As someone who uses a wheelchair, navigating the world can be frustrating — especially since so many places are not accessible. For example, there have been times when I’ve been so excited to travel to amazing new places, but when I show up at my hotel there are five steps to the entrance. Every time I leave my house, I'm experiencing a barrier or question mark about if I can access places in a wheelchair.
Determined to create a more accessible world, I launched my startup AccessNow in 2016 as a go-to resource for accessibility information. Our mobile and web-based application allows people to search, rate, and discover accessible locations based on types of access criteria including wheelchair accessibility, availability of ramps and elevators, accessibility for people with guide dogs, scent-free areas, gender neutral washrooms, lighting and sound levels and more. In 2021, AccessNow was chosen to be a part of Google for Startups Accelerator: Canada, an equity-free, 10-week accelerator program designed to bring the best of Google's programs, products, people and technology to Canadian startups. This particular accelerator program was aimed at companies like mine that currently use or plan to use machine learning and AI to power their products.
Through the program, I learned more about product development, the power of AI, and how mentorship can help grow a business. Here’s a look at how Google mentorship and support from the Google for Startups Accelerator helped me take my company to the next level and how AccessNow works to increase accessibility for people around the world.
Building products with accessibility at the center makes better products
At AccessNow, we are building with, for, and by the disability community. This includes people who identify as having a disability and anyone who has a question about accessibility — like friends and families of people who use wheelchairs or people who may prefer to avoid stairs like parents with strollers. We have an inherent user-centric commitment to do everything inclusively from the start, which is how the next generation of product development should look for everyone.
AI lets us focus more on our community
My specific Google for Startups Accelerator cohort had an AI focus. It was a perfect fit for AccessNow’s needs as we were starting to investigate how we could use AI to advance techniques around sharing information about the accessibility of spaces. Leveraging data to build new value is really what AccessNow is focusing on, and the ability to use places data from Google Maps Platform helps us further our mission. Since attending the program, there have been enhancements in accessibility data from Google Maps. We’re currently developing how we use this data so we can spend more time focusing efforts on engaging and empowering our community.
Mentorship can help you think of new ways to grow your business
Going into the accelerator I wanted to learn more about how Google Maps approached accessibility. The program organizers connected me directly to Mike Pegg, Head of Google Maps Platform Developer Relations. We quickly formed a close friendship, connecting not only over our passion for helping build a more accessible world but also on personal interests such as music and photography. Working directly with Mike and the Maps Platform team on the accelerator has been a wonderful experience and they have gone above and beyond to support our mission. With the support of all our mentors, I’ve found new ways to grow AccessNow such as using ML and AI to advance the development of a data collection and labeling process or through support in validating our technical infrastructure.
Attending a virtual accelerator fit my needs
This accelerator program was the first time where my disability, or the fact that I use a wheelchair, wasn't even part of the conversation — unless I wanted it to be. The virtual program itself was incredibly accessible. The ability to participate in Google for Startups Accelerator virtually gave me a unique level of inclusion than I've ever experienced in a program, and the engagement between peers, speakers and mentors was on par with attending an in-person program.
Learn more about AccessNow and our Google for Startups Accelerator experience, in my video interview with my Accelerator mentor, Mike Pegg. Google for Startups Accelerator: Canada is currently accepting applications for its 2023 cohort until February 1. For more information including details on how to apply, please visit the website.