Contributions Help Launch Online Resource For Los Angeles Residents
| When Alan Toy's 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
"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 master's 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, it's 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 you're in the same neighborhood, but
the opportunities are a lot more limited when your mobility is impaired
and you're 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 site's features from 2:50
to 3:50 p.m. Wednesday during the California State University, Northridge,
Center on Disabilities' 16th 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 you're 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 don't 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 they've 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.
"I've 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 it's owned
by the disability community. If people see something that's 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 can't 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 master's 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 community's resources.
"I started wondering how we could go about mapping the assets the
disability community, which isn't in one particular neighborhood
but is part of every neighborhood," Toy says. "Neal said, 'Here's
a desk and a phone and a computer -- see if you can come up with
While visiting UCLA last spring for an update on I AM LA, Microsoft
representatives heard about Toy's 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
LILA's 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
Microsoft's support helped LILA organizers install digital subscriber
line connections to the Internet; upgrade the Westside Center's
computers to the Microsoft Windows 98 or Windows 2000 Professional
operating systems, and provide the center's 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. "I'm not only aware of the kinds of
content that people with disabilities have trouble finding online,
but I'm 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 it's also using technology
to make the L.A. community more accessible."
ANGELES, March 19, 2001