Getting around the city: Can geospatial technologies be adapted to help wheelchair users?

The Bottom Line

  • Wheelchair users are increasingly leveraging global positioning systems to navigate around the city, although these are not always adapted to their specific needs.

  • Geospatial assistive technologies, on the other hand, take into account the profile of wheelchair users and help them to move around safely and independently.

  • Usability criteria must, however, be defined so that these technologies are even more complete and meet the needs of those who use them.

One in five Canadians aged 15 and over is limited in their activities due to a disability. (1) There are 288,800 wheelchair users, 70% of whom use manual chairs and 30% electric.(2 )

Mobility problems are common and can affect both autonomy and social participation. Among wheelchair users, their mobility is also hampered by various obstacles such as narrow or blocked sidewalks, surfaces that are difficult to navigate, the absence of ramps or ramps that are too steep, weather conditions that make the pavement snowy, muddy or slippery, or poor signalling.

To get around the city safely and independently, wheelchair users are increasingly using route planners and navigation systems like Google Maps. Some technological advancements have been made in recent years, with some of these systems offering routes that take into account the mobility needs of wheelchair users. But conventional systems do not yet offer all the essential information such as the location of sidewalks, the slope, number and types of level crossings, while taking into account the individual profile of wheelchair users.

The solution to make cities really accessible to people with reduced mobility? Developing geospatial assistive technologies that integrate a route planner and a navigation system taking into account the geographical position, the accessibility of places and the capabilities of the users and their types of wheelchairs. For example, a Canadian research group is currently carrying out a project (MobiliSIG) which aims to analyze accessibility information in an urban context and to disseminate this information in real time to the mobile devices of wheelchair users.

But how do you know if these geospatial assistive technologies are user-friendly and meet the needs of wheelchair users?

What research tells us

A systematic review examined 15 scientific articles to find out what criteria to consider when developing geospatial assistive technologies suitable for people who use wheelchairs.(2)

This review came up with a list of 54 usability criteria that could be useful in refining existing geospatial assistive technologies. These criteria can also help health and social service professionals, as well as professionals responsible for urban planning and transport, to better meet the mobility needs of wheelchair users, help them plan their routes with the fewest obstacles possible and navigate in real time in an urban environment.

Analysis of the 54 criteria identified in the review reveals key elements to take into account. First of all, we need to keep in mind that some users' hands will be occupied by the handrails of their wheelchair and that users will be looking in front of them (and around them), and not the screen of their devices. This means providing multimodal technologies that provide a screen as well as verbal instructions to guide them through their journey.

The usability of these technologies should also take into account possible handling and weather issues (for example, wearing gloves in winter, rain, sunlight on the screen, traffic noise that may interfere with their use). Some of these technologies are intended to transmit information in real time which could help address some of these issues.

Finally, we must take into account that some users may have limited working memory (that is, a limited ability to accumulate and temporarily manipulate information in order to perform a particular task). It is therefore necessary to make sure that the information on the screen is easily accessible to them (whether it is text, contrasted information, symbols, graphics, photos, or route views).

Locate the technology that's right for you!

Would you like help planning your wheelchair trips around town? Could geospatial assistive technologies help you?

1. Discuss your needs, preferences and concerns with a health professional (such as an occupational therapist working for a rehabilitation program).

2. Examine existing technologies to determine if they can meet your needs, preferences and concerns.

3. Take a moment to make sure these technologies are user-friendly: how the information is presented (clarity, colour, graphics, consistency, credibility, readability, relevance, reliability, comprehension), how easy it is to navigate, if the vocabulary used accessible, how easy the interface is to control by voice or touch, or if there is a voice recognition system.

4. Ask your health professional if there are decision support tools available to help you make decisions about geospatial assistive technologies, as well as resources that can help you and your loved one to navigate through the publicly funded programs and charities to obtain such technologies.

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Author Details


  1. Statistics Canada. Canadian Survey on Disability, 2017. Ottawa: Canada, 2018.
  2. Prémont ME, Vincent C, Mostafavi MA, Routhier F. Geospatial assistive technologies for wheelchair users: A scoping review of usability measures and criteria for mobile user interfaces and their potential applicability. Disability and rehabilitation; Assistive technology, 2020, 15(2): 119–131.

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