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Website revolutionizes wheelchair accessibility

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Website revolutionizes wheelchair accessibility
Krauthausen with wheelmap. Photo:DPA
14:56 CEST+02:00
Just over a year after its launch, a revolutionary German website is reshaping the lives of wheelchair users with online information about the accessibility of thousands of locations worldwide.

Wheelmap.org is an interactive map allowing users to rate places such as cafes, bars and libraries according to their accessibility. Run by Berlin-based charity Sozialhelden, the site is brainchild of the foundation's co-founder, Raul Krauthausen.

And since a campaign by US web giant Google was launched this September, the site has seen their usual 10,000 hits a month rocket to 100,000. They are also celebrating their 150,000th ranked location.

Like many of the best ideas, Wheelmap came to Krauthausen almost by accident. In a Berlin café with a friend, he had a revelation; they hadn't chosen the spot because of its outstanding coffee, but because he knew in advance that it had wheelchair access.

Krauthausen, who is affected by the bone condition Lobstein syndrome, is just one of the 1.6 million people in Germany who use a wheelchair. And he, like countless others, was fed-up of the lack of choice he faced day in, day out - despite the German constitution stating that “no person is to be discriminated or disadvantaged on grounds of disability.”

He also realised that for many people who rely on a wheelchair, going somewhere new can suddenly become more stressful than exciting if, upon arrival, there turns out to little to no wheelchair access, or that there are no accessible toilets.

“Almost every establishment has a website with the opening times, prices and services on it. What is lacking, however, is information about how accessible it is.” Krauthausen explained in an interview on the website.

“It was yet another example of how physical barriers can shrink a person's world. It was at this point I realised that a map with wheelchair-friendly places marked on it would be really useful.”

And so the wheels were put in motion, and the website went live last year under the direction of Sozialhelden, a foundation which campaigns for social inclusion.

Currently, Wheelmap boasts its own free App for Smartphones in an impressive 12 languages, including English, Turkish, French, and Japanese. The majority of ranked locations are still in Germany, but an increasing number are popping up overseas and plans are in the pipeline to develop locations across Britain in time for the 2012 Paralympics.

The site's recent boom in success is partially thanks to a recent Google ad for its Chrome web browser. So far, the advert has accumulated over one million hits on YouTube and is being aired on TV across Germany.

“The Wheelmap project is a prime example of the fact that the internet enables people to do things that wouldn't have even been thought possible several years ago.

"These kinds of developments are the very reason we founded Chrome,” Google spokesman Stefan Keuchel said in a statement on the site.

“Raul embodies our ethos that the internet is what you make of it.”

It is not, however, only wheelchair users who can benefit from the site - it is also relevant for the 8.5 million people in Germany who use some sort of mobility aid with wheels - whether parents with a pram, or an elderly person with a walker.

Krauthausen hopes that as the site gains publicity, increasing numbers of people can benefit from the chance to “discover new places with ease, and meet new people, disabled or not."

"That is what Wheelmap is all about; inclusion and contributing towards a barrier-free society,” he said.

The Local/jcw

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