Putting access on the map
27 September 2021 at 5:24 pm
As a permanent wheelchair user Max Burt knows how hard it can be to get around a city. It’s why he founded WheelEasy, a platform mapping wheelchair accessible spaces across Sydney. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
On 2 November 1999, Max Burt’s life changed forever. While driving home, he collided side-on with a fire engine. The accident left him partially paralysed, with dramatic tremors, and severe speech, sight and hearing impairments.
As a permanent wheelchair user, he learnt that leaving the house for something as simple as going to the park with his wife, Justine, was frought with difficulties. Many restaurants, theatres, cafes and parks are not wheelchair friendly. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of information about access.
And it’s not just people with mobility impairments that are limited by the leisure activity available. The lack of information on accessible locations means it is hard for family members, friends, or other companions to spend time with their loved one in public spaces. With this in mind, in 2014 Justine and Burt founded WheelEasy.
The platform maps locations across Sydney according to how accessible they are, marking each location with a green icon for accessible, orange for partially accessible, and red for inaccessible. Information on these locations is sent in by the public and posted on the platform.
The WheelEasy map includes everything from museums, and parks, to lookouts, beaches and restaurants.
While Burt’s hope is that one day a platform like WheelEasy is no longer needed because the information will be readily available, for now, the platform is providing the tools for wheelchair users and their friends and families to get out and enjoy life together.
As well as running WheelEasy, Burt sits on disability advisory panels for City of Sydney and Central Coast Councils and was named one of the Westpac Social Change Fellows for 2021.
In this week’s Changemaker, Burt discusses the difference he’s making to the lives of people with disability, the challenges of entrepreneurship, and the future of WheelEasy.
You were in a car accident 20 years ago that left you permanently in a wheelchair. How did this lead to you starting WheelEasy?
In the years following my accident I ran a consultancy company in London which basically gave companies advice on how to promote their corporate and social responsibility. I also ran a charity called Diversibility, which aimed to promote better perceptions of people with disability.
My wife and I moved to Australia in 2011, and I guess the idea for WheelEasy was always there, but it was crystallised in 2014 when we discovered that the beach about five minutes from our house had a beach wheelchair. We hadn’t heard anything about it and it really made clear that while good physical access is one thing, the lack of information about access was a massive problem. It’s all very well spending thousands of dollars on a beach wheelchair, but if no one’s heard about it then there’s not much point. We realised that there wasn’t a central hub for access information, and so we started WheelEasy as a way to fill that gap.
What are some of the challenges that you faced setting up an organisation like WheelEasy?
Setting up a platform like this and doing it really well – like I think we have – takes time and dedication. We also had no money to set it up, so growing the platform has been a challenge. Fortunately, the idea has begun to capture people’s imagination and we’ve been very lucky in receiving a lot of grants over recent months, which have enabled us to get the platform to where it is now.
We are now at the stage where we are mapping places that aren’t just Sydney, which is exciting. We have the funds to build in income streams which will generate the income we need to move forward and grow.
Another big challenge is that because all of our access information is added by members of the public, we really have to encourage and make sure that people are adding good information because crap information is no good to anyone. People will submit something and then we moderate the post before it goes up on the website.
Where do you hope to see the platform in 10 years?
In the long run, it would be fantastic if WheelEasy didn’t need to exist for accurate information. That would mean that accessibility information is constantly updated and business owners make their premises more accessible.
Our dream is to have every leisure-related place in the world available to everyone. But there [is also] another side of the equation, which we haven’t even begun to talk about, which is that we act as a leisure-guide for people with accessibility issues. It’s about providing inspiration and ideas for days out for people with a disability, so you’re not just sitting at home locked away from everyone. I think there isn’t enough of that kind of information out there, and there will always be a need for more.