On December 3rd, the world comes together to recognize the United Nation’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities and spotlight the importance of continuing to promote and empower those with accessibility needs to ensure no one is left behind. At Microsoft, we believe technology has a unique ability to break down barriers. It is our mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more, so this day holds particular significance to us and our community.
We are inspired by our community every single day. We have the privilege of working alongside Canadians who are using technology to make the world more accessible and inclusive for everyone. One of these remarkable people is Maayan Ziv, Founder and CEO of AccessNow, a mobile app and website that collects and shares information about the accessibility status of places worldwide.
What started as one person’s idea has grown to be an exciting movement vocalizing unique experiences of thousands of people around the world. Maayan started the app in Toronto with just a couple of places on a map – today, AccessNow is sharing accessibility information about places in 36 countries and counting.
Recently named one of WXN’s Most Powerful Women in Canada and one of Microsoft’s #MSFTChangeAgents, Maayan is a shining star in our community. To celebrate her work, Microsoft’s Ricardo Wagner – Accessibility Lead Canada, hosted an engaging Q&A with Maayan which we have shared below.
Can you provide a brief background on yourself and your journey into advocacy and entrepreneurship?
I grew up with a disability, I’ve used a wheelchair throughout my entire life and I feel like I was born to be an entrepreneur because it seems that that’s what the world has asked of me. Ever since I was a little girl I have been carving out my own path in order to do the things I want, to find a sense of independence and belonging. The reality is that the world is still not truly accessible to people with disabilities like myself so I need to think outside the box; from building makeshift ramps on the fly with 2x4s, to redesigning activities on the playground as a child. I’ve just always had to get creative and invent new ways of doing things so that I could connect with my community and my environment. What I’ve realized as an entrepreneur is that we need to innovate if we are going to make the world more accessible. This deep and passionate need for change is where my sense of advocacy stems from.
Tell us about your app, AccessNow and how it’s grown.
AccessNow really began out of the need to solve my own problem. Since I use a wheelchair to get around, I always need to know whether the places I am going are actually accessible. The frustration I was experiencing every time I’d show up somewhere with steps at the front door or broken elevators, for example, was the catalyst that lead me on my entrepreneurial journey to launch AccessNow. On the app, people can search for specific places like stores, hotels, office buildings, parks, etc., or browse to discover inclusive spaces that meet their accessibility needs. The way we go about collecting this information is through the power of crowdsourcing, which means that anyone can contribute to this global movement we are building. It’s as easy as adding a new pin on the map. The more pins added, the more useful the platform becomes for the entire community.
How important is technology in creating a more accessible world?
Technology can be an incredibly empowering factor for people with disabilities. It’s through the use of innovative technologies that we have the potential to break down so many barriers, for all people. Technology has the power to bring us together and empower us to reach new heights. For people with disabilities specifically, tech can also offer a new-found sense of freedom and independence. This is only possible so long as the technologies we design are actually inclusive and accessible too. Without the awareness that technology needs to be accessible itself, we run the risk of creating new barriers, instead of creating access.
Given your goal of providing accessibility for all, what’s next for you?
My goal is to create a more accessible world and I believe it will take a fundamental culture shift to make this happen. A culture shift that recognizes the strengths that every person has to offer; a culture shift that values diversity and empowers people of all abilities to reach their full potential. Next steps for me include big updates to the AccessNow platform, collaborating with influential leaders like Microsoft that are paving the way by demonstrating what true accessibility leadership looks like, and rallying communities everywhere to work together to help create this meaningful change. Just as we have seen the environmental movement radically transform our relationship to the planet and how we do business, I believe the accessibility movement will contribute to positively transforming our relationships to each other and the spaces we inhabit.
What advice would you give leaders of all types – whether that’s CEOs of a company like Microsoft, small business owners or policy makers – about how they make spaces and places more inclusive for everyone?
I think people still have this assumption that accessibility is only for people with disabilities, but that’s far from the truth. Every time you take an elevator, read the captions of a video, or hear an auditory announcement on the bus, you’re benefiting from an aspect of accessibility. The reality is that we all benefit from accessible, inclusive design. Accessibility contributes to better experiences, it contributes to better customer service, and it contributes to creativity at large. Understanding accessibility as innovation is a really important shift to how we approach the topic. I encourage everyone to think about how accessibility can be an exciting opportunity to innovate and a competitive advantage to what they do. Just remember, accessibility benefits everyone.
Aside from AccessNow, what other accessible technology are you really excited about right now?
I’m really excited about the amazing new accessible innovations we are seeing in the tech space. From incredible things like Microsoft’s Soundscape app that helps people who are blind or have low-vision to navigate spaces using audio cues, to the new Xbox Adaptive Game Controller that promotes inclusive gaming. Even innovations like Cortana, Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Home are inclusive technologies that enable all people to do things with more ease. These may not strike people as inherently accessible technologies but for millions of people with disabilities, being able to control a smart device at home on voice command, or have an email read to you can be incredibly empowering and liberating experiences. I think we have just begun to scratch the surface when it comes to accessible technology. I’m betting that we are going to see some fascinating new accessible innovations that leverage AI in the next few years.