Charlottesville Start-Up Helps Make Public Spaces More Accessible

Aug 11, 2021

Joe Jamison (l) and Brandon Rush. Jamison founded VisitAble in 2019. Rush works as a 'secret shopper' to gauge how accessible public spaces are.
Credit Randi B. Hagi

For people with mobility issues, just having equipment such as a wheelchair isn't always enough to get around in the world if stores, restaurants, and parks aren't set up to accommodate them. One startup based in Charlottesville aims to fix that. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Brandon Rush is a peer advocate for individuals with physical and sensory disabilities at the Independence Resource Center in Charlottesville.  He’s been working to create a more accessible world since he himself began using a wheelchair.

BRANDON RUSH: I had an accident, a spinal cord injury at the age of 14, started playing wheelchair basketball, and our wheelchair basketball team is based out of the Independence Resource Center, called the Charlottesville Cardinals wheelchair basketball team. So once I started playing with them, I kind of got roped into helping them out with a lot of accessibility stuff.

In addition to his work at the resource center and playing and coaching basketball, Rush also works with a startup company called VisitAble. Based in Charlottesville, VisitAble works with businesses and local governments to evaluate their facilities and customer service from the perspective of those with mobility issues. VisitAble provides training modules for staff, sends in secret shoppers to document their personal experiences, and conducts accessibility tests that include measuring doorway widths and the distance from parking areas to entrances.

I met up with Rush at Three Notch'd Craft Kitchen and Brewery in Charlottesville, one of VisitAble's early adopters. After receiving their evaluation, Three Notch'd replaced a temporary metal ramp with a longer concrete ramp leading up to the entrance.  Rush explains his role as a ‘secret shopper:’

RUSH: We don't just show up just to bash people and tell you, 'this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.' We also like to point out the things that are right, too. You show up, you conduct regular, everyday business as if you were there to enjoy the facilities. You would order things, you would go check out the bathrooms, public areas like the bar area, whether or not they have a section that's accessible or low enough for a person who might be in a wheelchair.

VisitAble was founded by Joe Jamison in 2019, as he was finishing his degree at the University of Virginia. One of his senior capstone objectives was to start a business – and he knew that he wanted to do something for the disability community.

JOE JAMISON: My father has used a wheelchair my entire life, and from a young age, I was developing this passion for accessibility, and also an understanding for the different barriers and challenges I saw him face every day.

His evaluation model goes above and beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

JAMISON: There's a natural gap between what is ADA compliant, minimum compliance, and what is practically accessible to the disability community … It's hard to know exactly how accessible a place is before you go there. Inevitably, my father and I, we used to call ahead to restaurants, movie theaters, hotels, et cetera, especially on vacation, right? When we were trying to figure out where we could go.

VisitAble also takes into account how employees treat customers with disabilities, such as –

JAMISON: … going to a restaurant and having the host or hostess talking with me the whole time and not really acknowledging my father's presence. That seems to be one of the most common examples from everyone I've talked to as well. But when that happens to you, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you don't really want to go back to those places.

Once the VisitAble team finishes their evaluation, they compile a report for the business or municipality with suggestions for how to improve their accessibility. All those notes are publicly available on their online database, along with a checkmark for those that earned the VisitAble certification. There are currently 40 reviewed locations in the database, the majority of which earned certification. Most of them are in Charlottesville, but Jamison is looking to expand.

JAMISON: We just closed a deal with the town of Purcellville in northern Virginia, and we just finished our test and report of James City County's Freedom Park, and we're in the process of finishing up a training for Chesterfield Parks and Recreation.

Rush said that working with VisitAble has made him more comfortable speaking with businesses about structural elements that fall short, especially because he knows that others have a harder time getting around than he does.

RUSH: I am a pretty athletic person. And a lot of times I look at barriers almost as challenges, so my complaint bone isn't as big as it should be. Like, I totally recognize and see when a door may be too heavy … but I'm really not a person that has a big attitude about it. I'm fully aware that waiters show up and they will talk to somebody else instead of talking to me. That happens all the time.

Having places to go is especially important for those who may be coming out of an extra rigorous quarantine during the pandemic.

RUSH: When someone already has a physical disability to start off with, then adding COVID onto the list doesn't help anything. So a lot of people ended up staying at home, as most people should have and mainly did, but the thing that comes with that is, if you stay at home you're inactive, and if you're inactive then muscle atrophy starts to happen and you get further and further away from your normal, everyday activities.

Rush also pointed out that making a facility more accessible is not just an ethical move – it's a financial one.

RUSH: People with disabilities have a large sum of money, also, that they want to spend. And they also want to be comfortable while they're doing that … we are very loyal people with our money and the places that we go. And once we figure out that it works for us, then that's where we like to go to. And once we figure out that it doesn't, we don't go back.