Jim Albright, who was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy when he was 4, knows firsthand about dealing with inaccessible buildings. Photo by Jim Gebben
Jim Albright wants to leave a legacy for disabled people.
The Hudsonville native is president and founder of Albright Insights. He is developing Xcess-Able, a mobility and accessibility app designed to be used by people with disabilities to help navigate their way through buildings.
The app would provide a detailed interior readout of a building, campus, facility, or other type of business establishment, informing people with temporary or permanent disabilities about the accessibility of the space and thus giving them more mobile independence.
Although many places are legally compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, not all of them are practically accessible, said Danny DeMatteis, principal at DCD Introspective Marketing.
The new app would allow users with a wide range of physical disabilities to see or audibly hear a description of details about a building, such as the width of an entrance, the height of an elevator button, the steepness of a ramp, or the location of the bathroom and what type of door handle it has, he said.
“This is a way to help those with disabilities, but it goes way beyond that because the app isn’t just for people in a wheelchair. It could be for (anyone) based on whatever might occur in our lives and we just need to know something about indoor navigation,” he said.
“If I come to a (coffee shop) and I say, ‘Hey, I’ve got the Xcess-Able app,’ I could see it’s not accessible to a wheelchair because to get to the restroom, you have to use steps. …
“Once the app is developed, there’s an element that can now be distributed to the general public, and that’s where social media can come in. Now the community can be a part of that, and, of course, all those things would be monitored.”
Albright knows firsthand about the difficulties facing people with disabilities. He navigates from a specialized wheelchair because at age 4, he was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rapidly progressive form of muscular dystrophy.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there is no known cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and the life expectancy for patients diagnosed with the disease is generally around 25 years of age.
Albright is 23.
“The company I’ve started is not just about me. It’s about everyone who has a disability, everyone who’s struggling financially. One day, I hope to use some of the money to help people to go to college or help people with medical bills,” he said.
“I want there to be a way to provide for my mom and my family if something happens to me, because you never know what tomorrow brings and no one knows how long I’m going to be around with the disease that I have. I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow, or next week, or even a few years, perhaps.”
Albright’s passion to ease the suffering of others with disabilities was sparked when he was on a Mission Possible trip to Hong Kong in 1997. The facility in which they were staying was not access-friendly for someone in a wheelchair, said his mother, Deb, a single parent who had to carry her son’s wheelchair up and down 250 stairs every morning and evening.
Deb said that, on top of that, a person in a wheelchair was an unusual sight in that part of Hong Kong, and locals sometimes would grab Albright and wheel him to their families to take a photo.
Deb, who was named 2011 Family Caregiver of the Year by Homewatch CareGivers, recalled a moment when a wheelchair-bound elderly gentleman, whom a family had been sheltering, came to the park with Albright. The man kept looking at Albright’s chair, she said, and smiled as he realized there was someone else like him.
People with disabilities are rare there, Albright said.
“They kill disabled people there because they feel they can’t contribute to society,” he said. “I’ve really wanted to do something to bring awareness to the disabled and make things more accessible. I just wanted to show that people with disabilities can contribute to society.”
After losing a friend to muscular dystrophy, Albright devoted himself to his studies and graduated from Hudsonville High School at the age of 16. In February 2011, he graduated a few months early from Grand Valley State University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. At the time, he “wasn’t doing well,” he said, and had just been released from the hospital. The doctors did not believe he was going to live for much longer.
Albright proved them wrong. He received his patent for Xcess-Able that same month, started his company, Albright Insights, and eventually participated in his formal graduation in April.
He is a picture of “unwavering faith,” his mother said, a miracle to show others what faith looks like and to bring hope to those who need to be encouraged.
“Nobody expected it, but Jim’s a fighter. His favorite word is ‘perseverance.’ He’s been through a lot of struggles, but he seems to bounce back,” she said. “He’s never complained. He’s always said, ‘How can I make life better for other people?’ I am a proud mom.”
Depending on the development company, the app production costs can range anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000. Currently, Albright works on the app from home, but he needs money to fund the technology to make the app prototype go public.
It’s an app the public desperately needs, DeMatteis said. “Deb and Jim know because they live this. They’re able to go into an establishment and say, ‘Look, we can tell you where you’re at, areas that are legally ADA-compliant, but they’re not accessible. There’s a difference,” he said.
“It’s not like they want to become the ADA police. They just simply want to make people aware — especially individuals who will have a particular challenge to overcome.”
For Albright, who sometimes reflects on the knowledge that his days are limited, the work is more than a legacy he wishes to leave to other disabled people. It’s an answer to the question about his own value that first arose in his mind in Hong Kong: Can people with a disability contribute to society?
“If they look at my life, they can see the answer,” he said.