When third-year doctoral student Mark Bookman envisioned a year in Japan pursuing a Fulbright, he imagined visiting one famous temple after another in a quest to better understand the country’s scholarly practices and epistemology. As the result of a rare muscle condition called Glycogen storage disease type IV rare variant, however, the 26-year-old uses a wheelchair, and he quickly saw his plans dissipate, deterred by stairs and poles and other physical barriers.
But rather than dissuade Bookman from conducting research altogether, the experience actually crystallized for him what his focus should be.
“I started thinking, ‘How would someone have participated in religion 10, 100, 1,000 years ago in a wheelchair? And how would they get around? What would that have looked like?’” he explains. “That’s how I came to Penn, with the question of what access means in Japan, not just in religion but about how disability as a concept gets defined. What does it mean to see a wheelchair user in a movie as opposed to someone with a hearing impairment? What work does that extra exposure do?”
Bookman has fully immersed himself in such questions. In his role as chair of equity and access for Penn’s Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and backed by the University Committee Council for Diversity and Equity, Penn Libraries, and other groups, Bookman has embarked on a quest to map physical and social barriers across the campus. With the help of volunteers participating in map-a-thons, the goal is a crowd-sourced platform that automatically updates to present a map of user accessibility in real time.
“Access is very complex. It’s at once individual in that everyone has their own personal needs. It’s medical, in that some people need access to medical spaces. There is a social understanding,” he says. “Access is not something decided by one person. It would look different to for me, a 26-year-old white male wheelchair user, if I was of a different age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. Access is political, and it’s important that we understand the consequences of decisions about it—for ourselves and others.”
The map itself is currently a work in progress, with about 20 entries produced from the first of three map-a-thon events held on March 2. (The other two are scheduled for March 28 and April 20.) Alice McGrath, a postdoctoral fellow for accessibility at Penn Libraries, is the project’s co-lead. In a year and a half at the University, she’s worked to improve library services for students with disabilities and make teaching and research materials more accessible. The map project was a natural fit.
“Mark had a meeting with some people from the digital scholarship group in the Library. I thought I would come see his presentation. I realized the work I’ve done with digital humanities project management could help translate Mark’s idea into a concrete system for gathering data,” McGrath says. “I’m also very interested in accessible spaces, and this seemed liked a great opportunity to start a conversation about campus spaces and offer community members the chance to engage.”
To that end, anyone can submit or edit a report about a building interior, entrance, or nearby obstructions. Bookman’s team asks for a significant amount of detail. Aside from the basics, the reports ask whether a space has Braille or tactile signage, what the lighting is like in the hallways, and whether allergens are used. Among other aspects, they also want to know about stairwells, bathrooms, and lactation and prayer spaces.
Each digital entry will incorporate as much of this collected information as possible, in pictures, video, audio, and text format, when appropriate. The point isn’t only to offer the extended Penn community a resource but to challenge preconceived notions about what it means for something to be “accessible” and to act as a model for similar institutions and settings.
“It speaks to a core value of the University,” says Joann Mitchell, Penn’s chief diversity officer. “The first pillar of the Penn Compact 2020 is ‘inclusion,’ and this certainly is something that will help us advance our work in that regard.”
For their part, Bookman and McGrath say they hope the project not only modernizes a currently dated system, but that it also generates easily archived content, such that each update provides a snapshot of a moment in time.
“What did access look like in the past? In the present? In the future? We need to be able to track this information if we are to make sure that our campus is as inclusive and diverse as possible,” Bookman says. “At the end of the day, I’m advocating for something that is dynamic, that can change as campus changes, and that can help us craft an environment of inclusion, diversity, and respect.”
McGrath, who completed her doctorate at Penn in English literature, says the idea is to make it more natural to incorporate such factors into decision-making about physical spaces. “The more we can think and talk about inclusive design, and the more information we have about how individuals experience their built environment,” she says, “the better we’ll be at making the spaces and resources that Penn has to offer truly accessible.”
Though West Philadelphia is a long way from the Japanese countryside where inspiration struck Bookman—some 7,000 miles as the crow flies—he sees the project as something that could eventually span the world. To his knowledge, such an extensive real-time accessibility mapping project has never before been done. “The goal,” he says, “is to use this model to make Penn a leader on the global stage.”
Bookman and colleagues are well on their way, one digital-accessibility entry at a time.