For many, getting places has never been easier. In today’s day and age, walking, driving, transit, and cycling directions to almost any given location are at Canadians’ fingertips, and people can pull up venues’ menus and reviews at a moment’s notice. But for the millions of Canadians with disabilities, venue selection and digital route planning can be far more frustrating, since crucial details about accessibility are often left out of the equation.
It’s an issue that the Canadian government has committed to addressing with a $2.7 million investment in Toronto-based startup AccessNow. Founded by Maayan Ziv, AccessNow pinpoints accessible locations and crowdsources information on the accessibility of public spaces (restaurants, bars, venues, shops) via its app in 35 countries.
The funding, part of the federal government’s $22.3-million Accessible Technology Program, aims to expand AccessNow’s reach within the country to further break down Canadians’ barriers to accessibility. It also builds upon the government’s recently passed Accessible Canada Act, which will introduce new accessibility legislation across Canada.
These moves are important, but according to experts in the space, true accessibility needs to go far beyond compliance — since for the 22 percent of Canadians with disabilities, everyday challenges aren’t always solved by what regulatory bodies have deemed proficient.
“That word, ‘compliance,’ scares me a bit,” says Ziv, whose advocacy work with AccessNow earned her Public Policy Forum’s Emerging Leader Award earlier this year. “Often people think that compliance is the goal, like that’s the final goal we need to achieve: ‘We need to make sure that we’re following the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) protocols, we’ll do the checklist training, we’ll make sure that we are compliant.’ But compliance shouldn’t be the goal. Compliance should be the minimum.”
Going above and beyond doesn’t have to be a challenge for companies and workplaces to address. As Ziv explains, it is about shifting the narrow — but common — narrative that workplace updates for accessibility and inclusion are expensive and only of service to a subgroup of employees.
“We need to get to the point where people realize that accessibility actually benefits everyone. It shouldn’t be about something you do for a specific group of people, so you’re just going to kind of chug through it and it’s not fun and it’s expensive,” Ziv says. “That’s the wrong conversation. It should be something exciting.”
These changes in the workplace can be part of a competitive advantage and part of a larger culture of inclusion that is beneficial to everyone involved. What then, does Ziv recommend organizations amend to go beyond compliance and start approaching actual accessibility? Ziv outlines three ways that accessibility can be engaged and integrated in the workplace (and life in general).
“The first one, I would say, is if you don’t know about accessibility, go and learn,” Ziv says. “It’s really, really important for every person, at any position that they’re in, to understand how accessibility could affect or impact the work that they do.”
We often have a narrow view of when and where accessibility should come into the conversation, even in the world of social impact, but it’s something that employees at every level need tailored training and awareness of. “If you’re a designer learning about good design, learning about principles that are inclusive and figuring out a way to integrate those into your work is something really important,” she says.
Hire a diverse & representative workforce
Organizations are increasingly coming to realize the value of hiring a diverse and inclusive workforce, which is undoubtedly a step forward — but according to Ziv, disabilities aren’t a part of that conversation often enough.
“I think when it comes to diversity and inclusion, when people get up and give speeches about what it means to represent a diverse workforce or how you can actually achieve inclusion, often people will forget to mention people with disabilities as being part of that equation,” Ziv says.
To combat that trend, Ziv will often ask how many people working at a certain organization identify with the lived experience of disability.
“Often people don’t know or don’t have an answer. It’s not necessarily about labeling, but getting to a point where organizations are accountable and are actually actively working to make sure that their workforce is diverse and includes people with disabilities,” Ziv says. “[This] is really important—because [it] helps actually transform the company and transform what it is that that company is doing.”
Ziv explains that this can be another positive, competitive advantage for a company. Ziv, who was born with a disability, invokes how her problem-solving skills have been shaped by living in spaces designed for non-disabled persons.
“Hiring those with a knack for problem-solving is something that every organization should be looking to do, and people with disabilities kind of live that experience and often can bring those skillsets to the table,” Ziv says.
To hire with inclusivity in mind, organizations need to go beyond their usual checklists or job hiring tactics, and instead enter into new spheres and networks to match work opportunities to those with disabilities.
Become an activist
Once you know better, you should do better — and becoming an active participant in advocating for change is important step in integrating accessibility into not just one’s office, but their entire life.
“Contribute to active change,” Ziv says. She continues:
“It’s not enough to simply know about accessibility or the barriers that people with disabilities experience and think, ‘Okay, well, I’m sure that there’s someone else out there who’s been working on solving this problem.’
If you recognize the importance of it and you’ve done your research and you’ve learned about it — even if it’s just as simple as going on YouTube for 20 minutes and learning from bloggers who have disabilities or going on Twitter — figure out how to stay active to actually help create change. Because if every single person around the world did one thing, once in their life even, just to help remove a barrier, that would be instant impact.”
Being able to identify ways in which to expand access; engaging and educating oneself to the importance of accessibility; and becoming active in creating change – these three actions can lead to a more inclusive and accessible workplace that goes beyond compliance. Because beyond the large, systemic change that needs to take place, there are things that any individual can do.
“It can be small things,” Ziv says. “They can be something as simple as realizing, you know, that if you’re crossing the sidewalk and notice that there’s a two-by-four in the middle of the street, if you move that, most likely someone with a mobility device is going to be thankful. You know, little things even can help.”