In 2006, about a year after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), New York filmmaker Jason DaSilva was on vacation when he lost all feeling in his legs. Since then, he has relied on either a motorized scooter or a wheelchair to get around.
Unfortunately, he quickly discovered that much of his hometown, New York City, was not wheelchair accessible. “I wouldn’t be able to meet friends for coffee or drinks or even go to business meetings unless I already knew the location could accommodate a wheelchair or scooter,” DaSilva explained. Unless he had been there before, he had no reliable method to determine accessibility.
DaSilva is changing that for himself and others by developing an online platform that lets people know whether a location is wheelchair accessible. His efforts recently earned him an honorable mention in the Lyfebulb-Celgene 2019 “Addressing Unmet Needs in MS: An Innovation Challenge.” While he appreciates the recognition, DaSilva knows he has a long way to go before his vision is fully realized.
While two-thirds of people living with MS are able to walk (many with the help of a cane or crutches), many, like DaSilva, need to use a scooter or wheelchair to conserve strength and reduce fatigue, one of the most common symptoms of the disease.
When DaSilva began relying on a scooter and wheelchair, he was frustrated by inadequate information on accessible locations. Even when he called ahead, businesses didn’t always give him reliable information. He realized the same frustration likely afflicts the approximately 3.6 million people in the U.S. who use a wheelchair.
At the time, DaSilva had just won an Emmy for his documentary, “When I Walk,” an autobiographical account of the seven years following his diagnosis. While he loved filmmaking, DaSilva temporarily paused his work in the film industry to pursue the opportunity to use technology to help people better manage their disabilities.
“Technology has greatly expanded over the last 30 years, but people rarely think about [its possibilities for] accessibility unless it affects them personally,” DaSilva said.
A Platform for Those with Disabilities
In 2012, DaSilva launched his solution: AXS Map, a crowdsourced online platform that allows people with disabilities to find accessible spots throughout major metropolitan cities worldwide. With AXS Map, users document the accessibility of individual locations by rating and noting such features as entryway, bathrooms and parking.
Today, the platform boasts 118,000 registered users in about 100 different countries around the world. Still, before city dwellers with mobility issues will be able to enjoy all the amenities available to them, more user ratings are needed. To improve those numbers, DaSilva’s AXS Map team has held more than 300 “Mapathons” in major cities to encourage people to rate business in their neighborhood, including through friendly competition.
Beyond these events, DaSilva and his team are hopeful that they can scale it and improve the user experience by developing a native app for iOS and Android devices. AXS Map is currently a live website, but further development is needed to scale the app for mobile platforms.
“It’s so important to continue supporting patient entrepreneurship within the MS community and beyond.”
Supporting Patient Entrepreneurs
Reaching the next phase of AXS Map requires more funding. “We’re a small group of very smart people,” DaSilva said. “But if we had more funding, we’d be a much bigger team, and we would be able to scale up AXS Map to help more people.”
That’s why DaSilva decided to enter the Lyfebulb-Celgene 2019 “Addressing Unmet Needs in MS” innovation challenge. He saw it as a great opportunity to get AXS Map in front of the MS community.
DaSilva didn’t know anyone in the MS startup space before, so he enjoyed networking with other entrepreneurs who are addressing unmet needs for people like himself who are living with MS. The competition gave him hope that more resources will soon be dedicated to technologies geared toward those with mobility challenges, whether due to MS or other causes.
After seven years working on AXS Map, DaSilva is ready to see investors and consumers take notice and recognize the need for these innovations. “I wish there were more opportunities like this Innovation Challenge,” he said. “It’s so important to continue supporting patient entrepreneurship, both within the MS community and beyond.”
To learn more about how other entrepreneurs are working to improve care within the MS community, read “App Aims to Make Communication Easier for People with Multiple Sclerosis and Their Care Partners.”