Workshop participants share their initial thoughts on Blue Trunk's website design. Credit: Credit: Talia Wiener, Charlottesville Tomorrow

A Charlottesville-based nonprofit is working to create conversations about accessibility and travel.

The Blue Trunk Foundation recently held a workshop with the University of Virginia School of Architecture to reflect on what individuals with disabilities and their caregivers expect when they are traveling and what businesses can do to be more accessible.

Attendees also provided feedback to the Blue Trunk Foundation on mock-ups of its travel information website, which it is hoping to launch in the fall. The website will provide users with crowd-sourced accessibility-related information for businesses and feature curated content, such as blog posts.

“Charlottesville has so much to offer but one key ingredient is missing, and that’s accessibility,” said Susi Wilbur, community development liaison for Civic Access, a local business that provides sign language interpreters and closed captioning for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Members of community organizations, local business owners and others were among the approximately 30 people who attended the workshop, which was held at the UVa Licensing and Ventures Group office in the old Coca-Cola Building on Preston Avenue.

“It’s very important that [Blue Trunk] included us in this workshop because many people think, ‘Oh, we’re just going to focus on physical disabilities’ and they don’t think of disability that’s associated with being deaf, or having autism,” said Alissa Conover, community advocate for Civic Access. “Those are the types of disabilities that aren’t always included.”

Attendees weighed in on numerous accessibility-related questions, such as barriers individuals may face when traveling and the types of amenities that can improve travel experiences.

Participants raised several points, such as the need for accessible restrooms, wheelchair accessibility, quiet spaces, Braille materials, healthy food choices and announcements clearly written on screens.

“When I did compliance with the city, you had minimum standards … [Businesses] didn’t go any further than meeting the minimum standards of the number of parking spaces or the minimum standards of the way the bathroom is built,” said Jim Herndon, a former Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for Charlottesville. “What I see here is going a step further, and saying, ‘Rather than just meeting the minimum standards, let’s make it an environment that’s pleasant for everybody.’”

Some members of the business community in attendance said they found the workshop helpful in thinking about ways to improve accessibility.

“I’m definitely interested in learning some sign language, maybe teaching my employees some sign language, too. Maybe getting our menu printed in Braille,” said Kathryn Matthews, who opened Iron Paffles and Coffee earlier this year.

Brian Ball, the general manager of retail operations at Carter Mountain Orchard, said recent paving has improved wheelchair accessibility to their facilities and that he would like to find ways to make the orchard more accessible.

“A lot of business owners could probably just get distracted by everyday business and not really even realize there are people out there who have specific special needs that you could probably easily cater to,” Ball said. “I’d like to make those changes to accommodate as many folks as possible.”

“It’s always good to have this type of meeting to open people’s minds to accessibility because as a person with a disability, it means a lot to be able to feel comfortable where you’re at,” said Brandon Rush, a peer advocate at the Independence Resource Center.

When asked how Blue Trunk could work with businesses to view accessibility as a good practice, attendees suggested holding training seminars for local business owners and certifying businesses that make an effort to be inclusive.

Blue Trunk founder Rupa Valdez, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at UVa, said she found the feedback on a potential business rating system for the website to be particularly helpful. Some concerns were raised about whether a strict rating system — such as a numeric scale found on some travel sites — could conflict with the goal of getting businesses on board with improving accessibility.

“We want to be a space where interactions are positive,” Valdez said. “It’s not about shaming or blaming or anything like that.”

One idea that came up at the workshop was to provide different accessibility-related icons on the Blue Trunk website and use brighter icons to indicate available services.

“What I really appreciate about Blue Trunk is that it’s also positioning itself as a company that seeks to both be an advocate and at the same time a provider of services that are ultimately all-inclusive,” said Anselmo Canfora, an associate professor of architecture at UVa.

“The dream is really large for what this could look like,” said Valdez, who also cautioned that they do not want to overextend themselves too quickly.

“What could we do now and then how could we build that out systematically?” she asked.

Blue Trunk plans to initially launch its services in Charlottesville and Madison, Wisconsin.

Claire Wellbeloved-Stone, vice president of Blue Trunk and a research coordinator at UVa’s Department of Public Health Sciences, said the fall launch in Charlottesville would be accompanied by a series of events to engage the community.