Bridging the Gap

Meet the entrepreneur making Iceland more accessible

Claire Sibonney Published Feb 8, 2024 14:16:29 IST
Bridging  the Gap Meet the entrepreneur making Iceland more accessible, Photo: Haraldur (Halli) Thorleifsson

Late one night in July 2020 in Reykjavik, where the sun never fully sets in summer, Haraldur (Halli) Thorleifsson was wandering around the city’s main shopping street with his wife and two kids. It was shortly after they had moved from the United States back to his home country; they were jet-lagged and couldn’t sleep.

During their walk, his three-year-old son was thirsty and wanted a drink from the corner store. But Thorleifsson soon discovered he couldn’t help with the simple request: A 20-centimetre step blocked his access to the store.

The barrier was all too familiar. Born with muscular dystrophy, which causes progressive weakness and muscle loss, Thorleifsson, now 46, has been using a wheelchair since age 25. As he waited outside the shop for his wife and children, he recalls, “I thought about how strange it is that we separate families in this way. I thought about all the times I wasn’t able to join my friends at restaurants and stores that are inaccessible.”

Living all over the world as a creative director and digital designer, Thorleifsson had witnessed first-hand how different cities consider and plan for accessibility, from ramps and sidewalks to public transportation.

Having sold his digital creative agency, Ueno, to Twitter (now X), Thorleifsson now had the means to make a difference in his home city. So he embarked on a project to make Iceland wheelchair accessible, one ramp at a time.

Ramp Up Reykjavik launched as a non-profit in 2021 with a goal to build 100 ramps, mostly in the city’s downtown, within a year. Unlike portable and temporary solutions in other cities, these ramps are permanent structures that match the aesthetic of the buildings, making them appear as if they’ve always been there.

It’s a design detail that helps provide a sense of inclusivity: These ramps, and those who need to use them, belong. Thorleifsson says it was important to provide a permanent fix.

With the help of government funding and sponsors, the Ramp Up team finished ahead of schedule and has broadened its scope, with the goal of 1,500 ramps countrywide—costing about 400 million Icelandic krona—by 2026.

“We want our society to be inclusive,” Iceland’s president, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, told Reader’s Digest. “That means we must ensure equal accessibility for all. This should be obvious, yet the Ramp Up project has opened our eyes not only to the need for improvement but also to how easy it is to get things done when we all join hands. Halli has led by example.”

In three short years, Thorleifsson has become a legend in his hometown, where he’s known as a “benevolent tech titan.” He was named Iceland’s Person of the Year in 2022 by four of the country’s main media outlets. He also runs a trendy cafe and cinema and opened the country’s largest co-working space.

Thorleifsson is proud that Ramp Up has motivated others to act. He recently met a woman who was inspired to build a ramp at her home, allowing her friend of 30 years who uses a wheelchair to easily visit.

“Equal access is not a reality yet,” says Thorleifsson. But as he’s learnt, change starts with just one person.

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