Kevin McGuire knows about frustration in public places. Using a wheelchair since he was 7 years old, McGuire has had trouble traversing popular restaurants, showering in hotel bathrooms, or even getting to the door of some establishments.
But by combining technology and public opinion, McGuire, 52, is hoping to save other people with disabilities such frustrations.
McGuire’s Waltham-based company, AbleRoad Associates Inc., this fall launched a website and smartphone app that — much like the popular review site Yelp.com — allow people to rate restaurants, shops, businesses, and public venues, but on wheelchair accessibility and ease of access for blind and deaf people. Since its soft launch in January, the site has garnered about 10,000 reviews and 10,000 app downloads, McGuire said last month.
McGuire, who was left partially paralyzed when a drunk driver struck him in 1968, said many restaurants and other businesses — both local and nationwide — still have miles to go before making people with disabilities feel completely welcome.
“What drives me crazy are the booths and the bars at restaurants,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a step up to get to a booth, or you need to climb up or down a few stairs to get to the bar area.”
‘This allows corpor-ate America to hear what people are saying.’
McGuire said he also frequently deals with employees who unintentionally belittle customers with disabilities. He was quick to chuckle as he recalled a recent incident when a waitress turned to McGuire’s friend to order for him.
“That customer service stuff can make you or break you,” he said. “You can build the most accessible building, but if there’s one front-line person who says something stupid or acts incorrectly, all that just gets wiped away.”
AbleRoad is also working with Yelp so users can see ratings for a business from both websites on the same screen. Yelp representatives confirmed they approved the company to use the site’s content.
McGuire, who graduated from Boston University before earning a law degree from Georgetown University, also heads up McGuire Associates, a consulting firm specializing in helping businesses and venues comply with federal and state disability laws. The company has several high-profile clients: McGuire has worked with the New England Patriots on making Gillette Stadium and Patriot Place accessible, and has also been consulted on Live Nation concert venues and the White House visitor center, he said.
McGuire said one of his favorite jobs was teaching Tom Cruise how to operate a wheelchair on the set of “Born on the Fourth of July,” a 1989 Oliver Stone film about a paralyzed Vietnam War veteran. Cruise’s performance in the movie earned him an Academy Award nomination.
“I like what I do, and I like to think that I’m very successful at it,” McGuire said.
He said that by creating AbleRoad’s rating function, he hopes to advance his mission by giving those with disabilities a voice.
“My job is to tell owners what they should do to comply with the law, but ultimately it’s their decision to listen to me or not,” he said. “I wanted to do something like that, but on a bigger scale that empowers people with disabilities and medical conditions, as well as their friends and family and caregivers. This lets them dictate what works from a disability perspective.”
Just as importantly, McGuire said, the AbleRoad rating app also allows business owners to respond to reviews, enabling a dialogue between commercial providers and people with disabilities who enjoy meals out, stay in hotels while traveling, and attend stadium-sized concerts and football games.
He said it makes economic sense for business owners to wise up regarding their disabled clientele base. Citing US Census Bureau data, AbleRoad representatives said that about 20 percent of the country’s population — about 57 million people — have some type of disability or are facing problems with mobility, cognition, hearing, or seeing. They also said that people with disabilities represent $220 billion in annual discretionary spending.
“I didn’t form AbleRoad just for people to complain,” McGuire said. “This allows corporate America to hear what people are saying and have them change. This really starts the interactive process.”
A number of area residents have already taken to AbleRoad, putting in their two cents on the accessibility of various restaurants and businesses.
Two users in their reviews of Mulan Taiwanese Restaurant, on Main Street in Waltham, praised the food, but bemoaned the lack of accessibility, and advised patrons to “stick to the left side” of the building.
Down the road in Cambridge, one AbleRoad user bestowed four out of five stars on Oleana, a restaurant on Hampshire Street, pointing out that it has “step-free access to the inside dining area via a ramp,” and though there is no off-street parking, the reviewer suggested to look for the “on-street disability parking spaces a block or so away.”
Another AbleRoad consumer gave the Lenox Hotel’s City Bar in downtown Boston 4.5 stars, noting that wheelchair mobility “is pleasantly unencumbered — spacing around and between club chairs and couches is roomy.”
One particularly active reviewer praised the popular Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner for its street-level handicapped access, but lamented the difficult access to Serenade Chocolatier in Brookline Village. Both businesses received high ratings and numerous reviews on Yelp.
“We have received notes from people who are excited about what we’re doing,” McGuire said. “We’ve also received e-mails from users pointing out ‘bugs’ when posting, which we truly appreciate.”
McGuire also said that in the general scheme of things, the online rating service is sorely needed, and that even those without disabilities could find the website useful.
“People don’t have to go far on their family tree to find somebody with some disability,” McGuire said. “Peoples’ attitudes are changing.”
The AbleRoad app is available as a free download for both iOS and Android devices, through Apple’s App Store and Google Play.
To see the website and write reviews, visit www.ableroad.com.
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.