Navigation apps and user reviews of businesses help consumers make informed choices. Despite the benefits these technologies can provide, it is inadequate for millions of disabled Britons.
According to recent data from the Department for Work and Pensions, the UK is home to around 16 million disabled people, representing almost a quarter of the total population.
And yet, despite making up such a significant minority of the population, a lack of accessibility at British businesses and venues causes daily challenges for disabled people.
“I’m a wheelchair user, when I need to go out to a cafe or a restaurant or bar, trying to do something in the world around me, the first question I have is, ‘is it accessible?’” Matt Pierri tells UKTN.
“Can I get in? Can I move around? Can I use the bathroom? For the most part, that information doesn’t exist, it’s very hard to find.”
Pierri is the founder and CEO of Sociability, a London-based startup looking to give disabled people in Britain and beyond confidence in where they can go and what businesses can support them.
Describing his own experience, Pierri said that finding out if a venue had the appropriate accessibility features meant hours of tedious research, looking at images from Google Street View, looking for blog posts, scanning websites and calling proprietors in advance.
“That process is something which becomes really prohibitive in terms of people being able to do this,” Pierri said, “because it’s not just happening once a year, it’s happening every day, multiple times a day.”
According to Pierri, the added “stress and anxiety” placed upon disabled people is not only unfair, but unnecessary, and it was precisely this reason that he founded Sociability.
The app displays a map interface, similar to Google Maps, with various venues highlighted. Users can select the venue they are interested in visiting and the app will provide information on whether various accessibility features are present.
Importantly, the app does not simply rate the quality of a business’s accessibility features, but provides specific insight into which forms of disability are being supported because “accessibility varies between people and their impairments”, explains Pierri.
“We don’t use vague labels like, accessible or inaccessible, we don’t use a rating system,” Pierri says.
As a wheelchair user, the Sociability CEO is familiar with what features can help him, however, the startup is keen to provide support for all forms of disability.
The information displayed on the app was collected through the company’s own research along with user-generated feedback.
Pierri was first inspired to launch Sociability when he moved from Australia to the UK to study at the University of Oxford. When asked for his preference of college, he asked a seemingly simple question: “which colleges have wheelchair-accessible facilities?”
The university did not have that information, despite by its own count having more than 7,000 disabled students, requiring Pierri to single-handedly conduct “tedious research” of “38 different colleges” to find out which ones could accommodate him.
“It was a real nightmare. The stress and anxiety of wondering whether or not you’re going to be able to live in this space creates a tangible barrier to wondering whether you should actually pursue these types of opportunities,” he says.
Pierri did, in the end, find an accessible college and at university, he started a project to crowdsource this information from students about colleges to publish in blogs. As the popularity of the blogs grew, “more and more people” started to ask about restaurants, pubs and cafés. This crowdsourced information then morphed into Sociability.
Sociability has received grant funding, including £85,000 from the UK Research and Innovation, the government’s science and research funding agency. Now looking to scale the business into a profitable company, Sociability is operating with a few different revenue models.
Sociability is also working with enterprises, including Toyota, to provide essential information on what accessibility features will need to be incorporated to accommodate employees.
The company is looking to partner with hospitality businesses. Sociability believes partnering businesses will receive a boost in customers from the underserved market of differently abled consumers after listing accessibility features on the app. Sociability will also leverage its data collection, which can be sold to businesses.
Early Impact is a monthly UKTN series profiling early-stage startups that are solving societal problems.