LILA helps disabled navigate Web and daily life

Navigating around Los Angeles can be a daunting task for anyone. But it was a lot tougher for Martha Alfaro when she moved here from Missouri in 1987.

It took Alfaro, a paraplegic, six hours just to find transportation capable of taking her from Los Angeles International Airport to a university less than five minutes away.

Today, getting around Los Angeles for Alfaro and other disabled people is a lot easier thanks to a new Web site called Living Independently In Los Angeles (LILA).

Launched last month by UCLA's Advanced Policy Institute, the site (http://lila.ucla.edu/) aims to help disabled people lead more independent lives.

Employing state-of-the-art mapping technology, LILA shows users the location of everything from nearby service agencies to bicycle shops that repair wheelchairs.

Beaches and trails that are accessible to disabled people are also pinpointed, along with access points and ramps in government buildings.

Alan Toy, the site's project director, said he hopes LILA will help ease the relatively isolated lifestyle that many disabled people lead and encourage them to use the Internet, which can be a particularly valuable tool for those who have difficulty leaving their homes.

"My dream is that it will create communities rather than isolate people," as the Internet is often said to do, he said.

Model for others
Toy and other supporters of the site also think it will become a model for other cities around the region.

There are about 2 million disabled people in Los Angeles County and 250,000 in San Diego County, according to the estimates by experts on the disabled.

In San Diego, some people are already paying attention.

Bud Sayles, executive director of the Access Center of San Diego, an independent living center in Hillcrest, said he's "really interested" in seeing how the LILA site works out.

Alfaro, who lives in Santa Monica, said the site already has made her life easier.

"If you have a disability, you have to plan ahead," she said. Before setting out on a trip, it's important to know paths and entrances that are user-friendly for disabled people, she added.

"I had to find that out by experience. Now I go to LILA, and I get everything."

For years, Toy said, the Internet has been making daily tasks such as shopping, paying bills and communication easier for people who have trouble leaving their homes.

Efficient surfing
The LILA site also wants to cut down the amount of time it takes to surf the Web for the right information, and filtering out wrong or outdated information, Toy said.

In addition, the site addresses the needs of people with a wide variety of disabilities, including those who are blind, deaf, are amputees or those who have developmental disabilities.

The interactive maps not only show where an agency is, but what kind of services it provides, who to contact and what other users think of it -- all in a matter of mouse clicks.

Also, the site gives disabled people -- who often feel isolated from the rest of society -- a chance to interact with each other through an online forum.

Toy said plans are under way to have the site provide the locations of all curb ramps and other accessible paths of travel throughout the county.

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act has made most businesses more physically accessible, he said, but disabled people still don't know where they can get the easiest access to wheelchair ramps, restrooms for the disabled and other amenities.

Toy knows firsthand what he's talking about. He's a paraplegic due to polio he contracted when he was 3 years old.

When a user accesses LILA through a free log-in account, a map of the area where the person lives appears.

The maps can be used to find resources that are not widely known, including talking ATMs, blind fencing teams and accessible apartments for rent.

The site's users are encouraged to share knowledge of specific agencies, buildings, restaurants and other information they've gained over the years.

Adaptive ability
The site is compatible with adaptive tools such as text readers and voice-activated software.

Brian Albriton and his wife, Denise, who are both blind, said they have had no problems using the site with their text-reading software.

The couple, active Internet users, have signed on to LILA several times since its inception and have learned something new about their community each time.

"Sometimes, there might be something in the neighborhood you never even knew about," said Denise Albriton.

Toy estimates that the site will cost $1.5 million over three years to maintain. Microsoft has donated about $75,000 in grants and an equal amount in software. Other donors include the GTE Foundation and the Community Technology Foundation of California.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has approved $125,000 to support the site, and the Los Angeles City Council is likely to approve $100,000 this month, Toy said.

LILA could also help close the "digital divide," said John Whitbread, program manager with the Westside Center for Independent Living, which is partnered with the site.

Only 25 percent of people with disabilities own computers, according to a report published by the Disability Statistics Center in San Francisco last year.

"Those are the people we need to bring online," Whitbread said.
by Jennifer Kelleher

source: SignOn San Diego Computing - COPLEY NEWS SERVICE April 10, 2001

last update: 04-08-06
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