Philadelphia attempts to put accessibility at the forefront of disability data

The city’s disability map can help policymakers deliver more inclusive and accessible services for those living with disabilities

The disability representation map uses a geographic information system to show the general location of residents with hearing, vision, ambulatory and cognitive impairments in the city.

The disability representation map uses a geographic information system to show the general location of residents with hearing, vision, ambulatory and cognitive impairments in the city. inside-studio/Getty Images

By Kaitlyn Levinson

City officials often spend much of their day on their computers, juggling emails or hopping on virtual meetings – and for those with a disability, the challenges of navigating such an online environment can be exacerbated by accessibility – or the lack thereof. When Amy Nieves, who is deaf in one ear, first started working as Philadelphia’s executive director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities in 2021, she recalled, the platform that staff used for virtual meetings didn’t even have accessible features like the ability to enable closed captioning.

Nieves, who is also neurodivergent, is part of the nearly 17% of Philadelphia residents living with one or more disabilities. She noted that two-thirds of the city’s neighborhoods are home to residents with disability rates above the city average. In the Upper Kensington neighborhood, for example, about 32% of residents have a disability. And research indicates Philadelphia has the highest disability rate among major U.S. cities. 

People with physical or mental impairments often face additional social or systemic barriers, Nieves said. For instance, 68.5% of individuals with a disability lived at or above 150% of the federal poverty level last year, according to Statista, a marketing analytics firm. That means knowing where disabled residents live is essential to providing effective and equitable city services. 

To help policymakers understand what services, programs and policies are needed to improve equity and accessibility within the city, Nieves’ team turned to one of its interactive maps that details disability rates and updated it to include new features so individuals with impairments can better access the data.  

The disability representation map uses a geographic information system to show the general location of residents with hearing, vision, ambulatory and cognitive impairments in the city. It also includes data on those who experience difficulties with self-care and living independently. Based on census data, the map can further categorize residents by race, ethnicity, gender and age. Additionally, users can view data boundaries by ZIP code, neighborhood or City Council district, among others.  

An official with the city’s Department of Streets said the map helps it prioritize infrastructure improvements. In 2020, residents filed a class action lawsuit against the city over sidewalks inaccessible to wheelchair users. A settlement reached earlier this year requires the city to install or remediate 10,000 curb ramps over the next 15 years. 

“The map’s a planning tool for us as we try to … prioritize the biggest need for (repairing) ramps,” Richard Montanez, deputy commissioner of transportation at the Streets Department, told Route Fifty. He said most curb ramp damage occurs on popular truck routes, as the large vehicles are more likely to collide with ramps while turning. Knowing where the most vulnerable curbs and residents match up on the map can help the department determine which repairs will have the greatest impact. It also lets the department see where several curb repairs can be done at the same time, saving time and taxpayers’ dollars, Montanez said. 

The map is based on American Community Survey 2017-2021 5-Year Estimates data and was developed as part of a 2019 initiative to improve planning and outreach efforts to foster more participation from the disabled community in the 2020 Census, Nieves said. It became publicly available in 2022.

The newest iteration of the map incorporates an accessibility layer, which includes features to help users with physical or visual impairments take advantage of the map. At the basic level, the map gives leaders “a mechanism to know our community to … provide better outreach, better and engagements and better services,” said Josie Pickens, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the Mayor’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, at a Sept. 27 press conference to unveil the map. “But it’s also accessible to people with disabilities, because everyone should be able to access data and use it to make the world a better place.”

The updated map is keyboard-accessible so that individuals who cannot use a mouse can still navigate and interact with the site, Nieves said. For example, clicking the “Option” button and an arrow key will shift the map in different directions on the user’s screen. 

The visual elements are also more accessible to those with color blindness or low vision. While the map is still color-coded to indicate different parts of the city, Nieves said, textured designs are included to help visually impaired individuals differentiate between water and grass. The map also incorporates a monochromatic layer so those experiencing colorblindness can more easily discern disability data, which is represented by textured lines. For instance, in areas where more residents have disabilities, lines are bolder.

Another way the map fosters inclusion is by presenting data in narrative form, which Nieves said is a more effective way for individuals using screen readers to digest the information. “People are used to seeing data as a number or in a table, but officials wanted to “bring back humanity” to the map so “this is a better way … to be told the story of the data.”

Nieves said she hopes to see all city maps retrofitted with accessible layers and future maps to be built with accessibility as a default setting. 

Officials “talk a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion, but access is just as important,” Pickens said. “Everything that we do as a city should be accessible to people with disabilities and should be inclusive of them.”

Kaitlyn Levinson is an assistant editor for Route Fifty, where this story originally appeared.