“I never really paid much attention or was aware of the challenges that people with disabilities face until that day and once I saw that man, my eyes were opened to people with disabilities and their struggles.”
Alex Knoll is not your average kid. At the age of just nine, he made himself into the kind of successful entrepreneur that many adults can only dream about, and became a star across the United States with a life-changing appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.
How did he do it? By hitting upon an idea that no one had thought of to help people with impairments live a better life, through the creation of his ‘Ability App.’
But the idea was not something that was given to him, more one that he stumbled upon walking down the street one day. Heading to a local sports store in his hometown of Spotane, Washington, Knoll noticed a man in a wheelchair struggling to open the manual door. As he watched, he wondered if there was something that could have helped the man to know about the access problems beforehand. Thus his idea was born.
After much research, Knoll quickly realised there was no easy way for people with impairments to know about the accessibility features of local businesses in their area.
“I never really paid much attention or was aware of the challenges that people with disabilities face until that day and once I saw that man, my eyes were opened to people with disabilities and their struggles” said Alex, now aged 13.
Suitably named ‘Ability App’, the mobile application aims to help people with impairments (and their carers) navigate public spaces as well as find safe, reliable services and employment opportunities.
By providing a breakdown of public services (such as restaurants, cafes, parks, hotels) and their facilities, the app produces an accessibility rating which is relevant to a wide variety of impairments. Navigation around the app is also in itself very accessible, as it even includes eye tracking software:
“It needs to be accessible to all disabilities. That’s what will set this app apart.”
Talk show host DeGeneres was so inspired by Knoll that she donated 25,000 USD to the app’s development, and she was not the only one to get involved. Hundreds of emails giving thanks and advice on ways to improve the app have been sent to Knoll and these, along with one-to-one interviews with people with impairments, have been the foundation of his research.
Fast forward four years from the initial idea and the app has achieved great recognition in the US, with global awareness steadily rising. Knoll has also added an extra layer to his company with the recent launch of Ability Ambassadors. Currently, there are 800 people worldwide who act as ability ambassadors – a role that is free and open to anyone able to give accessibility ratings on public services.
“It’s really simple [to become an Ability Ambassador]. It’s just a matter of going out and pointing out the places in the world that are already accessible,” said Knoll.
Whilst shining the spotlight on local businesses, it also gives them the opportunity to improve their services.
“Its [Ability App] primary mission is to make the world more accessible and inclusive,” said Knoll’s father . “Alex wants to go out and reward those businesses that have chosen to make themselves accessible.
“And then its secondary mission is also to educate those businesses that aren’t yet accessible as to how they can become accessible.”
“A lot of people don’t realise that there are a lot of things you can do for free,” explained Knoll.
With his research and knowledge on accessibility standards, many businesses have invited the young businessman to speak at their functions on the ways in which they can improve.
As he continues to inspire businesses, Knoll also hopes to encourage other youngsters to develop their own ideas: “I like to tell people that anything is possible if you put your mind to doing something and you stay focused and just keep going. You should continue to keep moving forward and stay positive.”
For more information about the Ability App, its progress and how to become an Ability Ambassador, visit the Ability App website.