Undergraduate advisers at the University of Virginia told Joe Jamison to create a business based on his passions, so that’s exactly what he did.
It wasn’t cookies, coffee or clothes that stoked his fire, however. It was the effort to help others better enjoy life.
“I graduated in May 2019 and I was taking a capstone course, which was to start my own business. The first thing they ask you to do is to pick something you’re passionate about,” recalled Jamison, the mind behind VisitAble, a startup providing disability accessibility training, certification and publicity.
“My father has used a wheelchair for my entire life and I grew up with a passion for accessibility and the different attitudes and physical barriers that he faced on a daily basis,” he said. “I knew that was what I wanted to do. It was just a matter of narrowing it down to the problems I could really make an impact on.”
Jamison, whose studies focused on economics and statistics, cranked up his business plan in April 2019.
He incorporated it in August of that year. Since then he has worked with businesses, parks and recreation departments and resorts, including Massanutten in the Shenandoah Valley.
His goal is to make it easier for people with disabilities to get out and enjoy their lives. That meant finding a way to assure those who wished to travel that their destinations were truly accessible and that they would be treated well.
“Most places reference the Americans with Disabilities Act, but even in the ADA there is a lack of clarity, and it doesn’t always address the practical things. Those are important because it leads to differences in accessibility in locations,” Jamison said.
“Most of the time, people with disabilities will call ahead to see if where they want to stay or go is actually accessible, but they often have to speak with several different people,” he said. “They’ll have to discuss their condition and specific needs several times with several different people and still they can get inaccurate information.”
Sometimes what looks accessible to an able-bodied employee or employer is anything but.
“They’ve been assured a room is accessible so they’ll make a reservation and show up only to find the room has been booked or there will be two stairs leading up to the room,” Jamison said. “That may not seem like much of a barrier, but try making those steps alone when you’re in a wheelchair.”
No matter how reassuring a manager or clerk may be, there is always the unknown when booking, he said.
“It creates a barrier of uncertainty. People just go to the same places they always go because they know they are accessible and that staff will be accepting. Or they just stay home,” Jamison said. “Even if the place is accessible, there’s no guarantee that a person with a disability will be treated the same as others.”
That’s where VisitAble comes in. The training and consultation offered through the company is based on feedback from potential customers with disabilities. Rather than checking off boxes to assure ADA compliance, the certificate is designed to help an organization be more inclusive, maintain existing customers and possibly attract a new base.
The certification process includes training for executives and employees of business, government agencies and organizations to increase awareness of the needs of those with disabilities or chronic illness.
“The first problem I wanted to focus on was the difference between minimal compliance with the ADA and what is really accessible to people with disabilities,” he said. “People are often only thinking about the ADA when they renovate facilities, build new facilities or get complaints. If they’re not renovating or dealing with complaints, they’re probably not thinking about access.”
It also helps organizations create policies to foster a culture of including those with disabilities through accessibility and personal attitude adjustments.
“There are certain guidelines that aren’t part of the ADA that are important to people with disabilities, such as how to treat them and interact with them in a correct way, as well as being transparent about accessibility,” Jamison said.
The biggest etiquette issues are staff ignoring someone or not treating them like everyone else.
“Whether it’s high-turnover staff right out of high school or someone who has never seen someone with a disability showing signs of uncomfortableness, it impacts the person with the disability. I can’t think of how many times that’s happened with my dad. Every disabled person I’ve talked with has nodded their head, like, ‘yup, that’s happened,’” he said.
“There are specific things, like how to interact with people with speech differences, seizures, or what you’re legally allowed to ask a person who is a service dog handler. There are appropriate ways for people to be addressed,” Jamison said. “Sometimes, you’re right there talking to someone and they are looking and talking not to the guest or the customer who is in a wheelchair, but the person who is standing with them. That’s not very welcoming.”
VisitAble is currently a regional concern, but Jamison hopes to expand nationally and turn it into the gold standard for disabled diversity, equity and inclusion efforts by businesses, governments and organizations.
“We’re not as far along as I’d like to be, right now. We had a rough year in 2020 — I think every business did — and we had like a seven-month drought where we had no certifications, and it forced us to expand our vision,” he said.
That vision now includes developing virtual training methods and an online focus, as well as more marketing of certificate holders to potential clientele among the disabled.
“If there’s buy-in from the top for certification, there’s motivation for employees to take it seriously,” Jamison said. “Our certification is a way to make a statement from an unbiased, external vender that you really value people with disabilities because you are working toward including them in your [diversity, equity, inclusion] efforts.”
Jamison is looking to expand the certification to assist people with chronic illnesses.
“We’re about increasing awareness, training and knowledge, but we’re also focused on the marketing side. We want to get the word out that this business is really putting their money and effort where their mouth is. We know the first step is training, awareness and transparency,” he said.
“I created this to help make a difference, and we’re creating a better experience for people with disabilities. We’re helping organizations provide a better experience and attract people with disabilities,” he said. “We’re trying to get rid of the barrier of uncertainty.”