Able Eyes, a Mason-based company, gives people a virtual look at sites
MASON – Five years after a local woman launched an online business offering virtual tours of restaurants, entertainment venues and other public spaces, her company, Able Eyes, now offers insight into around 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 the spaces before they visit – in 2017 with Brian Town by reaching out to businesses, organizations and destinations in Lansing area.
Today, Able Eyes offers 360 degree virtual tours of locations in all 50 states and the UK. Among the virtual tours are nearly 100 sites in the Lansing area, including buildings on the Michigan State University campus, local libraries, hotels, restaurants, cafes and museums.
Users can walk through them virtually at their own pace, and they have access to a tool in each tour that measures doorways and gaps, allowing wheelchair users and others with mobility issues to determine if they will be able to navigate the location.
Able Eyes helps people find accessible spaces and helps them get familiar with them, said Mason resident Winters. The tours, she added, are an important marketing tool for business owners and tourism managers.
For people navigating the world with a disability, virtual tours can be a lifesaver, said Cathy Blatnik, president of the Mid-Michigan Autism Association. She has first-hand knowledge of the site’s usefulness, having been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder 15 years ago.
Blatnik, from Okemos, and his 18-year-old son Dominic, who has autism, use Able Eyes.
“When we visit a place before we go there, we don’t have as much anxiety and it eliminates it almost completely,” she said.
Virtual tour of spaces
Winters was still a teacher at a Jackson County school the first time she saw 360-degree video at a conference in Chicago.
“It could be life changing for 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 maybe out of the routine, going to new places for the first time,” Winters said.
A visit to a new place can cause Dominic Blatnik to experience extreme anxiety which can trigger his epilepsy, his mother said.
“Being able to see where he’s going ahead reduces anxiety almost 100 percent,” she said. “The unexpected could also cause him a crisis.”
Able Eyes started with around 20 virtual tours of locations in the area. In 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, President and CEO of the Visitors Bureau.
“It went hand-in-hand with when Lansing really needed to be helped, and the Lansing area could present itself as a welcoming destination for people with autism,” Pingston said.
Lansing is the first city to achieve Accessible City certification on Able Eyes. The label is awarded to communities that have a minimum of five restaurants, five accommodations and five attractions with virtual tours. More cities have since received the label, Winters said.
Useful in more ways than one
For business owners — and for 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 variety of ways.
For Joe Rezmer, 42, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and has lived with a wheelchair since the age of 7, Able Eyes has helped him prepare for trips from his home in Pinconning to the region of Lansing, where he is visiting friends. He has been viewing virtual tours on the site for three years.
“It’s nice to know if I’m going to go to a restaurant if I can move around or if I can get into the bathroom, which is important,” Rezmer said. “It allows me to see what’s there before I go.”
Beyond encouraging businesses to push accessibility further than Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, having a virtual tour on Able Eyes is “the best selling tool ever,” Jordan said. Munsters, Founder and President of High Caliber Karting and Entertainment.
The entertainment venue, which offers everything from go-karts to ax throwing, occupies five storefronts at the Meridian Mall. The company has been offering a virtual tour 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 going, ‘Hey, where is this? How many people can fit here? and so we had taken pictures and sent them over, 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, said Cathy Blatnik. More people want to get an idea of the places they plan to visit than ever before.
“So many people want to know ahead of time,” she said. “They just want reassurance. The world has gone virtual.”
Visit Able Eyes at www.ableeyes.org.
Contact Rachel Greco at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ .