MASON — Five years after a local woman started an online company that offers virtual tours of restaurants, entertainment venues and other public spaces, her business, Able Eyes, now offers an inside look at nearly 1,000 locations across the country.
Meegan Winters, a former special education teacher and administrator, co-founded the website — aimed at giving people with disabilities a chance to explore spaces before visiting — in 2017 with Brian Town by reaching out to businesses, organizations and Lansing area destinations.
Today, Able Eyes offers 360-degree virtual tours of locations in all 50 states and the United Kingdom. Among the virtual tours are nearly 100 locations in the Lansing area, including buildings on the Michigan State University campus, local libraries, hotels, restaurants, cafes and museums.
Users can move through them virtually at their own pace, and they have access to a tool inside each tour that measures doorways and spaces, allowing wheelchair users and others with mobility issues to determine whether they will be able to navigate. in location.
Able Eyes lets people find accessible spaces and helps them become familiar with them, said Winters, a Mason resident. Tours, she added, are an important marketing tool for business owners and tourism officials.
For people navigating the world with disabilities, virtual tours can be a lifeline, said Cathy Blatnik, president of the Autism Society of Michigan. She has first-hand knowledge of the site’s usefulness, having been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder 15 years ago.
Both Blatnik, of Okemos, and her son Dominic, 18, who is autistic, use Able Eyes.
“When we visit a place before we go, we both don’t have as much anxiety and it really almost eliminates it completely,” she said.
Tourist spaces virtually
Winters was still a teacher at a school in Jackson County when she first saw 360-degree video while at a conference in Chicago.
“This could change the lives of people with autism,” she thought.
“Because one of the common characteristics of a person on the spectrum is difficulty with transitions, difficulty doing things that are maybe out of the routine, going to places for the first time that are new,” Winters said.
A visit to a new place can cause Dominic Blatnik to feel extreme anxiety that can trigger his epilepsy, his mother said.
“Being able to see where you’re going in advance reduces almost 100% of the anxiety,” she said. “The unexpected might give him a seizure.”
Able Eyes started with about 20 virtual tours of sites in the area. Within its first year, the Greater Lansing Convention & Visitors’ Bureau began working with the company as part of a strategy to make more visitors feel welcome while exploring the area, said Julie Pingston, the bureau’s president and CEO. visitors.
“It went hand in hand with the timing of really helping Lansing and the Lansing region be able to promote itself as a welcoming destination for those on the autism spectrum,” Pingston said.
Lansing is the first city to earn the “Accessible City” certification on the Able Eyes site. The label is awarded to communities that have at least five dining, five lodging and five virtual tour attractions. More cities have since adopted the label, Winters said.
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Useful in more ways than one
For business owners — and Able Eyes users — virtual tours, which businesses and organizations can create themselves or have the site do the work to create one, are useful in a number of ways.
For Joe Rezmer, 42, who has spinal muscular atrophy and has moved around in a wheelchair since age 7, Able Eyes has helped him prepare for trips from his home in Pinconning to the Lansing area, where he visits friends. He has been watching virtual tours on the site for three years.
“It’s good to know if I’m going to a restaurant if I’m going to be able to move or if I can go to the bathroom, which is important,” Rezmer said. “Lets me see what’s there before I go there.”
Beyond encouraging businesses to take accessibility further than Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, having a virtual tour of Able Eyes is “the best sales tool ever,” said the founder and President of Caliber Karting and Entertainment. of High, Jordan Munsters.
The entertainment venue, which offers everything from go-carts to ax throwing, occupies five storefronts in Meridian Mall. The business has had a virtual tour available on Able Eyes since 2020, the same year Munsters was injured in a dirt bike crash when a ramp on his property outside Charlotte collapsed. Munsters broke three ribs, four vertebrae and his right hip and spent more than two weeks in Sparrow Hospital and some time in a wheelchair.
“When we first opened we had all kinds of people asking, ‘Hey, where is this?’ How many people can fit in here?’ and so we had taken pictures and sent them, but the pictures don’t really give a good depth and feel,” he said. The virtual tour is a better option, Munsters said.
Able Eyes’ growth amid the pandemic makes sense, Cathy Blatnik said. More people want to get a feel for the places they plan to visit than ever before.
“A lot of people want to know ahead of time,” she said. “They just want that security. The world has gone virtual.”
Visit Able Eyes at www.ableeyes.org.
Contact Rachel Greco at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ .