The Pedesting mobile app guides those with accessibility needs through a building, mapping out washrooms, ramps, rooms, entrances and exits. Author of the article:Hiren Mansukhani
Published Nov 02, 2023
Imagine entering one of Downtown Calgary’s skyscrapers for a job interview. You speak to a receptionist who quickly runs through directions to your destination. As you walk, mulling over what you’re about to say in the interview, you miss one of the directions and wander into another building through the Plus 15 network.
You’re lost. But you don’t see anyone either. Or maybe you do, but you’re too polite to bother them with nervous questions.
Now, imagine you’re in a wheelchair, and you have to pee. Ordinary washrooms are too cramped to safely transfer onto the toilet seat while their countertops block you from washing your hands. What you’re looking for is a “handicapped” toilet. But you wonder if the building even has one.
Nabeel Ramji and I are exploring the Life Plaza building in downtown Calgary. He’s wearing a collared, light blue sweater with streaks of white under a light jacket. I follow him as he manoeuvres his wheelchair with a joystick. He is greeted by streams of people heading to work or for a snack.
While interacting, Ramji wears a perpetual smile, widening his eyes, as if he’s pleasantly surprised to see each one of them.
We’re on the second floor, trying to find Scotiabank. Although it’s the same building as where he works, we’re following directions handed by an indoor navigation app called Pedesting. We slide right from the Noodle and Grill House, take an elevator one floor down, turn behind and walk a little further. “Voila,” he says with a drawl.
So far the app, which launched in September, has mapped out six buildings, with Life Plaza, Telus Convention Centre, the Central Library and Bow Valley College visible to users soon. “Our main priority is office spaces and post-secondary institutions,” said Ramji, CEO of Pedesting. He said he plans to add more buildings and, eventually, information about sidewalk closures due to construction and snow.
Accessibility app represents ‘dream’ fulfilled
Ramji has a rare form of cerebral palsy that has left him unable to walk and talk fluently and has severely limited the strength of his upper body.
His limitations, however, haven’t kept him from realizing his aspirations. Ramji, who graduated from the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business with an undergraduate degree in finance, has worked for Strategic Group managing its portfolios in real estate, travelled to 15 countries and was named top 40 under 40 by Avenue Calgary in 2019.
His latest project, also his “dream,” addresses the same challenges that stand in the way of meeting his daily chores and the life he has created. Pedesting guides users through a building, mapping out washrooms for people with disabilities, ramps for those in wheelchairs, rooms in each space, every exit and entrance and how accessible they are.
“People with disabilities, including myself, feel very anxious when we’re going out – so simple things such as pick-up and drop-off areas can be a problem,” he said. “Some people I know travel all the way to a place and go back when they find out there isn’t something as simple as a ramp.
“This app will give people a certain level of confidence who need to go ahead of time, like a senior citizen or someone like me.”
Ramji was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1985. He was adopted by a couple from Tanzania who moved to Canada the same year. They were unaware of his medical condition until his father, Zul, found his fist wouldn’t open. Zul, now a retired family physician, showed him to a specialist who diagnosed Ramji’s cerebral palsy.
Zul contacted the adoption agency to inquire about Ramji’s biological family’s medical history. The agency didn’t provide him with the information but offered to take Ramji back. The couple refused. “It’s not something that I got from Safeway that I can return. He is a human being and we decided he gets the best care,” Zul said.
For the first seven years, Ramji couldn’t speak a single word. He would use a communication board with several pictures – including food, washroom and water – to convey his needs. Yet, Ramji’s parents sent him to study at a public school. “I wanted him to be integrated,” Zul said.
Zul saw Ramji understood what was being told to him – whether it was jokes or bedtime stories. “It looks like the guy’s smart,” Zul said, describing his thoughts then. “We realized the guy has potential except that he cannot speak.”
Challenges remain after game-changing, risky surgery
At age 7, Ramji underwent an invasive surgical procedure called rhizotomy where certain nerve fibres in the body are killed to remove the sensation of pain in different areas. The relatively new surgery, deemed highly risky, was a game-changer, Zul said. “He was able to speak!”
But the challenges hardly ended. The infrastructure of the schools Ramji attended didn’t accommodate his needs. So, Zul and Ramji’s late mother Muna took the matter into their own hands. The family discovered that a few of Ramji’s classes at Nickle elementary school would be held on the second floor, but the school didn’t have an elevator. The principal suggested Zul to send him to a special needs school, but Zul refused to give in.
He instead persuaded the principal to build a stair-lift chair for Ramji. “I wanted my son to be there, and I asked him why he should be denied because of this facility,” he said. “I told them let’s change it.” In addition to the stair-lift chair, the school installed a new washroom for students like Ramji, paved its outdoor park for them to play with their mates and renovated a few doors with glass, allowing people to see those on the other side before barging in.
Meanwhile, Ramji’s family supplied him with all kinds of technology needed to advance his education, including expensive laptops, braces to stand, and motorized wheelchairs. “The only way my son could do anything in life was through education,” he said. “And the only thing that could help him with that was technology.”
It was this tenacity that Ramji brought to university. “I was taught early on that to live a dignified life I’ve to outwork everybody else,” he said.
However, the challenges around accessibility became starker as he moved away from the comfort of secondary education. For instance, Ramji had to walk 25 minutes from the building where his classes were held to access a washroom that met his needs. In addition, he always needed a person by his side to open doors for him. “There was no independence,” he said.
After graduation, as he began assessing real estate properties for Strategic Group, he found hardly any were accessible for people with disabilities. Their shower spaces had steps that made it harder for those like Ramji to enter the area. Their kitchen counters were either too high or lacked enough space underneath for their wheelchairs to glide in.
He learned that one in five Canadians has a disability. Yet, when he attended conferences, he could hardly spot any of them. “Where are these people?” he thought.
‘You guys design buildings that don’t work for me’
In 2016, Ramji met Erin Shilliday, an architect who worked for Riddell Kurczaba at a lunch with city officials and a few urban planners. At one point, Shilliday recalls Ramji turning to him and asking, “So you’re an architect. You guys design buildings that don’t work for me. Why do you keep doing that?”
Shilliday was taken aback. “Wow, that’s a very tough question,” he replied.
He admitted that the main concern for them is meeting building codes that do not consider the needs of those with disabilities. And thus began an enduring friendship.
Shilliday began hanging out with Ramji once a week to understand his needs and challenges. And there were many. But yet he seemed happier than most people Shilliday knew. “He was pleasant-always eager to be involved,” Shilliday said. “Nabeel has this personality that is bigger than life.”
Over time, they started meeting other experts to understand the reason behind Calgary’s infrastructure.
Up to the 1940s, Calgary was a regional centre, with Winnipeg serving as the major metropolis of the Prairies. The discovery of oil in Leduc in 1947 shifted economic activity to Calgary, whose population grew to more than 100,000 a year later, turning it into a city from a town. The growth of the car industry, coupled with the post-war boom in the 1960s and ’70s, allowed the city to swell, making it more vehicle-oriented by the decade. As people began buying homes in the suburbs, cars were increasingly seen as a symbol of freedom.
Accessibility depends on a person’s abilities or a lack of them. But the first step towards that path is boosting walkability, said Sasha Tsenkova, planning professor at the U of C. It doesn’t specifically mean increasing the width of sidewalks but making it easier for a pedestrian to get around without a car.
However, rapid growth left the city unable to pay close attention to the needs of pedestrians living on the fringes. “It was a lot easier to just roll out a carpet of single-family homes that are very similar in terms of design,” Tsenkova said. Such choices ultimately neglected the needs of those with disabilities, who are less likely to own a car.
Over the decades, the conversation shifted towards walkability with the creation of the accessibility advisory committee by the City of Calgary in 1994. A growing support for densification around the 2000s, Tsenkova said, advanced the movement. However, despite several efforts by the city, including the introduction of new design standards and discussing motions that increase densification, substantial change has yet to be seen.
“Issues are acknowledged, measures are adopted and included in the city’s long-term strategic plans, but then there is implementation, and the gap is huge.”
As Ramji and Shilliday learned about the context of Calgary’s infrastructure, they understood it would be impractical for them to focus on making the world more accessible. “That’s a lot of time and money and aggravation to make the building work for you,” Shilliday recalls telling Ramji. Instead, they thought of using technology to help pedestrians with or without disabilities to navigate their surroundings.
Seeds sown for creation of Pedesting app
During an event in 2019, Ramji was introduced to Mohamed Elhabiby, co-founder of Micro Engineering Tech. As Ramji shared his dream to make the city more accessible, Elhabiby suggested creating an app. “You need an app with indoor navigation capabilities to help you with that,” he recalls telling Ramji. “This is how it started.”
Soon, Ramji and Shilliday founded Pedesting and partnered with Elhabiby’s firm to build its technology. The app uses Google Maps for navigation outdoors. When users move indoors, however, the app uses a sensor called the inertial navigation system that tells people about their location in a building and gives them directions to their destination, a function made possible by receiving the floor plans of several buildings.
A similar app called Access Now exists in Toronto, but most of its information is crowdsourced, Ramji said. Experts agree that Pedesting is one of its kind in Canada.
Toward the end of our tour, Ramji turned back and tried his best to utter the words he wanted to say.
“This app will be for anybody who’s looking to navigate any place at any given time.”