On the campaign trail: Romney gets his facts wrong

Turns out Jeep isn't moving to China.

There must be pool reporters covering the Romney campaign trail who by November 6 will have the Kid Rock song “Born Free” indelibly burned into their brains. Whenever it plays, for the rest of their lives, they will flinch and remember the campaign-trail – because every time Romney or Ryan appears at an event, it is Born Free that heralds their arrival. Every god-damn time.

It plays again in Defiance, Ohio – just up the road from where I'm staying in Hicksville – when a grinning Mitt Romney strides out to speak to a large and enthusiastic crowd on the high school football field, his hair slightly wind-blown. It was an all-star event; Romney was supported by both Ohio Governor John Kasich and Senator Rob Portman, who had played the role of Barack Obama in Romney's debate preparations.

The audience of around 8,000 was, as usual for Romney, an older, whiter crowd, many who had come in from surrounding counties, Paulding, Williams, Puttnam, Henry, rural farmland areas which are more naturally conservative than the town of Defiance, which has a large United Auto Workers union presence and a huge GM foundry on the edge of town.

Governor Kasich's speech was bullish. “I remember when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter and restored the American dream. And folks, I've got a feeling that this is that kind of election...” but Romney's address was workaday. “That Obama campaign slogan, 'forward'; well it doesn't feel like moving forward to the 23 million Americans out of a job. I'll tell you what does feels like moving forward: getting a new President!” was followed by massed chanting of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” and the re-hashing of Romney's usual stump-speech “five-point plan” to deficit reduction, but – apart from at one point – nothing new to see here; even “you did build that” got an enthusiastic redux.

Local reporter Jack Palmer wasn't too impressed with Romney's performance. “I didn't hear any new stuff,” he tells me. “But he was well-received by the crowd. The atmosphere was pretty good, though – they had some country music singers first.”

One line was new, though, and played especially well for Romney here: “I heard this morning,” he told the crowd, “that Jeep is thinking of moving production to China.”

This would be a huge blow for the President. There is currently an enormous Jeep factory in Toledo, an hour from Defiance, and others in the state and in Michigan, and their survival is a key tenet of Obama's reelection – at a visit to the Toledo plant in June he said that the car “symbolises freedom”.  “I'm not sure about that [Jeep line], says Palmer, skeptically. “I hadn't heard that. You'll have to fact-check that.”

I check it, and unfortunately for Romney it isn't true at all. The line came out-of-context from a Bloomberg interview with a Chrysler executive – in context, he is actually saying that the company is thinking of expanding Jeep into China, not in fact closing and moving plants from the US: good news for American autos, not bad.

To remove all doubt, Chrysler said in a statement that: “Bloomberg recently produced a story that led some to incorrectly believe that all Jeep production could shift to China from North America. That is not true, and Bloomberg quickly amended its story to eliminate any potential inaccurate perception. To be clear, Jeep has no intention of shifting production of its Jeep models out of North America to China.”

Outside the rally, meanwhile, 150-odd Obama supporters and union activists were protesting, including Roger Molnar, a resident of Defiance. He tells me people have come to protest for  wide variety of reasons. “We're for Obama, but there's people with [libertarian candidate] Gary Johnson signs, stop the war with Iran signs, we are the 99 per cenr signs – there are a lot of issues here. The unions have their signs going on.”

Jacob Gallman, a cook at a restaurant in town, is also skeptical of Romney. “Personally, I think some of the stuff he does and says seems like he's almost set up to fail. It's hard to take him seriously.”

Mitt Romney. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.