`Independent Living’ Web Site Aids Mobility in Physical World

LOS ANGELES, March 19, 2001 — When Alan Toys family seeks new hiking trails in the hills around Santa Monica, Calif., the thrill of the unknown can quickly turn unpleasant. Toy uses a wheelchair. Starting down a clear-looking path that turns muddy or strewn with rocks after a hundred yards quickly sours what should have been a fun outing.

“Either we all turn back,”
Toy says,
“or I end up sitting by a stream while they carry on and then come back to tell me what a great hike they had.”
Frustrations like this made Toy, who holds a masters degree in urban planning, wonder how he and others with mobility challenges could more easily identify accessible destinations and travel routes in Los Angeles County.

With support from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Microsoft Corp., and other organizations that serve the more than 2 million people with disabilities in Los Angeles County, Toy began turning that dream into action. Result: A new Web site –running on the Microsoft SQL Server database platform — provides an easily searchable storehouse of maps, directions, and grass-roots information to help people level accessibility barriers in their neighborhoods and build a stronger sense of unity.

“When you think about what brings a community together, its things like shared knowledge and common interests,”
says Toy, director of the nonprofit Living Independently in Los Angeles (LILA) Web site project development team at the Advanced Policy Institute of the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research.
“You can share resources fairly easily when youre in the same neighborhood, but the opportunities are a lot more limited when your mobility is impaired and youre not part of the majority in any one area. So I wanted to create a disability community on the Web.”

Microsoft provided $77,000 in cash and more than $60,000 worth of software for the LILA project. Organizers launched the interactive Web site ( http://lila.ucla.edu/ ) today at the Westside Center for Independent Living in Los Angeles. Speakers at the event included Chris Jones, senior program manager of community affairs at Microsoft; Barbara J. Nelson, dean of the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research; Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Los Angeles City Council Member Ruth Galanter. Toy also will demonstrate the sites features from 2:50 to 3:50 p.m. Wednesday during the California State University, Northridge, Center on Disabilities 16 th annual international conference at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel.

Virtual Tour Guide to Accessible Assets

LILA combines Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based maps of Los Angeles County with written descriptions of local disability-oriented resources, ranging from nonprofit service organization to accessible hiking trails, fishing piers, and other recreational destinations. Through partnerships with the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, users will soon be able to find such information as the layout of wheelchair-accessible entrances, reserved parking spaces at government buildings, and the locations of public telephones equipped with telecommunications devices for the deaf. Also, users of the LILA
“map room”
will soon be able to enter into the search engine an address or other identifying information, such as a ZIP code or the cross streets of an intersection, and summon a map depicting assets that are likely to be of interest.

“You can take a virtual trip to where youre planning to go and hopefully avoid potential obstacles,”
says John Whitbread, the LILA program manager responsible for publicizing the Web site and recruiting people to add new information to it.
“When you go to a shopping mall for the first time, you dont know where the elevators are. But people who have gone before you can save you the time and trouble of learning those things if they post their experiences on LILA.”

In addition to information about physical assets, LILA provides links to public and private agencies, educational programs, housing, recreational opportunities, support groups, and many other sources. The Web site includes a newsroom, a community-events bulletin board, and a public forum where visitors can join ongoing discussions or start a new topic related to living with a disability in Los Angeles. Soon, LILA organizers will launch an advocacy section that focuses on issues affecting the disability community — such as recent legislation proposing stiffer penalties for misuse of disabled parking permits — and tells how people can get involved.

Users Will Enrich LILA With Their Experiences

To build and sustain that store of knowledge, LILA encourages users to post comments about existing entries as well as submit examples of resources theyve uncovered through living and traveling in Los Angeles. Site organizers are recruiting volunteer information sleuths to create entries and, in return, receive products donated by Microsoft — ranging from software programs to cordless keyboards and mice.

“Ive learned about resources that are within a few blocks of where I live and work that I never knew existed,”
says Whitbread, a wheelchair user for 20 years.
“The great thing about LILA is that its owned by the disability community. If people see something thats missing from the site, they have the power to make it better.”

Supporting LILA was an easy decision for Microsoft, says Bruce Brooks, director of community affairs for the company.

“This project fits very well with our overall mission and our vision of what technology can do: empower people to create and discover opportunities,”
Brooks says.
“LILA is using software and the Internet to help people view their resources in a new way and participate more fully in their community.”

Another primary partner in LILA is the nonprofit Westside Center for Independent Living, which provides a variety of services for more than 30,000 people with disabilities annually. It will work with the other five independent living centers in Los Angeles County to promote LILA to.

“Every single day, we see the problems that people encounter in gaining access to community services,”
says Mary Ann Jones, executive director of the Westside Center.
“What our clients will bring to this Web site is the grass-roots element: They can show other people where the best wheelchair repair shop is in a particular neighborhood or where to go if they need help finding a place to live.”

Jake Sloan, a Westside Center client who recently previewed the offerings on LILA, calls it

the most important development for the independent-living community in Los Angeles, if not the entire country, in many years.

“From my own experiences with trying to work through government bureaucracies and hearing about a resource but not knowing where to find it, I cant stress enough how valuable this Web site will be,”
Sloan says.
“It provides a central repository of vital information, a place for people with disabilities to share their own expertise and the ability for users to find these resources on their own. That is such a huge blessing.”

Creating a Neighborhood Feeling Online

Toy, who studied at UCLA in the mid-1990s and returned to complete his masters degree in 1999, hatched the LILA concept two years ago after hearing one of his professors describe a similar project. The Interactive Asset Mapping Los Angeles (I AM LA) project, led by API Associate Director Neal Richman, had separately received $75,000 from Microsoft among other sources to get students in South Central Los Angeles involved in cataloging their communitys resources.

“I started wondering how we could go about mapping the assets the disability community, which isnt in one particular neighborhood but is part of every neighborhood,”
Toy says.
“Neal said, Heres a desk and a phone and a computer — see if you can come up with something.”

While visiting UCLA last spring for an update on I AM LA, Microsoft representatives heard about Toys project and offered to help. Microsoft, the second-largest contributor to LILA after UCLA, gave an initial grant of $30,000 and a large donation of software last June to fuel LILAs development and enable the team to revamp the computer network at the Westside Center for Independent Living. In February, LILA received another $47,000 contribution and more products from Microsoft to help sustain the Web site at least through its first year of operation.

Microsofts support helped LILA organizers install digital subscriber line connections to the Internet; upgrade the Westside Centers computers to the Microsoft Windows 98 or Windows 2000 Professional operating systems, and provide the centers staff with Microsoft Office 2000 Premium and Project 2000 application software.
“Our employees are able to schedule meetings and other day-to-day tasks much more efficiently using the Microsoft Outlook application, which gives us more time to focus on the people we serve,”
Jones says. Her staff and the other LILA developers also are using Microsoft Project to manage the administrative side of running the Web site.

Toy says his limited knowledge of technology actually has proved an asset in developing LILA.
“Im not only aware of the kinds of content that people with disabilities have trouble finding online, but Im also sensitive to the difficulties they might have in using a site like this,”
he explains. Some ways that the team is trying to make LILA more accessible include menu bars that allow people to enlarge the text size and screen width. Toy also hopes to make downloadable text-reading tools available on the site and provide non-visual alternatives to the maps and other resources on LILA.

He and the LILA team are working with Los Angeles County, the City of Los Angeles, and other agencies to add government resources to the Web site. For example, Toy wants to post online versions of registration and application forms for a wide array of disability services — parking permits, public-transit passes, in-home care — sparing citizens with disabilities travel to often-distant offices.

LILA organizers and supporters hope to see the concept of this Web site adapted elsewhere in California and nationwide.
“We still need to iron out some of the bugs,”
Toy says,
“but I certainly hope LILA can serve as a model program.”

Ellen Mosner, a product manager in the Accessible Technologies Group at Microsoft, agrees that LILA provides an excellent example for other communities to follow.

“This site is not only creating better access to technology for people with disabilities,”
says Mosner,
“but its also using technology to make the L.A. community more accessible.”

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