The app is the brainchild of former adult social care worker Simon Sansome, who became a wheelchair user in 2014 after sustaining a life-changing injury.
Simon says the idea for the app came about when he went out for dinner for the first time since his rehabilitation. When he arrived, there were people sitting in front of the disabled entrance and getting in caused “quite a fuss”. During the meal, he then found that the disabled toilets were only accessible via a flight of stairs. Before he became a wheelchair user, he says he’d never given accessibility much thought.
This experience prompted some research, and the app was born out of his general frustration with how hard it was to find information about venue accessibility.
“Short of looking up local guides (which might be out of date) or going on each venue’s website (time consuming), it’s not that easy to find out where is accessible in the local area. The idea behind Snowball is that all the information is in one easy place and – importantly – is compiled by other disabled users. Working in much the same way as Tripadvisor, it gives people a trustworthy source of information about venues that will be able to accommodate their needs.”
Snowball, described as a “rolling review of accessibility”, gives people the confidence to go out and enjoy themselves without worrying about accessibility issues.
Simon has been a well-respected voice within the disabled community for many years, as the founder of successful blog and Facebook page, Ability Access, as well as being one of the presenters of the hugely successful Grumpy Gits podcast.
Initially, the app was also set to be called Ability Access, but Simon says he wanted the two to be completely separate entities. He adds: “I wanted something completely random that people would remember, as seems to be the naming convention for apps nowadays. But the name is also meaningful, as it will have a snowball effect – once people start getting involved and sharing their experiences it will grow bigger and bigger.”
Taylor Wilson, Project Manager at b4b, worked closely with Simon throughout the app build: “I led the build of the app from start to finish and it’s been a career highlight for sure. This app is going to make a real difference to people’s lives, and Simon has been fantastic to work with. We spent hours bouncing ideas around and discussing how the app would look and work. When we sent him the finished prototype he called me back within minutes to say he loved it!”
During the design process, it was also important to consider the accessibility of the app itself. Taylor explains: “Our UX designer researched fonts to find the one that has consistently been named the easiest to read. We also limited the use of red and green for users who may have colour-blindness.”
Making sure the app was user-friendly was an ongoing and collaborative process between Simon and the developers, and involved plenty of testing. The end result is not only clean and easy to navigate, but also features a whole host of useful functionality.
Similar to Tripadvisor, users can view places (this includes everything from hairdressers and restaurants to shops, leisure attractions and more), post their own photos and reviews, include a rating and whether they’d return, and even add new places that aren’t already listed. They can also use the pin map feature to explore what’s available in their local area.
Paralympians Hannah Cockroft OBE and Aaron Phipps MBE have hailed the app as a “long time coming”, with Hannah saying: “I am repeatedly told that disability access in the UK has improved out of sight, and while things are getting better, they are still not accessible. Snowball will change the everyday lives of many disabled people.
“We will no longer have to turn up and pray we can get in, do hours of online research just to find out if we will be able to enter, or phone up and be told a venue is accessible, when it really isn’t. Snowball will give people back their time, freedom and independence and create an accessible space for all.”
Aaron adds: “Many times when I’m out with friends and family I’ve had to hop out of my chair and hobble around on my bum to get into places. Snowball will give me an accessible world and I won’t have to worry about going out anymore with friends and family because we will all know where we can access thanks to the app.”
After a focus group researched venues in Loughborough and recorded their findings in the app – an activity which Simon has dubbed “snowballing” – it was found that a staggering 48% of places in the town were marked as inaccessible, with people “unlikely to return”.
Community groups and local councils are going to start snowballing other areas, and Simon says he hopes the findings will prompt positive change.
“It’s unbelievable to me that nearly half of the places we reviewed in our focus town are unable to accommodate disabled visitors. Hopefully we can shine a light on accessibility and bring about change for good.”