June 2, 2023


Moving Forward

After a harrowing life journey, Boston entrepreneur looks to build a ‘Waze for accessibility’

Haendel’s means to chortle at setbacks — and fight them — is the consequence of a lifelong journey that retains problems he runs into now in point of view. His mom died of cancer when he was 19, sending him into a spiral of melancholy, strain, and drug abuse that brought about the brain sickness that nearly killed him. He also skilled the uncommon condition, in the course of his recovery from the sickness, of getting “locked in” — paralyzed but totally conscious of what was going on about him — while medical professionals and nurses thought he was in a vegetative condition for much more than nine months.

“I employed my time locked-in properly,” he reported. “I got to adequately grieve for my mother, went via a good deal of challenges. … I’m happier now than I was before, which is mad.”

Just after Haendel’s pals freed him from the bath stall, the group wondered why there was not an application like Google Maps or Yelp cataloging accessibility functions at dining places and other venues, utilizing crowdsourcing like Waze does. Existing applications did not present the variety of thorough and exact facts persons with accessibility troubles required. One of his good friends at the desk that evening was Justin Robinson, who discovered fairly a little bit about application advancement when he cofounded liquor shipping and delivery support Drizly back again in 2012.

“We were inquiring why there is no Waze for this,” Robinson, 33, said. “This plainly was an experience that an application with person-generated info could solve, and no a single experienced established out to resolve it still.” At Drizly, which he left after marketing to Uber for $1 billion in 2021, Robinson experienced labored on expanding the services and incorporating new program features.

Robinson started off bouncing thoughts off developers and designers he knew via Drizly. Scott Slagsvol, previous style guide at IDEO, the famous world wide structure organization, came on as a third cofounder. The trio recruited a few a lot more application engineers and bootstrapped the business with their possess funds, making an app in about 9 months and launching it in early 2023.

Dubbed Ahoi, the application collects ratings and photographs crowdsourced from consumers who file accessibility studies at the stage of detail required to guide folks with a wide variety of physical disabilities. It also lets customers input their have demands and returns individualized scores for the accessibility of venues. (The initial concentrate is on the Boston region, exactly where much more than 1,000 locations have presently been rated.)

Haendel, for case in point, needs horizontal bars in a toilet stall to maneuver on and off the bathroom, but some individuals also have to have a vertical bar and not all stalls labeled as “accessible” have both. The nightclub lavatory experienced a substantial stall with area for a wheelchair and bars on the wall, but the hefty entrance door and the finicky locks posed worries for Haendel.

He’s hoping persons will start out introducing scores and photos to the app — and also to current applications like Google Maps. “I know you want to choose a video clip of that filet mignon, but also whilst you are at it, set in a picture of a one lavatory attribute and aid a thousand folks,” he reported, describing Ahoi’s pitch.

A tremendous selection of individuals could profit from an app like Ahoi if it caught on and collected ample location scores. In accordance to a study by the US Office of Transportation, much more than 24 million older people have disabilities associated to mobility. Extra than half need to use a walker or cane, and about 20 percent use a wheelchair or motorized scooter.

Boston, with its tough streets and Colonial-period architecture, is a particularly complicated ecosystem. “The 4-inch front action is nearly a standard in Boston,” said Valerie Fletcher, executive director of the Institute for Human Centered Style and design. “People will routinely say they are absolutely available when they’re not.”

A pothole in front of the control reduce on Merrimac Street throughout from Portland Road in Boston. For people today navigating the city’s streets in wheelchairs, potholes pose a threat to their security. Jonathan Wiggs/World Employees

Haendel hardly ever compensated substantially notice to accessibility before 2017, when he was diagnosed with leukoencephalopathy, an infection that assaults the insulation about nerve cells in the brain. In Haendel’s case, the root cause was the depression and worry of functioning as a chef, producing darkish emotions that led to escalating drug abuse. The illness was introduced on right after his intensive freebasing of heroin, which permitted unknown harmful toxins combined with the drugs into his brain. Inside months, his limbs ended up paralyzed, and speaking and eating were almost unachievable. Hospitalized and necessitating a feeding tube, Haendel’s wellness declined and medical doctors expected the health issues would be terminal within 6 months.

He became not able to connect and was handled as if he had been in a vegetative point out. But he was totally acutely aware. Last but not least, in July 2018, he was equipped to shift his wrist a bit and blink, drawing the awareness of medical doctors. As he recovered over the next a number of several years, his situation grew to become celebrated as an case in point of locked-in syndrome, and he was highlighted on “CBS Information Sunday Morning.”

His situation improved, and in 2021 Haendel was discharged from rehab and moved into an condominium near TD Back garden where by he fulfilled Robinson, who lived in the identical developing. He rapidly discovered the troubles of everyday living in a wheelchair. Making an attempt to use the directions in Google Maps got him into issues numerous instances when sidewalks lacked curb cuts or subway stops experienced no functioning elevators.

“Walking instructions are a ton various than rolling directions,” Haendel stated. “Potholes can idea around a chair. The fastest route isn’t constantly the most secure route.”

So much, Ahoi’s aim is on attracting as many accessibility assessments as doable at locations in the Boston spot. Ultimately, the app will branch out to other cities. (The staff would like to incorporate Waze-fashion route instructions later, even though that is a “much additional hard specialized aspect,” Robinson mentioned.) Promoting is very likely to be the primary profits source once Ahoi appeals to a sizeable person base, Robinson said. Further in the long term, insurers could possibly pay out for consumers to get out more and improve their high quality of lifetime, or the app could possibly gather charges for bookings and reservations.

Some earlier initiatives have experimented with to just take on the accessibility data challenge. The internet site WheelchairTravel.org has tips for men and women touring to 25 big US towns, like Boston, Dallas, and Seattle. The metropolis experiences include normal accessibility information for community transit programs and vacationer locations, but not specific motels and places to eat. The internet site AccessNavigators.com collects crowdsourced accessibility information and facts as Ahoi does, but has advice accessible for only a couple of cities in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Robinson and Haendel mentioned they hope their app’s present day style and personalization characteristics will bring in many far more people. Men and women devoid of disabilities can also indicator up and present ratings. But getting adequate end users on board is not the only obstacle for Ahoi: The app’s details also will have to be precise and current normally more than enough for people today to depend on.

“One of the most difficult things about collecting details about built environments — they are typically in flux, and functions or facilities that are right here currently could be gone tomorrow,” reported Aimi Hamraie, a professor at Vanderbilt College and director of the school’s Critical Style Lab.

Ultimately, the goal is to simplicity the anxiety of folks with disabilities so they can go out and enjoy on their own far more usually, Haendel mentioned.

When he took a World reporter to revisit the notorious bathroom, obtaining there needed coming into Man Fieri’s restaurant and then making use of a ramp by means of the Large Night Reside nightclub, the place a bouncer originally barred the way. The club was closed, placing up for a concert. But a supervisor recognized Haendel from previous visits and allow him via.

Haendel has perfected a move to open heavy rest room doors that commences with a huge arm force, a speedy scoot, and a leg kick to get the doorway open up extensive adequate for him to suit by. Inside the massive toilet stall, he nevertheless can’t perform the lock very easily. “It’s a person of my biggest struggles,” he reported.

Afterward, Haendel wheeled out to the flooring of the brightly lit, empty nightclub to show off a distinctive accessibility segment following to the phase where by he has watched multiple live shows. The club is conveniently shut to his apartment and always has room established aside for folks in wheelchairs, he claimed.

A couple of brass bars fenced off the stage. Haendel pulled himself up out of his scooter, struggling with the stage, and began to wiggle his butt.

“This is how I dance now,” he stated. “This was the 1st area I danced due to the fact I received unwell. Proper in this article.”

If Ahoi succeeds in improving upon data about accessibility, Haendel could have a whole lot extra organization at the nightclub.

Jake Haendel, still left, and Justin Robinson are two of the 3 cofounders of Ahoi, a new application that aims to be a “Waze for accessibility.”Jonathan Wiggs/World Staff members

Aaron Pressman can be arrived at at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.