Wheelchair mobility app makes the world a bit bigger


Antwerpenaar Michiel Desmet has come up with an app that gives wheelchair users greater freedom as they move about Flanders’ cities

Freedom of movement

Michiel Desmet’s plans on his 28th birthday were pretty modest – venture into Antwerp with friends and grab drinks at a bar.

But since a bus accident that left him paralysed from the waist down five months before, casual outings had become something the Berchem local needed to plan in advance – more so than most people.

So he did his homework and scrutinised an online map from the City of Antwerp that spotlighted a number of wheelchair-accessible restrooms across the city. But when he showed up at the McDonalds on Groenplaats, staff told him those “accessible” restrooms were in fact on the first floor. And no, there was no elevator.

The exchange lasted just a few minutes, and Desmet and his friends quickly left, but the incident left him perturbed.

“First, it was a little baffling that the information was incorrect. Second, of course it was frustrating,” he says. “And third, it gave me the idea that I needed to find something that would help me.” 

Personal guide

That resolve has since culminated in On Wheels, an app that aims to alleviate the big unknown that often haunts those in a wheelchair – can they get inside or not? It allows users to view and upload information on the accessibility of public locations like coffee shops, pharmacies, banks, government buildings and restaurants.

“The app is really like a personal mobility guide that tells you individually the places in the city you can go to,” Desmet explains. “So you don’t have to call up the store or cafe to find out if you can get in.”

To get started, users simply need to enter the width of their wheelchair and the maximum height of thresholds they can handle and, voila, the app shows users those places accessible to them. 

There was no organisation that did it the way we are doing it

- Michiel Desmet

People can also upload their own information anywhere in the world. “You just measure the width of the door, the height of the thresholds, verify if there are wheelchair-accessible restrooms, and whether there’s a place in the business where you can turn around,” Desmet says, explaining that when the latter isn’t possible, that means rolling backwards all the way to the exit. “We verify that information is correct, and if it is, it’s added to the map.”

Today, the app offers information on some 9,000 locations across Flanders.

Though equal opportunities state secretary Elke Sleurs announced a €20,000 grant for On Wheels in April, the app was a labour of love from inception to finish. Desmet developed the app and runs the non-profit behind it with three friends, while some 1,700 students from university colleges visited and measured thousands of premises across Flanders as part of Dag van de Zorg, a one-day open-house event for the care and health-care sector organised by the non-profit of the same name.

With much of urban Flanders pretty much mapped, the capital is up next. Armed with rulers, volunteers from the local non-profit Wheelchairity and a local student club will hit Brussels next month. 

Restorative power

This isn’t the first app targeted at wheelchair users, though. Apps like Wheelmate, Wheelmap and Wheelcome, for instance, also aim to help people on the move by colour-coding locations, rating them with stars or labelling them “accessible” or “non-accessible”. 

But Desmet found these apps to be confusing. Holding up his phone with the Wheelcome app open, he says, “Here, you have Christine’s Tobacco Shop, which has one star. But it’s not clear what one star means. What good is that to you as a user?” he asks. “There was no organisation that did it the way we are doing it.”

At the same time, the app also doesn’t shame non-accessible locations; they simply don’t show up on the map. That was a conscious decision, Desmet explains. “This way, you don’t tell businesses: ‘You’re doing a poor job’.”

The kind of information the app offers is hugely practical, but in Desmet’s view it also has a critical restorative power.

“The world of people who are in a wheelchair is really threatening, especially in the beginning. First, you have a number of social stigmas, let’s say. Everyone looks at you, and you’re not used to that at first. And second, the world is threatening because you don’t know how you can move in it,” he explains.

“You really limit yourself in your freedom of movement by only going to places you know. Or, in the case of many people in a wheelchair, you go outside a lot less and stay at home a lot more.”

On Wheels won’t help with the psychological adjustment, Desmet says; that’s something wheelchair users have to work out on their own. “But it can help you at the mobility level,” he says. “It’s really as if your place in this world becomes a bit bigger.”

Photo © Dries Luyten