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"Barriers come from the environment, not from a disability".

Our mobilizer of the week, Sandra Witzel, wants to make mobility usable for everyone. Because many mobility offers exclude people: People with disabilities, financially disadvantaged groups, the elderly or people without smartphones. She says: The awareness is often there, but the implementation is lacking.

Sandra Witzel is Chief Marketing Officer and a member of the board of SkedGo in England; an international Mobility-as-a-Service (Maas) provider. SkedGo makes its technology available to startups and businesses, but also to municipalities and governments, so they can offer their own MaaS applications. "We want to make mobility usable for everyone, not just the narrow group of 20- to 40-year-olds who live in inner cities," Witzel says.

She is also personally committed to barrier-free, inclusive mobility and is a co-founder of Women in Mobility UK. And that's despite the fact that she had nothing to do with mobility at all at the beginning of her professional life, Witzel says.

From online gambling to accessible mobility

"I had ended up in the online gambling industry. There, you made a fast career, earned well and the development opportunities in the job were very good," says Witzel. "But the fact that you cause harm with what you do was something I quickly couldn't reconcile with my conscience." She migrated to Australia and initially worked in the fin tech industry. "But I also realized: I don't have the passion for that."

She ended up at SkedGo more by accident, she says. A good friend of hers from Australia, who co-founded the company, had asked her if she wanted to take care of marketing. "We've always gotten along really well, so I jumped in, but at first it was also just a job for me. I didn't have much personal connection or particular passion for it."

That changed, she says, when she discovered her personal connection to mobility and brought that to marketing the product. Witzel says, "I live with disability. I've had severe rheumatism for more than 20 years, and as a result I have problems with walking, with my joints, and suffer from chronic pain."

I was preparing a presentation for a conference and I thought to myself: this is such a really boring business presentation. And then I realized: I do have a personal connection to mobility, I'm also a mobility user, and the mobility industry causes me a lot of problems. It makes my life really difficult. I then integrated that into this presentation.

Sandra Witzel, CMO and board member at SkedGo

By incorporating her personal experience with mobility, she said, not only did she enjoy the presentation more, but the audience responded very differently. "I realized that I had to jump over my shadow a bit and bring in the personal. Which wasn't easy at first. You don't necessarily always want to talk about your disability."

In the meantime, she says, this no longer causes her any problems, because her personal connection to the topic of accessibility and inclusive mobility allows her to make a difference in the industry. "People find a completely different approach to the topic when I stand on stage and talk about how I can't get in and out of a train compartment because there's a gap of one meter between the boarding and the platform - and what that means for my quality of life."

The awareness is often there, she says, but the implementation is lacking

Witzel is now a sought-after speaker on the topic of accessibility at conferences and sits on the board of several non-profit organizations that advocate for inclusive and sustainable mobility.

I arrived in the mobility industry rather by accident but can hardly imagine doing anything else now and am very passionate about it. It really pays to work on your own personal niche and invest time in activism. My job satisfaction and motivation are tremendous.

Sandra Witzel, CMO and board member at SkedGo

But the situation has changed little or nothing so far, she says. In Great Britain in particular, mobility for people with physical disabilities is a major challenge. "I think Germany and the Scandinavian countries are much, much further ahead. Also because they invest more in public transportation and infrastructure," she says. In contrast, she says, there is often the excuse in the U.K. that the infrastructure is so old that it cannot be barrier-free. "That's why the U.K. has big problems with too many cars on the road and lots of barriers. It's very frustrating here and not much has changed in recent years, unfortunately. 'Old infrastructure' is an excuse for lack of investment and misguided priorities."

The biggest hurdles in public transportation: getting on and off the bus.

There is hardly any public transport in the UK that is accessible, Witzel says. Buses are still the easiest to use, he says - if drivers move the vehicle close enough to the sidewalk. "You have problems, for example in London, with the subway. Compared to the size of the whole network, there are very few tube stations that are completely barrier-free," she says. It's even worse with regional rail networks.

Because of the large distances between the track and the train, she says she has to book travel escorts to get on and off. Not much has changed here in the last 20 years, Witzel says. People with disabilities can hardly use them without help, if at all, as long as they don't have an assistant by their side.

I drive a lot in England, or use ride sharing services, which is easiest for me. Even if I'm stuck in traffic, I can get from A to B without any problems. I don't have to argue with a bus driver or worry that I won't get off the train because the travel companion didn't show up.

Sandra Witzel, CMO and board member at SkedGo

The situation won't change without political pressure, Witzel said. "As soon as the pressure is there, solutions are found and then you also find the money for it. Otherwise, unfortunately, nothing happens." Instead, he said, the responsibility is shifted to the passengers: they have to take care that they can use public transport. In the private sector, things are different to some extent, he says, because companies here are under greater competitive pressure. But even there, the answer to the question of accessibility is often: there is a ramp.

Witzel says: "For many people, a ramp is of little use. They need permanent step-free access. After all, that doesn't just help people with disabilities, but also parents with strollers or small children, the elderly, people with temporary impairments, and so on. That's really not a small group now."

She says she saw a good example of this step-free access in Reykjavík. There, many stores don't have a step in front of the door, but gently raise the sidewalk so that people with a walker, stroller, wheelchair or wheelie suitcase can enter the stores without barriers. Without having to ask first if someone could bring them a portable ramp. It's a good solution for everyone, Witzel said.

"After all, the barriers don't come from my disability, but from my environment. That's why I think the requirement should be that the environment adapts, not the person who is disabled."

Inclusion also means creating solutions for people without smartphones.

SkedGo is currently working on a project with an NGO and the government in the U.S. that focuses specifically on mobility for people with disabilities or other disadvantaged groups. There, MaaS technology could make life easier for many. Witzel gives an example:

"One of our project partner's clients is studying law, is blind and has to organize how to get to lectures and back home every week. These transports can only be booked a certain time in advance, so he has to call them twice a week and wait on hold for a contact person. He spent more than 250 hours a year on the phone as a result." With an appropriate screenreader-friendly app through which he books his rides, the man has regained a huge chunk of his life, he says.

Apps aren't the panacea either, however, he said. "If you really want to be inclusive, you have to take into account people who don't have a cell phone or a bank account. That's a big problem in the U.S. in particular," Witzel says.

After all, we all get old and decrepit at some point. So why aren't we creating mobility systems for our 80-year-old selves? I think that's extremely short-sighted.

Sandra Witzel, CMO and board member at SkedGo

Accordingly, SkedGo's client in the U.S. also works with call centers, and cash can be used to pay in the vehicles. Because contactless and cashless payments with cell phones also exclude many groups, he said. "They then stay at home."



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