The Blue Trunk Foundation is developing a travel information service for people with disabilities. The Charlottesville-based nonprofit was founded in 2015 by Rupa Valdez, an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia.

The concept came from Valdez’s personal experiences traveling with a disability and navigating accessibility in unfamiliar places. Valdez cannot walk long distances and she has difficulty climbing stairs.

“I’ve had this for about four years now, and I used to travel a lot before that, as well,” she said. “The transition from traveling without having to think about accessibility to traveling and having to think about it pretty much all the time [made me think differently]. Instead of having to spend hours trying to search for different things or going and trying to work it out on the fly, [I wanted] to have this information available.”

Through her work at UVa, Valdez met Claire Wellbeloved-Stone, a research specialist in the same department.

“We’ve been doing some research that relates to disabilities and that helped start my interest in it, and Rupa knew that I travel a lot, so it kind of naturally came out of that,” Wellbeloved-Stone said. “She invited me to be a part of it, and since January we’ve been working on it a lot more frequently.”

So far, the foundation has focused on generating accessibility checklists, determining cities to start with and categorizing the types of locations to be evaluated.

The service will start relatively small, as each city included will require gathering and organizing thousands of pieces of information.

“We’re going to start with Charlottesville and also with Madison, Wisconsin. That’s where I’m from originally and did all my training, but we also have a grant from a foundation that’s based out of Madison,” said Valdez. “We have a lot of connections in both those cities, and so we have access to getting feedback from different locations.”

Valdez plans for the service to be largely crowdsourced, with users updating checklists of accessibility information for places they visit. She also would like to give businesses the option of creating their own Blue Trunk profiles.

Part of the challenge of thoroughly gathering information, Valdez said, is getting beyond narrow conceptions of what accessibility means.

“Disability is such a huge thing. You can think about mobility as one part, but there’s so many others: noise levels, or lighting for people who have epilepsy, you might be thinking about being visually impaired or hearing impaired,” said Valdez. “Part of it is trying to understand the experiences of people who have different disabilities and use their experiences to understand what [an accessibility] checklist could be like.”

The service initially will be a mobile-friendly website, but Wellbeloved-Stone said a mobile app will be a next step.

Valdez and Wellbeloved-Stone make up the core of the Blue Trunk team, though they have welcomed the involvement of interested friends and family.

“One person who has a background in social media and marketing [has helped] us think through trying to create a platform for talking about accessibility and travel,” Valdez said. “Somebody else has been incredibly helpful in terms of thinking through the web development and actually getting stuff developed. Somebody else is [doing] interface design for us, to optimize user experience.”

Valdez chose to create a nonprofit, as opposed to a for-profit startup, to keep with the philosophy of inclusivity.

“Ideally, this is a service that we’re getting a lot of people to be actively engaged in,” she said. “The nonprofit model in many ways makes people want to contribute and volunteer their efforts.”

The foundation’s name, Wellbeloved-Stone said, also corresponds with this philosophy.

“The term ‘blue’ invokes both the ‘blue planet’ and the international color of accessibility. The term ‘trunk’ invokes the idea of travel by referring to a travel trunk,” she wrote. “Together, Blue Trunk refers to Ganesh, a Hindu god with a blue elephant head who is the remover of obstacles, which is what we are trying to do for people with disabilities.”

The nonprofit plans to do a soft launch in Charlottesville and Wisconsin in early 2017. At that point, they will test the checklist-based crowdsourcing model, which Valdez said she hopes will allow the service to spread quickly.

Overall, Blue Trunk will emphasize specificity and inclusivity in assessing accessibility.

“It’s not just disability in terms of somebody who necessarily identifies as having a disability. If you think about people who are aging, for example, many of the experiences are the same,” Valdez said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is not just say, ‘yes, it’s accessible,’ because that doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody. I can do three or four stairs. It’s more saying, ‘This business has three stairs, they’re about this high,’ and then the individual [can] make their own decision.”

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