MASON — Five years after a local woman started an online company offering virtual tours of restaurants, entertainment venues and other public spaces, her business, Able Eyes, now offers an inside look at nearly 1,000 places across the country.
Meegan Winters, a former special education teacher and administrator, co-founded the website — with the goal of giving people with disabilities an opportunity to explore places before they visit — in 2017 by reaching out to Lansing-area businesses, organizations and destinations with the Town of Bryan.
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 Michigan State University’s campus, local libraries, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and museums.
Users can move through them at their own pace and have access to a device within each tour that measures doorways and spaces, allowing wheelchair-users and others with mobility issues to determine whether they will be able to navigate the space.
Able Eyes allows people to find accessible places and helps them become familiar with them, said Winters, a Mason resident. Tours are an important marketing tool for business owners and tourism officials, he added.
For people with disabilities navigating the world, virtual tours can be a lifeline, said Kathy Blatnick, president of the Mid-Michigan Autism Association. He has first-hand knowledge of the site’s usefulness, having been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder 15 years ago.
Blatnick, of Okemos, and her son Dominic, 18, who is autistic, both use Able Eyes.
“When we visit a place before we go we both don’t worry as much and it actually takes it away completely,” she said.
Places to visit virtually
Winters was still a teacher at a school in Jackson County when she saw 360-degree video for the first time 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 outside of the routine, going to new places for the first time,” Winters said.
Visiting a new place can cause Dominique Blatnik to experience extreme anxiety that can trigger her epilepsy, her mother said.
“Being able to see in advance where he’s going is almost 100% anxiety-relieving,” she said. “He can also be attacked for unexpected reasons.”
Able Eyes started with about 20 virtual tours of locations in the area. Within its first year, the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau began working with the company as a strategy to make more visitors feel welcome while exploring the area, said Julie Pinkston, president and CEO of the visitors bureau.
“It’s time to really help Lansing, and the Lansing area will be able to promote itself as a welcoming destination for those on the autism spectrum,” Pingston said.
Lansing is the first city to receive an “Accessible City” certification on the Able Eyes site. The label is awarded to communities with at least five dining, five lodging and five attractions, including virtual tours. More cities have since received the label, Winter said.
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Useful in more ways than one
For business owners—and for users of the able eye—virtual tours, which businesses and organizations can create themselves or ask a site to create one, are useful in a variety of ways.
For Joe Rezmer, 42, who has spinal muscular atrophy and has lived 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 taking 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 get around or if I can go to the bathroom, which is important,” Rezmer said. “It lets me see what’s out there before I go there.”
Besides encouraging businesses to take accessibility above compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, taking a virtual tour at Able Eyes is “the best selling tool ever,” said Jordan 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 Meridian Mall. The business has had a virtual tour available at Able Eyes since 2020, the same year Munsters was injured in a dirt bike accident when a ramp collapsed on his property outside of Charlotte. Munsters broke three ribs, four vertebrae and a 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 took pictures and sent them but the pictures don’t really give a good depth and feel,” he said. A virtual tour is a good option, Munsters said.
Amidst the epidemic, the growth of the competent eye makes sense, said Kathy Blatnick. More people than ever want to experience the places they plan to visit.
“A lot of people want to know ahead of time,” she said. “They just want that reassurance. The world has gone virtual.”
Able Eyes Visit www.ableeyes.org.
Contact Rachel Greco at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ .