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Maayan Ziv: Making the world more accessible

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Maayan Ziv (Max Kopanygin photo)

Maayan Ziv, who was born with muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair since she was a child, is the founder and CEO of AccessNow, a mobile crowdsourcing platform that allows people to search for, rate and discover places based on their level of accessibility. AccessNow recently received a $2.7 million grant from the Canadian government.

How did AccessNow start?

AccessNow began as an idea during the first week of my entrepreneurship master’s at Ryerson University in 2014. The whole week we’d been talking about looking for problems in our lives, or our families. We had plans to go and celebrate the beginning of the year, and AccessNow kind of came out of me wanting to go to this restaurant to celebrate with my friends, and not being able to find out if the place was actually accessible for me.

That initial frustration was the reason that I became so motivated. It was a problem I’d been facing my whole life and I was in a program where I had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time on solving it.

What do you plan to do with the grant?

AccessNow has been live for four years now and we’ve gained so much insight from the community, from people who have directly benefited or have used AccessNow in some way to do something. They’ve contributed a lot of information through emails, social media or getting in touch in-person. They let us know what’s good and what could be better.

So we’ve taken all that feedback and now our focus is to expand and invest in our technology, so it responds to the needs of people who are not just wheelchair users, but people of all different types of abilities. We’ll focus on investing in our community and building out community-based events that are happening across Canada with different partners.

We’ve also heard a lot from different business owners and different organizations that want to reach people with disabilities. So we’re building into the platform an ability for people who need accessibility to engage with organizations that are providing access.

How do you feel about the fact that you were chosen to receive the grant?

Good! It’s an exciting time. AccessNow started as a really small idea, almost as a selfish way for me to solve my own problem. We launched and within two weeks, we made the front page of the Toronto Star and we were on CBC Metro Morning. We had all this exposure because of the Parapan-Am Games. It led to the very quick development of a community that reached literally across the world. We’re in 34 different countries now, and it’s because the concept has resonated with people. It feels good knowing that the Government of Canada has recognized that magic.

Our position has always been that a lot of people think of accessible technology as being this medical thing that you add on, or a gadget of some sort that you give someone with a disability and you hope to help them be almost less disabled. But for us, accessible technology is really about sharing and providing people with insight and information to live their lives in a more accessible way.

So it’s a pretty radical transition away from what people often assume accessible technology can be. It’s really exciting to see the government and the country recognize that and validate that idea, and it really helps us to build that out even bigger than we have been.

READ: NON-PROFITS, MPS LEAD DISABILITY MISSION TO ISRAEL

How does AccessNow impact its users?

It could be the smallest thing, like finding an accessible restaurant that has a washroom in an unfamiliar area. It’s the simple concept of being able to use our app to find an accessible space to let you do something with just a little bit more ease.

We’ve heard stories from people over the years, like, “Hey, thanks so much, I found an accessible restaurant in Kensington Market today,” or, “I used your app to book a hotel in Tel Aviv.” Different amazing stories like that. It’s allowed people to do something with just a little bit less struggle, or a few less barriers in their life.

And then there’s this kind of amazing thing that happens by building technology that empowers people to physically do things – we’ve created a buzz around the concept itself. There’s a lot of awareness and education that’s gone into the community around AccessNow.

Educators and business owners and public policy leaders and other people who are not directly connected to our app are recognizing the shift in thinking around accessibility. They’re motivated to learn more or get involved and help contribute to that shift away from accessibility being for people with disabilities, to accessibility being this really exciting advantage that you can add to your business or your organization or the way that you do things, or however accessibility fits into your world.

How is the Toronto Jewish community in terms of accessibility?

I was connected to the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJCC) a couple years ago through their accessibility and inclusion initiatives, mostly led by Liv Mendelsohn, who reached out to me personally. Through that, I’ve met so many really cool people who are working within the accessibility space within the Jewish community, like Reena, for example. There’s a lot of really great people contributing to this space, which makes me feel awesome, because it’s two of my communities combined.

A couple of years ago, I started hearing about all these different inclusion initiatives being implemented across different synagogues. Now I’m hearing about ramps and barrier-free access to the bimah and things like that. When I was a little kid, my dad would carry me up, but I just took it as a given that I would never go up there again. I think those kinds of initiatives are really important.

Now my hope is that it’s not just the trailblazers like Mendelsohn and the MNJCC and the Schwartz/Reisman Centre doing accessibility work. I would love to see the next step being people in the community at large starting to recognize the value of accessibility.

What are some changes people can make today that would make a difference, beyond just pouring money into infrastructure?

I think the first thing that needs to happen is for people to recognize the reason for creating accessible spaces or accessible experiences. They’re not always physical things – they can be events, they can be language or programming. Often people are still tied to this idea of “I’m legally obligated,” or, “I need to just check off the box and make sure I don’t get in trouble.” It’s almost seen as a nuisance, as a thing that you have to do rather than a thing that you want to do.

Understanding that accessibility is something that can benefit you as an individual, or your business, or your community centre, is the most important thing that people can work to tap into.

For example, if you spend money on renovating your storefront, let’s say, you open your doors not just to people with physical disabilities, but to their families and friends and all of the people connected to them. When I go to a restaurant, I’m not going alone. I’m going with my whole family. And if you include my extended family, that’s 60 people. So it’s a much bigger pool of individuals.

People think, “Oh, accessibility doesn’t affect me.” But really, it does. If you’re a new parent and you’re pushing a stroller, accessibility is something you’re going to benefit from. When you connect all these dots, we’re talking about 58 per cent, roughly, of the population.

So recognizing that accessibility matters to you as a person and to your organization, that’s almost as important as investing in it. If you understand why you need to do it or why you would want to do it, then things like cutting out a bunch of steps and putting in a ramp makes sense and you’re motivated to, rather than feeling like you have to. I think that’s more important in many ways, because it can help people actually feel included, rather than feel like a burden or a nuisance.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity

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