Google Maps has always been about getting people from A to B in their cars. This makes a slew of updates to its features all the more startling. The big focus of its upgrade is not on cars, but on wheelchairs.
That will be most visible in an option, on request, to be given stair-free walking routes. That translates into wheelchair-accessible routes, which will also be a boon for anyone dragging luggage or pushing strollers.
The feature will be available in any location with enough route information.
For the past three years, locations with wheelchair-accessible entrances have been marked with a wheelchair icon.
Wheelchair-accessible transit options have been available since 2018.
At the time that feature was launched, Google Maps product manager Rio Akasaka said the application “was built to help people navigate and explore the world, providing directions, worldwide, to people traveling by car, bicycle or on foot”.
“But in city centers,” he said, “buses and trains are often the best way to get around, which presents a challenge for people who use wheelchairs or with other mobility needs. Information about which stations and routes are wheelchair friendly isn’t always readily available or easy to find.”
As a result, it introduced “wheelchair accessible” routes in transit navigation to make getting around easier for those with mobility needs.
Now, if the option is enabled in transit preferences, it will automatically be applied to walking routes too. Alternatively, one can request a walking route with stair-free directions by tapping the three dots in the corner and selecting the “wheelchair-accessible” option.
The information can be accessed on an Android phone or tablet, by opening the Google Maps app, tapping one’s profile picture or initials, going to Settings, choosing Accessibility settings and turning on Accessible Places.
Google Maps and Search both will also now give businesses the option to identify themselves as disabled-owned, to make it easier for customers to find and support them.
Google has also enhanced its Chrome browser to take into account disabilities. For example, it has acknowledged dyslexia as a challenge in getting website addresses right, and for the first time will detect typos in URLs and suggest correct addresses.
Eve Andersson, senior director of product inclusion, equity, and accessibility at Google, said this week that her team worked with members of the disability community, including its own internal Disability Alliance Employee Resource Group, throughout the launch of the new features, including around naming and icon design.
Even something as simple as daily routines, long a staple of Google services, now take into account “cognitive differences”.
“Every day, people use Assistant Routines to get useful information or to automate daily tasks,” says Andersson. “Now, you’ll be able to customise those routines even more with additional functionality inspired by Action Blocks. You can now select your Routines shortcut style, customise it with your own images and adjust the size of the shortcut on your homescreen.
“Research has shown that this personalisation can be particularly helpful for people with cognitive differences and disabilities and we hope it will bring the helpfulness of Assistant Routines to even more people.”
The visually challenged are also further assisted, although initially only on Google’s own Pixel phones, but probably rolling out on all Android devices eventually.
“Earlier this month, we also rolled out the newest version of Guided Frame, which uses a combination of audio cues, high-contrast animations and haptic (tactile) feedback to make it easier for people who are blind or low-vision to take beautiful selfies. With this update, Guided Frame now recognises more than just faces, so you can use your front and rear-facing camera to take photos of your pets, dinner or even documents.”
If machines are becoming more inclusive, we can hope that more abled people will also get the memo to assist those who are challenged.
* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee