When Maayan Ziv and her classmates wrapped up the first week of graduate school classes in Toronto, they wanted to celebrate.

One of Ziv’s classmates suggested they all go to a bar in the area. Most of the group didn’t think twice. But because Ziv is in a wheelchair, she always needs to know if the place she’s going is accessible. It’s a scenario that has played out hundreds of times throughout her life.

But that night was when she got the idea for AccessNow, an app and website that lets people search for and find information about accessible places and experiences. She envisioned it to be a Yelp for accessibility.

By Ziv’s graduation in 2015, she had launched AccessNow as a website. About a year after the website launch, she and her team launched an app version of AccessNow.

Using the AccessNow app. (Courtesy of Maayan Ziv)
Using the AccessNow app. (Courtesy of Maayan Ziv)

If you open AccessNow, you’ll see a map of wherever you are with red, green, yellow and orange pins. Red means the location is not accessible, green is accessible, yellow is partially accessible, and orange means it is patio accessible only. Flagging places as inaccessible not only helps out AccessNow’s users, but it calls out the businesses.

One Toronto business, for example, was inaccessible because it had a step up to the entrance. AccessNow caught the attention of the business on social media.

Soon, the pin went from red to green.

Ziv has plans to turn a lot more red pins green. Initially, Ziv and her friends were the ones placing those pins. They would rate the accessibility of places they went in Toronto. But now, the system is largely user-generated and has pins from all over the world.

Before launching AccessNow, Ziv had never worked on an app or website. She was a portrait photographer focusing mostly on fashion in Toronto.

“I basically was surrounded by people working in an industry focused on beauty and perfection and I felt like me existing in that world alone was kind of my statement to say: ‘Why aren’t there more people with disabilities working in photography or fashion?’ I kind of wanted to break down those barriers.”

And even though she felt like she was making a statement in the fashion industry, she still wanted to do something that was bigger.

For her, AccessNow “became the next step to basically building a platform that would create an actual solution for people to get out and do things instead of always dealing with barriers.”

Ziv currently works on AccessNow full time with two other people, and she says one of the hardest parts has been getting funding, which is hard enough for any startup, but can be especially tough for their concept.

“A lot of people who don’t have experience with accessibility, or know anyone personally who has a disability may think that this is a really small issue,” she says.

But nearly 20 percent of people have some form of a disability. The app also helps people who are temporarily disabled with an injury or people who are pushing strollers and can’t go up stairs easily.

She adds that people who haven’t met her might fall into false stereotypes about what people with disabilities are capable of, “but the reality is that once you’ve met me, or once I’m in your face...those false notions are just so obviously not true.”

It’s this determination, plus the messages that Ziv receives from users, that keep her going. One of the first emails she received after launching AccessNow was from a user in Toronto that used the app to find a pizza place.

When Ziv read that email, she says she cried.

“It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but you could hear that all of a sudden something that might’ve been much more difficult before, was now just a simple and accessible experience. And that was the whole point of building in the first place.”

Part of making experiences accessible for everyone includes just talking about ability and accessibility more, Ziv says. In a time where there’s a lot of conversation around issues of gender, race, sexuality and how identities intersect, we need to also be talking about ability.

“You can be a woman and have a disability, you can be transgender and have a disability,” she says. “Disability spreads across every other group that someone might identify with, but is often left out of the conversation.”

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