If 26-year-old accessibility expert Maayan Ziv has her way, coffee shops, bars and boutiques will someday be inclusive to all.
Living with muscular dystrophy, the Torontonian is the creator of AccessNow: a website—and now an app—that crowdsources the accessibility of everyday places around your city.
Ziv recently won the Startup Canada Resilient Entrepreneur award, given to Canadians who are shaking up the startup scene. We talked to Ziv, who uses a wheelchair, about the lightbulb moment behind her idea and finding opportunity and strength through disability.
Why does the world need AccessNow?
Two years ago, I started my masters in digital media at Ryerson University. It was the end of the first week of classes, and my classmates wanted to go out and celebrate at this bar off campus. I didn’t know if it was accessible, and no one else did, either. There were no resources to provide me with answers. Everyday and everywhere I go, I have to ask this question—it’s the biggest problem I face in my life. That lightbulb moment really started this journey of finding a solution and developing AccessNow, in which we can begin to answer that specific question for anyone who needs access, or has a disability, or is just interested in learning more about what the world looks like from an accessible perspective.
AccessNow is active in nearly 30 countries. What cities have you found to be the most accessible?
Vancouver! It’s a really good example of what access looks like, and having the 2010 Winter Olympics there really pushed for great accessibility design. I was pretty much able to do anything that I needed, without for a moment thinking will this be accessible or not—it just became an assumption.
Apart from your advocacy work, you’re also a fashion photographer. The fashion industry is known to perpetuate certain standards of beauty. Have you seen any progress towards inclusivity?
In the last couple of years, there’s been more attention on the importance of diversity and inclusion. These conversations have gone on for awhile now, and we’re starting to see more diversity down the runway. But accessibility, or rather people with disabilities, are part of diversity, and I think often that’s forgotten. Once in awhile, you’ll see someone with a disability working within the fashion industry, people like Jillian Mercado, who works as a model in New York and sits on a wheelchair, but I wouldn’t say we are at a point yet where the fashion industry is fully inclusive.
What does being an entrepreneur mean to you as a woman with a disability?
I’ve had this entrepreneurial spirit since I was really young; I’ve always had to look outside the box in order to solve problems. If I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t accessible, I needed to either convince people to go somewhere else, or design some kind of makeshift ramp on the fly. In my photography work, I’ve adapted different lighting equipment and gear to work with heavier lenses. I think people with disabilities have this natural skill set in that they’re problem solvers. If you’re going to be a good entrepreneur, you better know how to solve problems. People often think having a disability must be challenging all the time, but there’s actually a lot of opportunity there, and a lot of strength. My perspective sets me apart from a lot of others working in this field and it has been a really positive thing.
You recently won the City of Toronto Access Award. Congrats! How does it feel to get recognition for helping change the city that you live in?
It’s huge. I’m still kind of in this weird dream-like state where it’s not real to me yet. On an individual level, there’s this fangirl in me who is obsessed with Toronto. I’ve always loved this city, and now there’s this moment where the city loves me back. But for a long a time, it hasn’t been like that. Streetcars in Toronto are such a staple of the city, but forever they weren’t accessible. We are starting to see changes now with some new accessible streetcars, and we are starting to shape a city that is more inclusive. These moments, where the City of Toronto recognizes people for their efforts, is a really great step in the right direction.
What’s next for AccessNow?
We’re just getting started. So far, AccessNow has about 10,000 places on the map and we’re really focused on building the community. People often think you have to have a disability to think about or care about accessibility, and I love to challenge that notion—accessibility really benefits everyone.
You recently met Justin Trudeau at Accessible Canada’s National Youth Forum in Ottawa. What was that like?
He has this celebrity aura to him. He comes in the room and there’s this glow—I can’t really explain it. Everybody in the room kind of gets this excitement. But what I found really special about Trudeau is that by him showing up and talking about accessibility, it really sends a signal about the importance of accessibility in Canada. But yes, he is really dreamy.
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