Discover Kalamazoo to use state grant to show community’s accessibility to travelers

Accessibility isn’t a new concept for Kalamazoo. In 1945, the country’s first curb cuts were added to sidewalks in the city’s downtown to accommodate wheelchairs. 
Jane Ghosh
"That was created as a response to the advocacy of World War II vets because so many vets were injured during that war. But it doesn't just help people in wheelchairs. It helps moms with strollers or dads with strollers or anyone else,” says Jane Ghosh, president and CEO of Discover Kalamazoo. Her office overlooks the last known original curb cut, on the northeast corner of North Church and West Michigan Avenue.

Kalamazoo will soon be among the first cities in Michigan, along with Ann Arbor and Lansing, to lead another accessibility project. 

Discover Kalamazoo is using a $57,500 Accessible Traveler Grant from the state to fund a community accessibility audit of the county. The grant, along with matching funds, will engage Wheel the World and local experts Disability Network Southwest Michigan to map at least 130 locations across Kalamazoo County. 

Sites will be selected based on their connection to the tourism sector and will include attractions, lodging, restaurants, and transportation facilities. Following each audit, the business will receive a report identifying its accessible offerings and ways to enhance accessibility for guests.

“Together, we’re shaping a more inclusive travel landscape,” says Yoel Waisberg, head of the Destination Verified program at Wheel the World.

Local businesses that wish to be considered for an audit can get a request form here.

Building relationships with businesses

Kelly Linton and Paul Ecklund, ADA specialist and systems advocates with Disability Network Southwest Michigan, will be part of the Wheel the World team mapping the 130 sites.

“I think this will make Kalamazoo a more inclusive community for both residents and visitors,” Linton says. “We're not necessarily going to be doing the mapping from an ADA lens. They have a broader definition of accessibility. What we're hoping for as a Disability Network is to have the opportunity to connect with people so that if moving forward there are questions about accessibility, they know they can call us if they want a full ADA survey. This project is creating opportunities for us to connect with people and to build longer lasting relationships.”

Kelly Linton and Paul Ecklund stand together in downtown Kalamazoo.

Business listings will be created on both the Wheel the World website and Discover Kalamazoo’s website to help travelers with accessibility needs plan their trips. Online training programs on accessible travel also will be offered to all business partners for employee education.

These products of these efforts also will extend to residents, who will have access to the online listings and enhanced guest experiences.

Real-world data

Wheel the World has a partnership with Expedia, the travel booking service, in which Expedia uses data gathered by Wheel the World to help customers find facilities that are accessible. 

The Wheel the World app shows photos and measurements of features in a hotel or restaurant so people can see if the facilities match their accessibility needs, whether they use a wheelchair or have a visual impairment.

“We don't judge the property as good or bad,” Waisberg says. “We provide data that our travelers are telling us that they value. Airbnb gathers around 25 data points. We collect 250 data points.”

The company’s website lets users create their own accessibility profile, then matches accessibility needs with destinations. Its customized trip planning provides detailed information on the accessibility of hotels and activities.

A man walks his dog in Bronson Park on a sunny day.

The tech company was co-founded by CEO Alvaro Silberstein after his 2016 trip to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. For Silberstein,  a quadriplegic, the life-changing adventure with his friends became a documentary that led to his business, which has the  motto “make the world accessible.”

Waisberg says the company  hopes to work with more Michigan cities because one of its investors is Dan Gilbert’s Detroit Venture Partners. Gilbert’s investment comes from a personal experience with Wheel the World, which was brought by a travel planner to help the family take a trip to Iceland and accommodate the wheelchairs of Gilbert, who had a stroke in 2019, and his son, Nick, who had neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that causes tumors to grow on tissue in the nervous system. Nick died in 2023.

“The two decided to take a trip to Iceland, and they hired this boutique travel agency that had no idea how to make this trip happen,” Waisberg explains. “So they hired us. We traveled with them to Iceland. We told them the story about Wheel the World and they fell in love with it, and then they became investors.” 

Uncovering accessible destinations

He adds that accessible traveling is a $120 billion market. 

“We're trying to make this a huge, disruptive change in the industry,” Waisberg says. “Cities are hiring us to provide the entire solution to them. And because we have the technology, we can scale it. Some destinations have a lot of accessibility, but it's nowhere to be found. We call it the best-kept secret.”

A wayfinding sign on the Kalamazoo Mall.

While the company launched in 2018, its accessibility audits began less than two years ago. So far, Wheel the World has worked with a dozen communities from Oregon to Florida.

Discover Kalamazoo’s Ghosh believes the investment in accessibility will benefit the entire community. 

“Visitor spending in Kalamazoo County has been steadily growing, and for this growth to continue we need to encourage more potential travelers to consider Kalamazoo County as their destination,” says Ghosh. “This work will help us attract and welcome visitors with accessibility needs, who make up a significant portion of travelers.”

The Michigan Strategic Fund, under the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), approved Accessible Traveler Grants to 16 destination marketing organizations around the state, including Discover Kalamazoo. The money can be used for accessibility audits or to make the marketing organizations’ websites accessible to those with hearing and visual impairments. 

The funds are part of a $10 million federal grant allocated to Michigan in 2021 for travel and tourism marketing and advertising to help the industry rebound from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nick Nerbonne, with MEDC’s Travel Michigan, says the state has made a comprehensive effort for a number of years to promote accessible travel. At Travel Michigan, “we feel strongly about creating those accessible experiences here in Michigan, but also about leading by example across the country.”

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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