This is part of the Difference Makers, which highlights some of the people working to make Canada a better place in 2022.
“Accessibility is a basic human right. Period.”
That recent tweet by Toronto entrepreneur Maayan Ziv succinctly summarizes her philosophy, and that of most other people of her generation living with disabilities.
The founder of the AccessNow app has, in recent years, made dramatic strides in making that right a reality.
The premise of the app is simple enough: Empower people with information – in this case about the accessibility characteristics of restaurants, hotels, retail businesses and, eventually, all public spaces – and let them vote with their wallets.
“Accessibility standards and legislation are important but, beyond that, we want the private sector to see accessibility as a competitive advantage, not a burden,” Ms. Ziv says.
Only then, she says, will accessibility become the norm.
About one in five Canadians – 6.2 million – have some form of disability, according to Statistics Canada.
Ms. Ziv notes more than 300,000 people use wheelchairs, and they all have family and friends. Not only that, but the accessibility features that matter to wheelchair users also benefit parents pushing strollers, elders using walkers, athletes with gimpy knees, etc.
“There’s really no downside to accessibility,” she says.
As someone who uses a wheelchair – Ms. Ziv was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition characterized by muscular wasting – she has spent a lifetime finding workarounds to seemingly non-stop access problems.
But one day in 2014, when she headed out for drinks with Ryerson University classmates, she found herself left at the curb because the bar had steps at the entrance.
Eventually, Ms. Ziv manoeuvred her chair down an alley where the restaurant kept its garbage bin, and onto the patio.
But, as she sat there, humiliated and stewing, she realized that, had the group been aware of the barriers, they would have taken their business elsewhere, and it sparked an idea.
The AccessNow app was born.
For the first few years, it was a “scrappy, bootstrapped organization” that relied largely on volunteers and crowdsourcing.
Groups of volunteers would meet in specific neighbourhoods and physically check out the restaurants and bars, noting barriers to access.
The app, which can be downloaded for free, uses a simple colour-coded system: A green thumbs-up for accessible locations, amber for a ramp or other bumps and a red thumbs-down for inaccessible locations.
Users can then click on a pin and get more detailed information about a business such as “stairs at entrance,” “steep ramp,” “automatic doors,” “accessible washroom,” etc., often with photos.
Users can also add reviews, and they can be quite pointed, such as “this hotel is a living nightmare.”
AccessNow started as a Toronto-based project and expanded quickly through word-of-mouth. There’s not only information on Canadian cities from coast-to-coast, but on 35 countries worldwide, and growing.
To date, users have rated more than 200,000 locations and that number is growing by leaps and bounds.
People with disabilities, as well as their family and friends, were desperate for this type of information and eager to share.
Ms. Ziv notes that advances for people with disabilities have long been about assistive technologies, like new devices and gadgets. But her generation, weaned on the world wide web and social media, realized the information is probably an even more powerful tool.
The organization’s big break came in 2019, when the federal government gave AccessNow a $2.7-million grant over three years.
“That money transformed us,” Ms. Ziv says. “It helped me recruit talent and build a more sophisticated technology road map.”
The organization now has 15 full-time staff, a much-higher profile and a broader mission.
While the app still focuses largely on mobility, it has expanded to provide information on a full range of issues. Are there Braille menus? Are there gender-neutral washrooms? Is it a sensory-friendly shopping environment for people with autism? Is a store scent-free?
The way information is collected and shared has also changed.
Crowdsourcing is still important, but AccessNow has also developed partnerships and is using artificial intelligence and algorithms to collect information much more quickly and efficiently.
For example, the Trans-Canada Trail pro-actively set out to map parts of the 27,000 kilometres of the coast-to-coast-to-coast multi-use trail with the help of Paralympians, and then developed a barrier-removal plan.
“It’s a reminder that the outdoors have to be accessible to people with disabilities, too,” Ms. Ziv says.
While AccessNow has focused on the physical world and the built environment, it is also starting to map the digital world. Are government and company websites accessible to people who are blind or deaf, for example.
Ms. Ziv says the COVID-19 lockdowns have, paradoxically, helped many people understand what people with disabilities routinely have to endure.
“During the pandemic, a lot of people, for the first time, experienced what it’s like to not have access to things like restaurants, stores, offices, and how isolating that can be,” she says.
“I’m really hoping that will be a wake-up call.”
The pandemic also resulted in many stores installing automatic doors and spacing out tables, which has also benefited wheelchair users.
Ms. Ziv says that the push for universal accessibility is particularly strong among younger people who see it not as “nice to have” but as a fundamental right, and one that’s being enshrined in legislation.
In June 2019, Parliament adopted the Accessible Canada Act, whose goal is to make Canada barrier-free by 2040. The law imposes a number of legal obligations on federally-regulated employers, but Ms. Ziv hopes that political and economic pressure will push the private sector to follow suit, or even take a leadership role.
She notes, however, that the Canadian legislation comes almost 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has had a tremendous impact in the U.S.
Frankly, it’s embarrassing that we’re decades behind on the U.S.,” she says.
“We have a lot of catching up to do and, hopefully, AccessNow is contributing to that change.”
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