How a 14-Year-Old Is Building a Yelp for Accessibility in Major Cities

Alex Knoll's concept app could make getting around easier for people living with a disability.

Ability App inventor

Alex Knoll is nervous about starting high school in Coeurs d’Alene, Idaho, next fall, but not only because of the harder assignments and new social scene. He’s worried about managing his startup, which received $25,000 from Ellen Degeneres while he was still in middle school.

Alex Knoll is the 14-year-old inventor of Ability App, a mobile app that, when it launches later this year, will function like Yelp, but for people with disabilities. Ability App will connect people with disabilities related to mobility, vision, hearing or cognition with businesses that have the resources to accommodate them.

Knoll says he has dedicated the bulk of his free time for the past four years working the app — his parents have homeschooled him to help him keep development going. In 2017, he was a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show where she presented him with a $25,000 check to keep up his work with the project.

“After I was on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, I received over 30,000 emails from people talking about how this tool would change their lives,” Knoll tells Inverse. “There were definitely some very emotional things that people have said. They’ve said how life-changing this app would be for them, because there’s really nothing out there like it.”

alex knoll young innovators
Knoll on 'The Ellen DeGeneres Show' in 2017. 

There are few cities out there that are truly accessible for all residents. In New York, only one-quarter of subway stops are wheelchair accessible. Due to a loophole in the Americans with Disabilities Act, US restaurants don’t have to provide Braille menus to blind diners as long as it is posted online. In 2016, the United Nations acknowledged that the current lack of accessibility in cities around the world “presents a major challenge.”

“I have a lot of friends with disabilities who have helped me get an overview,” Knoll says. “They’ve helped me get finalized [on] specific features on the app.”

How Ability App Works

The basis for the app is simple in theory, but far more difficult in practice. He envisions a pulldown menu that would allow a person to select their particular disability, which would then let them sort through local businesses that are rated on a scale of one to five stars on their accessibility for that particular disability. That functionality, he says, has already taken rounds of testing and years to perfect.

Thinking past his 2019 launch date, he’s already thinking even bigger: He wants the app to feature a job board and reviews from users — a digital ecosystem that goes beyond the widely embraced accessibility maps that have already drawn a lot of attention to the inequities built into modern cities.

ability app alex knoll
Knoll's app can sort businesses according to several different types of disabilities 

Knoll says he looks up to Apple CEO Tim Cook, whose company has made accessibility a priority in its hardware, notably in the wheelchair-optimized Apple Watch.

“He’s been a hero of mine for a long time,” Knoll says of Cook. “He doesn’t just care about business; he knows that it’s important to focus on the needs of others in his products.”

Knoll says he devotes a few hours a day to answering emails from potential users before starting on homeschool assignments. But he also likes riding his bike, drawing, tennis and pickleball. This fall, he begins high school and leaves the home-school/Ability App routine behind. That brings its own set of challenges and opportunities.

“I’m hoping that this school will hopefully accept some of the things I’ll be working on,” he says. “But I really want to get back to seeing kids my own age and going to school.”