Event Maps Accessibility in Lower Merion

Alanna Raffel, Stuart Abelson, Rachel Buxbaum and Rebecca Salus | Photos provided

While riding her bike to work one day in November 2010, a garbage truck hit and ran over Rebecca Levenberg, crushing her leg and causing serious internal injuries.

Paramedics rushed her to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where trauma surgeons amputated her leg. In February 2011, she was fitted for a prosthetic. Today, she mostly relies on her prosthetic, but sometimes has to use crutches or a wheelchair and, in those moments, she may experience accessibility challenges.

On April 29, Levenberg spoke at a Jewish Learning Venture event called “Maps, Apps and Art: Mapping for Accessibility.” Twenty-five people attended the event, where they explored neighborhoods in Lower Merion to document accessibility at various cafes, restaurants and other locations using an app called Access Earth.

“The only way you can achieve a big goal is to take small steps toward it,” Levenberg said. “That has always been my philosophy with my own rehabilitation. Taking small steps toward a big goal, like accessibility for all, is a really worthwhile cause.”

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, the whole community inclusion director at Jewish Learning Venture, said she was inspired to set up the project by another event. Last year, Alanna Raffel, an occupational therapist, organized an accessibility mapping event for her birthday, and the idea impressed Kaplan-Mayer.

“One, the actual work of putting accessible location into an app that people can use,” she said. “And two, what a wonderful way to raise awareness to the wider community that there are many venues that are not accessible and to really help people think more carefully when they plan events about choosing accessible locations.”

Rebecca Levenberg and Alanna Raffel measure an entrance.

She took the idea to a Jewish Special Needs/Disability Inclusion Consortium of Greater Philadelphia meeting. Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS) of Greater Philadelphia offered to host the event, which Raffel also helped organize.

On April 29, participants gathered at The Barbara and Harvey Brodsky Enrichment Center in Bala Cynwyd. The event began with an speech by Levenberg.

Through Levenberg’s own experiences, but mostly from friends she has met through rehabilitation, she has learned about the accessibility challenges that people who use wheelchairs, power chairs or other devices face. These might include doorways that aren’t big enough or wheelchair-accessible entrances that do not allow for discretion or comfort for the user.

“In many situations, especially in the city where many buildings are older and accommodations are retrofitted, there are lots of alternative entrances … that aren’t in maybe the most ideal locations,” she said. “Some businesses will put out a ramp only when necessary, so the person in the wheelchair has to wait outside until an employee can come get a ramp to put down over the stairs, or there’s a side entrance that’s down maybe a side alley into a restaurant, but the person has to enter through the kitchen or by the dumpsters. Accessibility doesn’t always mean equal. That’s something that, in the real world, we’re all still struggling with.”

After the opening presentation, the participants spread throughout Lower Merion to Bala Cynwyd, Ardmore, Narberth and Wynnewood to look at different establishments and record their accessibility in Access Earth.

The app guides people through the steps to document a location’s accessibility. It asks questions about the entrance, bathrooms and steps, among other things.

“It’s the whole earth,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “That’s one of the things that we want to encourage folks. Just the way we use a smartphone to shoot a text or check Facebook, whenever you’re in a business or an establishment, you can take 20 seconds and put data into Access Earth.”

After the group mapped accessibility, they returned to JFCS to celebrate with snacks and an art exhibit that focuses on disability awareness.

Since the event’s announcement, Kaplan-Mayer said, people from across the area have contacted her about putting on a similar event in other neighborhoods. While she said Jewish Learning Venture is interested in making this an annual event, any synagogue, community group or a group of friends could go out and map accessibility on their own.

“It’s a very easy thing to do,” Kaplan-Mayer said, “but it can really have an impact on the lives of people with disabilities.” 

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