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Edition #3
Waves and Paths
Anja Radonjic
Edited by Andrei Andronic

“In an inaccessible city, my disability becomes the centre of everything” : a conversation with Ena Kapetanovic, social tech entrepreneur and founder of WeMapp, a navigation app for people with a mobility disability

“What are your plans now?” Ena’s cheerful voice disrupts the silence, “I want to take you to the Blind Tiger, they have the best cocktails in Sarajevo.” The three o’clock sun was threatening to take the last bits of basswood tree shade in front of the Historical Museum, where Ena and I were wrapping up a work event. Guests and participants had already left, but Ena stayed on to make sure everything was cleared up, and to keep me company. She was incredibly good at giving directions, almost authoritarian in her meticulousness.

Like a stern stage manager, everyone diligently followed her advice and direction: “I think you can try and return the last box of drinks since we didn’t open it”, she quickly explains to the event helpers, while still on the phone with her work colleagues from Ministry of Programming, where she works full time as a Product Manager. In her true fashion, she jokes with the hires who were removing  tables and chairs, and soon enough they go from strangers to acquaintances. She has an acute talent to make people feel special. I notice her squirm a bit in the seat of her wheelchair, which I had quickly learned was a sign of a well-needed stretch. Left leg over the right, and feet slightly tucked behind the foot-rest. 

Ena is used to working for an entire day, and sleep three to five hours each night, but with her unwavering smile and gleeful blue eyes, you would think she is ready to have a jump-start at life at any minute of the day. We met two months earlier, while she participated in an entrepreneurship program in New York. The traffic-jammed grid of streets and avenues now seemed like a different world to the cobbled, narrow streets of Sarajevo, situated in a valley of the river Miljacka. Yet, for Ena the cities shared a certain similarity, as they brought incredible difficulty of getting around. This was my first time in Sarajevo, and like many visitors, I imagined the city of intertwined Ottoman charsias, where the locally made jewellery lures you into run-down artisan shops, a city where neighbours still come together in the shade of back gardens over coffee and bureks. For Ena, her Sarajevo was “an embodiment of contradictory”.

“It’s a city where the most amicable people live in the most inaccessible environment.” Ena goes on. “Over half of my life I’ve spent in a wheelchair and looked at my city from a lower perspective; it’s contradictory for not having access to anything, and people ready to help if you ask.” We spoke in front of the Historical Museum, a slightly desolate low-level building from the time of Yugoslavia. The only way to get to the entrance would be across wobbly, run-down white stone blocks that used to be stairs. There was no step-free road, and no ramp, whether improvised or not. Ena nods her head at this observation, explaining that this is exactly a part of her daily life.  “I was forced to problem-solve early on, as I was faced with lack of escalators, or wheelchair designated space in the classrooms.” Most of the current elementary and high schools across the Balkans were built in the 1960s, and in similar style to the Historical Museum. Usually, the school entries can only be accessed by a cascade of wide, or narrow stairs. My lips tightened, as this thought has not occurred to me over all years at school.

“But when I reflect on all of it, I am actually grateful because I am more resilient, I think quickly on my feet ( she chuckled after making this pun), and solve any issue in minutes.'' Ena tried to ease my solemn facial expression, “That also translated into my professional life.”

During one of our first conversations in New York, Ena mentioned she had already travelled to twenty countries so far. What for an average person would be simply booking tickets and places to stay, and perhaps mentally preparing for delays or cancellations, for Ena it takes months of preparation, but it signifies a great sense of her own independence. “A goal of mine has always been to keep growing. To do more, feel more, experience more – to simply become more. Travelling really gives you room to grow.” Ena went on with explaining her routine for preparation.“The preparation leading to a trip is the dreadful part, usually taking me to organise for at least 6 to 12 months. This includes finding scattered information about accessible accommodation, public transport, museums, restaurants and how to generally move around the city.”

In that moment, I thought of all the people’s get-away weekends, spontaneous one day trips, to which she smiled, and answered “The ability to just ‘go with the flow’ and roam around the city is not extended to me – I must always be thinking about accessibility in the back of my mind.” I assisted her in preparation of her arrival to New York. For two months, I struggled to find adequate care for Ena. I  had to personally visit and check what booking sites would claim to be an accessible room, or an accessible venue, since the places would usually have limited space for her wheelchair to be manoeuvred inside the room. I remember how we both found it odd that fire emergency measures have priority over accessible entry, as all the doors were incredibly heavy to open, and would require someone to accompany her. She nodded, “you can imagine how this anxiety may deter individuals with disabilities from travelling to unfamiliar cities.”

By the time Ena arrived in New York, I already grew accustomed to the grid-like city, and found great solitude in being indistinguishable from the New York crowd.  Ena’s arrival changed my perception of New York. While steering her wheelchair, I’ve seen a city often painfully unaware of people with disabilities, that often even endangered their routines, and how they go about daily business. It was difficult to navigate and move around the unapologetic fast-paced walkers, who often crashed into Ena. The street terrain resembled a practice field- with steep, often insurmountable cracks on the concrete, steep angles from the pedestrian walk to the crossing. New York was a long-awaited dream for Ena, especially after a two year delay in the facilitation of the program due to Covid. I wondered how she recalled  the first few days after finally arriving. “For me, NYC truly sustains an ideal way of life with adventure and opportunities on every corner, stores, offices and cultural attractions often just a few blocks away. Yet, for a city that is considered one of the world’s largest and most diverse, it was the least accessible when it comes to public transportation.”

“Do you remember”, she recalls , “the very first day, I got stuck on a subway because the escalator did not work?” That first week, I remember seeing fearfulness and frustration, which her usually defiant face tends to hide, but each time the subway came to a strong break at each stop, her wheelchair rocked lef-to-right, and brought out her genuine fear of falling out. “Everyday before I went out, I had to think about: What’s the weather like today? Do I need to carry a big bag or just my laptop bag? Can I be late? Your natural inclination is that you choose the best possibility, but the list gets very constrained when you use a wheelchair, so suddenly, there is really one subway station to use, not even closest to my hotel. You only have one choice. And it’s not even your choice; somebody has already chosen for you.”

Now, we finally sat down in the Blind Tiger, and Ena contently swirled the straw of her Che Guevara cocktail. Her eyes widened, and that child-like genuineness about her came out, as she pushed her glass towards me: “Anja, you got to try this, isn’t it delicious, try.” Her genuine excitement about the smallest things is infectious; the world becomes a place filled with curiosities and undiscovered potential. This curiosity also underlines  her meticulous work as a product manager, an unusual career to pursue in the Western Balkans, where most people with graduate degrees are economists, lawyers, and architects. I wondered what made her choose the world of tech, especially as a woman, and a person with a disability. “As a wheelchair user, the thought of lines of code, an application, a machine, or even a robot being able to help me do the things I never imagined I could do independently fuelled my fascination.” But Ena is not simply satisfied with using technology, she wants to be a creator of it, too. When she first told me about her app, due to the lack of my knowledge about development of platforms and possible working models, I conceptualised Ena’s app as the new, revamped Google Maps. When describing the challenges for even starting this ambitious platform, Ena explains, “in its essence, WeMapp is an outdoors navigation platform that came to existence in a time everybody was living indoors. It was a lesson into how challenging the world of start-ups is, and that only those ideas and companies that quickly learn to adapt to new circumstances and conditions survive.”

“WeMapp is the AI & community-based end-to-end accessibility platform that enables people with different mobility impairments to move around by providing pedestrian navigation based on their motor ability. It helps people commute safely and independently anywhere by mapping street obstacles, detecting accessibility levels, and providing customised routes taking into account users’ mobility type.” As I swipe through the glossy mint green demo version of her platform, her hopefulness comes through: “we are building a world where accessibility will be just another word in the dictionary.”

I think accessibility encapsulates another entirely different mindset, for me, and perhaps for all able bodied people. The time spent with Ena was like wearing different glasses. I’ve begun to notice the intricate details of a pedestrian walk, and I became more spatially aware - how wide things are, how narrow… Friendship with Ena is like waking up from a life lived in comfortable,self-soothing slumber; I was ashamed of myself and of the general lack of proper urban planning, as if our own comfort, our own sense of dignity, is too complicated to extend to people with a disability. For Ena, it’s the communication that is the key in all of it. “We are very aware of our surroundings and infrastructure at all times, and when someone tries to help, even with the right intention, they still do it in a way that puts our disability first rather than the person. If you are unsure of how you should interact with a person with a disability, just ask them. Do not give assistance without asking first if they want it. Respect someone’s choice even if they look like they are really struggling. We like to be as independent as we can, and we need to have that independence.”

Before we said our good-byes, and as we talked about the world of smart tech and constant innovation, I asked Ena how she envisions a truly accessible city. “For me, an accessible city is an inclusive, smart, connected, human-centred space.” Ena smiles, “From barrier-free accessibility in buildings, streets and nature to education, work, leisure, health services, public transport networks and easy-to-understand information. Access needs to be planned in order to be effective, and that planning needs to apply in all circumstances. Real accessibility doesn’t just mean installing a ramp in the bus, fixing raised side curbs or putting a bell at the door of an inaccessible building so that a staff member can come and tell you they can carry you up the stairs. It's in every aspect of life.”

Finally catching her breath, I could see her mind mapping out the ideal city, as she calmly said “An accessible city, for me, equals independence, and that is being able to go about my day, get to wherever I need to be and do whatever I need to do, without needing to spend extra money or ask strangers to help me. In an inaccessible city, my disability becomes the centre of everything. But when barriers are taken away I don’t have to think about it – I can just be me.”

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