A glimpse into the daily lives, inspirations, and stories of the entrepreneurs, creatives, social innovators, and community champions who call Charlottesville home!
Founder and CEO of VisitAble
Hometown: Fairfax, Virginia
Years lived in Charlottesville: 6
Favorite place: The winery and brewery scene around town
Favorite community event: Saturday Farmers Markets
Favorite local restaurant: Oakhurst Inn Cafe
Tell us about your educational and professional background.
I’m a recent graduate of the University of Virginia; I graduated in May 2019. I did the Entrepreneurship minor while I was there and the capstone course was to start your own business. The first assignment in the class was to pick something you’re passionate about. My father has used a wheelchair for my entire life, so I’ve grown a passion and an understanding for how people with disabilities are treated, and the barriers and challenges they face every day. With that project, I decided to focus on two main problems that stood out to me: the gap between minimum ADA compliance and practical accessibility, and the way that people with disabilities are treated.
Why did you first start VisitAble?
After doing some research on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and talking to the disabled community, I noticed three shortcomings, which really illustrate why there is a gap between the minimum ADA compliance and practical accessibility for the disabled community:
The enforcement system of the ADA is based mostly on complaints. This leads to a reactive and punitive approach to accessibility. A lot of times, both public and private entities are waiting for a renovation to happen, a new facility to be built, or a new complaint to happen.
There is certain verbiage in the ADA that is unclear or creates loopholes, such as “historical preservation,” “undue burden,” “program access,” or “readily achievable.”
There are certain guidelines that aren’t in the ADA but that are important to the disabled community, such as how to treat people with disabilities and interact with them in the correct way, respectfully, and how to be transparent about accessibility.
It makes sense that a policy has some spaces in which it could improve, because policies can’t be exact and not everything may be practical in a policy sense, so it’s natural that there is this gap. This has led to a bunch of discrepancies in the accessibility of different establishments. In my experience with my father, we had to call ahead to restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, parks, and gyms to check their accessibility. Usually, the person who answers the phone doesn’t know that much about accessibility, so a couple of things happen: we end up having to talk to 3-4 different people before we get an answer, we’ll have to go deep into the situation about my father’s disability and explain his needs, or we’ll get told inaccurate information and be unable to get in when we show up. All of this has created a barrier of uncertainty, where people with disabilities don’t know what’s accessible to them. This process of calling ahead has really created a more uncomfortable, tedious, and inaccurate approach to checking accessibility. People would rather not call ahead. The disabled community is then left with one or two options: they can go to the same places that they know are accessible and welcoming, or they can stay at home.
Even if a place is completely wheelchair accessible or physically accessible, that has nothing to do with how people are treated by employees. That’s the second problem I wanted to focus on: the treatment of people with disabilities. I always give the example of going to a restaurant with my father and having the host or hostess talk with me the whole time and not really acknowledge his presence. All of those things really stood out to me and so I started VisitAble to help solve this and close the gap between ADA compliance and practical accessibility. I’m trying to use the private sector to help pick up where the law falls short, and create a more proactive and positive motivation to consider, think about, and improve accessibility. VisitAble is creating an interactive database, similar to a Yelp for accessibility, really focusing on the mobility information at first. We’re coupling that with a training certification process, which is a tool to test, improve, and broadcast mobility access and disability etiquette. Hopefully, these two things will not only enable a better experience for visitors with mobility challenges in physical, public-facing spaces, but will also allow organizations to attract and provide the best experience possible for their customers.
What does VisitAble do and what is your future vision?
Right now, I’m starting the training certification [for businesses and other public-facing spaces]. The first phase is disability etiquette training, which covers important topics for all disabilities and chronic illnesses. The second stage is an accessibility assessment, where we’re testing practical mobility access. This is not a full ADA compliance test; we’re trying to make a streamlined and practical test. We also include a secret shopper experience in that, which is mostly for people with mobility challenges right now, to see how they’re treated by staff. It really puts the training into practice. Finally, we give a report with feedback and suggestions on businesses’ practical mobility access and we give them a listing on our database of mobility information, to help them with their transparency. Just by going through the process, they earn the training certification.
We’ve recently expanded from just businesses to all public-facing spaces, so we’re approaching universities, public school systems, property managers, and local governments as well. I think the future definitely holds more of those markets. We’re also looking at more holistic certifications. For example, if we’re working with a Parks and Recreation department, being able to certify that the whole department or a certain percentage has been through the training, is getting feedback and suggestions, has secret shoppers or mystery guests with disabilities giving them feedback, and that they’re being transparent. Besides that, we’re also looking into incorporating all disabilities and chronic illnesses, which are mostly already in the training. That’s always going to be improving, but we also want to put that into the database of accessibility information. We’d like to shift our secret shopper program from a more mobility focus to include all disabilities as well. And like any other startup, we’re looking to expand our impact and geographic reach.
Why are you passionate about your work?
I think it was a combination of my personal experience with my dad and that entrepreneurship class, and how it translated from passion and understanding to a business idea. I hadn’t really thought about it as a business idea, or an advocacy idea, until I took that class where they asked, “What can you do to make society better, change lives, and do well by doing good?” My thought was that on one end, I could help educate people on how people want to be treated and what access needs to be, and I could help organizations open themselves up to a market they’re not really noticing or accomodating at the same time.
How do you hope to impact the Charlottesville community?
I’d love to make it more of a destination. I’d love to be able to say Charlottesville is our founding place and where our headquarters is. I started this business here, got some traction, incorporated, and am still here. I’d love to make Charlottesville a place that’s age-friendly, mobility-friendly, and disability-friendly. I’d love to impact the community by employing a lot of people, especially people with disabilities, and creating more opportunities. I think there are a lot of great things about this city; the local business scene really stands out to me. It’d be nice to help those business owners really understand accessibility and cater to a market that they’re not currently focused on.
What about Charlottesville inspired you to start here?
Two things really inspired me to start here: the University community and the local business community. With the University community, having that constant support and connection to UVA was incredibly helpful. I went through the incubator at UVA; it was called Venture Lab when I was in it but everyone knew it as iLab, and that itself was huge. I already had some traction in Charlottesville and wanted to create a centralized resource. There are so many small, local businesses here that really do care about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Honestly, being from Northern Virginia, I was also ready to get away from the highways. It’s so much more peaceful here. I live near the downtown mall and I’m able to go on great walks, which has been awesome during Covid-19. I love the neighborhoods here and I was relieved to find I could be relaxed outside of the UVA community, which I was nostalgic for at times.
If you would like to learn more or get involved with VisitAble, please visit their website at the link here: https://www.visitable.org