Looking to develop job and/or advocacy skills? Planning an outing? Need to go shopping? If you live in the Chicago area, there’s a web-based review site that can help you find disability-friendly businesses that suit your needs.
In recent years, sites like Yelp and Angie’s List have helped consumers around the globe find local businesses that have been vetted by other members of the online community. However, these sites often fail to offer praise and complaints from a disability perspective. In response to this need, Chicago-area filmmaker and parent JJ Hanley established jjslist.com, a 501(C)3 non-profit Web resource that offers people a place to share information about the disability awareness of any business any size, any location, and anytime. You can review and read about which localities score points for being welcoming to people with disabilities — and which do not. Although listings are currently concentrated in the Chicago area, the site’s presence is growing to include other locations throughout the country. Says Hanley, “Just through word of mouth, reviews have come in from 22 different states since jjslist.com launched two years ago.” One such example is DeafTax.com, a national tax preparation company headquartered in Maryland that found the site on its own and has become a supporting business.
Like the broader-based Yelp.com, jjslist.com not only offers a place for consumers to post reviews but also provides a venue for businesses to promote their disability aware features to the disability marketplace. A restaurant that makes Braille or large-print menus available or a dentist who has experience taking care of patients with autism are just a few examples of the hundreds of business that have contributed profiles to the jjslist.com Disability Awareness Directory. Through tweets, blogs and Facebook postings, the cross-ability, volunteer jjslist.com staff encourages visitors to advance the cause of disability advocacy and work directly with businesses to help them become more disability friendly.
The List offers downloadable positive and negative visitor cards that customers can leave with businesses to let them know that they will be reviewed for the disability awareness of their service. “It’s a great way for the disability marketplace to let businesses know that consumers with disabilities will share their praise for disability-aware service and constructive criticism when expectations for disability-aware service haven’t been met,” Hanley says.
For first-time review writers, students with disabilities who are learning self-advocacy or those who need to break the review process into steps, there is a downloadable review worksheet. One version of the review worksheet contains pictures to help non-verbal reviewers make their opinions known. “Students who make supported visits to businesses in the community can complete the worksheet during the visit,” Hanley says. “When they return to the classroom, they can learn the technology step of posting the review on the Internet with the support of a teacher. It’s a great way for students with disabilities to build self-advocacy and technology skills.”
Ken DiVincenzo, a Chicago-area father of a teenager with Down syndrome, shares his experience taking son Scott to restaurants and allowing him to order for himself. “I am sensitive to the interactions that Scott has with the members of the community,” DiVincenzo relates. “Scott’s challenge is to speak slowly, clearly, and with enough volume to be heard and understood. There is a wide range of responses if he is not initially understood. Some order takers will look to me to repeat what he has said. Others will appear uncomfortable as they ask him to repeat himself. Some react impatiently. Some are patient, understanding, and clearly focused on him as he gives his order. I believe in rewarding establishments that ‘get it’ with return visits and by recommending them to friends.” The List offers DiVincenzo the opportunity to broaden that recommendation base to the whole Chicago-area disability community.
When a business joins the Disability Awareness Directory, jjslist.com sends it a counter display, window cling and other materials to help the business promote its disability awareness to the community and raise its profile with the disability consumer. The List recently provided more than 65 Chicago-area companies that had received positive reviews on jjslist.com with promotional materials. Many of those companies already had positive interactions with customers with disabilities, but simply did not know of a way to spread the word. “We help them do that with our sticker and publicity program,” Hanley relates.
DiVincenzo notes that while his son has yet to write a review himself, the family uses jjslist.com to read about the experiences of others. He hopes to show Scott how the website can be a way to self-advocate and thus to demonstrate that he “has as much right as the next guy to expect courteous and respectful service.”
The website, jjslist.com, supports the efforts of reviewers and encourages further consumer opinions through such promotions as Reviewer of the Week. Future incentives might include rewarding frequent reviewers with points or simply designating them as high ranking reviewers.
How the List Came to Be
JJ’s List founder JJ Hanley is known to many as the maker of the national PBS documentary Refrigerator Mothers, a multiple award-winning production that told the stories of a generation of mothers who were wrongly blamed by the medical establishment for supposedly causing autism in their children through frigid mothering. The film was inspired by her own experience as a mother who was blamed in 1996 for her son Tim’s autistic behaviors.
Hanley relates that “during the making of the film, I became more sharply aware of what happens to individuals with disabilities in the adult world after the supports of the education system fall away.” She notes that after schooling, students with disabilities often “simply … ‘fall off the cliff’ of social services.”
“Initially, I thought about a follow-up documentary on the subject of the ‘cliff’,” she says. “But I soon realized I could make more of an impact by creating something proactive that would let people with disabilities and those who care for them have a consumer voice.” The site, jjslist.com is the result of that thinking.
Hanley sought advice from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to help develop an approach that would most benefit people with disabilities. She applied and was accepted as a social entrepreneur, the creator of a business with goals for the greater social good. She worked with students at Booth to create the business model. This led to the site’s current mission: “To bring people with disabilities and businesses together for the benefit of both.”
How the List Differs from Other Consumer Sites
The jjslist.com site differs from most consumer websites in its business model. The site is free to consumers to post reviews. For-profit businesses pay $94.99 per year to mark themselves as disability friendly. Non-profits pay $44.99 annually.
Like any community-driven review site, businesses register their profiles on jjslist.com, not to be guaranteed positive reviews, but because they are aware of the value of customers with disabilities. Sometimes, the act of signing up to be included in jjslist.com opens the door for more positive interactions between service providers and consumers with disabilities. For example, Pace Suburban Bus, a Chicago-area public transportation company, has often exchanged comments with reviewers regarding both negative and positive reviews. “Pace uses the site to communicate with customers in an open way and to resolve the issues that are important to people with disabilities and to provide useful information. It makes them that much more disability-aware in their service,” Hanley says.Hanley says, “We see this model as a win win—a listing is a way for a business to promote itself and to build its awareness by building a dialogue with consumers about disability-aware service. She adds, “Businesses are figuring out that they are not in sole control of their brand—that the on-line community helps to determine their brand, often through social media. Businesses who sign up with us are saying, ‘We want to be a part of the dialogue that determines our brand in the community, and we want to engage directly with the consumer with a disability as a part of our commitment to provide good service to all of our customers.’”
From Consumer Activism to Employment
Providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities, both within the community and on staff for the site, is another goal of jjslist.com. Says Hanley, “We feel that greater opportunity for employment is a natural outgrowth of improved customer service.” The theory is that when a business’s customer base is full of people with disabilities, the employer will be more inclined to hire staff that mirrors those customers.
Hanley says that the volunteer-operated website is already serving as a job readiness training ground for people with disabilities. “We are training individuals with disabilities in communications and Internet skills that are essential for employment in today’s digital world,” Hanley says. “Every time someone posts a review or lists a business, there is an individual with a disability building website management skills by making sure the listing is properly posted. We hope that when grants come through we’ll be able to hire and become a become a model employer of people with disabilities.”
The List presently offers unpaid internships for high school and college students with disabilities to provide training in social media and self-advocacy skills. Hanley hopes to receive enough grant money to pay interns as well.
The JJ’s List “Disability Awareness Players” offer disability awareness training for companies and business associations. Recent clients have ranged from a local YMCA to the Chicago office of the global electronics giant Siemens Corporation. Training provided by the Disability Awareness Players takes the form of an engaging role play experience. “For example, in one skit, we might create a scene where an employee is trying to communicate with someone whose speech is hard to understand,” Hanley says. The Players would demonstrate how to handle such a situation in a confident way by teaching that it’s okay to ask a person to repeat him or herself. “We deliver a serious message in a lighthearted way so that confidence in interacting with disability grows and becomes natural.” Although this approach may seem awkward at first, Hanley relates that “audience members quickly learn that there is no shame on either side in offering or asking for assistance to make communications flow more easily and meet the needs of customer and business.”
Growth and the Future
Hanley has already seen promising growth on jjslist.com, the site having already achieved almost 3000 unique monthly visitors on its present shoestring budget and volunteer energy. The site has more than 1,100 followers on Twitter and over 500 “likes” on Facebook, and both numbers are increasing as word spreads and interest in the site grows.
To help support operations, the organization sponsors an annual “Bridge Builder’s Benefit.” This year’s event will be held on October 13 and will honor several local businesses for their disability awareness during the previous year.
Hanley continues to look for expansion opportunities. “Although reviews can be posted about any business, anywhere, our current capacity limits our marketing efforts to Chicagoland,” she says. “We hope to secure philanthropic investment that will allow us to meet the needs of consumers with disabilities and to help more businesses across the nation reach the disability marketplace. It’s a win-win for people with disabilities, businesses and the community and we are excited and committed to making it happen.”
Edited by Mary-Louise Piner.