are,
  • and even more than I might think to list! See how that works?

This is where inclusive design can shine. In a way, it takes those left on the fringe or edge cases and incorporate them entirely into the design of a product, a place, a building, or more – WITHOUT negating or impacting the overall function of the result and, in fact, most of the time enhancing it. For these reasons and more, it’s important to consider inclusive design when working out a new product or program.

*This is likely an area for further reflection. I’d welcome comments!

On Widespread Access

It took me a while to think of a header for this section, and I think that widespread access is as close as I can get to ideal for right now. As pointed out to me by a good friend, it’s important to consider access to non-academic as high priority as well. (Note: This applies mostly to a campus setting, though there are myriad community settings as well.) Thinking about it as I’m writing this blog post, I can think of a few times that I wanted to check out the maps for a certain dorm or the like and had a hard time locating the floor plans. Often, they’re buried underneath several pages that aren’t commonly listed for residents and require a fair bit of Google Fu to discover. These can be important for a few reasons, namely:

  • One wants to scope out a new dormitory to live in and needs to know if the layout of a room and/or building is appropriate.
  • One wants to visit a friend and needs to know where an elevator is or when it’s accessible hours are. (Note: In the case of the dorms here at University of Illinois, anyone can eat at any dining hall during dining hours. Doors are unlocked during that time. Elevators aren’t.)
  • Perhaps one wants to stay at a friend’s but needs to know about accessible restroom facilities etc.

These are monumentally important things to keep in mind when we’re working to make our spaces accessible as well, especially as we continue to innovate in our universities and workplaces. Of course, the function of these buildings e.g. academic buildings and workplace barriers are important to remedy, but so too is the support infrastructure around our functional spaces. Often times, this support infrastructure is an investment with an unbelievable rate of return. Negate the disabling effects on someone, and suddenly you’ll notice they’re achieving more than they themselves might have ever thought possible.

That’s my small thesis on inclusive design and how it’s affected by our infrastructure and served by Access Illinois. Of course, my team and I aim to improve on the app as the months go. I want to reflect more on this as time goes as well – a small part (read: probably 80%) of my classes touch on this and I think it’s so important to recognize the human aspect that actually utilizes the technologies we build as engineers.

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2 thoughts on “On the Topic of Campus Accessibility: Access Illinois

  1. Nice. It would be cool if, as a result of this app, the residence halls could realize the limitations and make elevator access open to students (with an I-Card) more globally during dining hours (limited access is easily programmed into modern elevators, with limited floor access being available as an option).

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