How an app can help you find your place

We met up with Matt Pierri, creator and CEO of the SociAbility app, which helps disabled people and their friends and family, find accessible spaces to find out why he created the app, some of the challenges he’s faced so far, and why he thinks we should expect more from disabled people.

Matt Pierri

How it all started

Can you tell us a little bit about how you identify as disabled and about your business?

I use a wheelchair after I sustained a spinal cord injury playing football when I was 16. I have a complicated but evolving relationship with disability: for a long time, I was very reticent to talk about it, but now I’m very proud to be a disabled man. One consistent thread is that it’s given me an incredible amount of perspective that has held me in good stead for many of the things that I’ve done since the accident.

I think that the dominant narrative around disability is very negative and overlooks a lot of positive things that co-exist along with the downsides. There’s a sense that disability is traumatic, problematic and someone’s defining characteristic. I think it’s so important to start to shift that perception and not to write people off simply because of their disability.

It feels like there are a lot of narratives around disability that don’t get spoken about that are actually very positive. As a society, we have a tendency to think that disabled people can’t or don’t want to do certain things; overall our expectations of disabled people are low, and we forget that they’re a section of the population who have a huge number of positive traits that we just don’t recognise or celebrate. Disabled people are resilient, creative, courageous, proactive. They are incredible at problem-solving – they are constantly solving problems all the time, every day – and these are traits that are so important in business and in entrepreneurship: being an entrepreneur is literally about who can solve problems the quickest, and that’s what disabled people do day in and day out.

I want to help change perceptions of disability, because a lot of barriers for disabled people are simply social constructs which have been created by other people. I do believe that the narrative is changing for the better, which is very exciting.

My business, SociAbility, is a free online platform where anyone can search for detailed information about accessible venues, especially retail and hospitality venues. It aims to give disabled people peace of mind that they will be able to engage in that space and feel confident and welcomed. It’s part of the bigger picture of encouraging, empowering and promoting social inclusion for disabled people.

Why did you start the business? – share with us your story so far

The idea began in late 2016. I was living in Australia and was offered a place at Oxford University. I needed to find a college that was accessible for me, so I contacted the university’s disability advisory service to ask about accessibility, and was told that I needed to contact each college individually or to look on each college’s website for the information I needed. There are 38 separate colleges. So I set about tackling the logistical nightmare of trying to find the information I needed about each different college, from Australia, and I discovered that not only is it tedious and time consuming, but often the information I needed didn’t actually exist, because no one had thought about it from this specific point of view before and because the information that’s needed and the access requirements vary from person to person: as someone in a wheelchair, for example, my accessibility needs are very different from those of someone who is blind.

When I moved to Oxford and I started to make friends with other students with disabilities, I realised that every other disabled student had also had to search for the information that they needed, and a lot of students simply didn’t manage to find somewhere that was accessible to them. In 2016, it felt like we could do better. So in 2017, some friends who were also disabled and I set up a student project, Oxford Accessibility Project, to crowdsource information about colleges: students would go into their own colleges to take photographs, measure doorways and count steps and so on, and sent the information to me, which I then set out in a Squarespace website.

Over time, the project grew in terms of size and we were able to work with university to institutionalise it. We learned that there was a huge need from people who had been living in this environment without readily available information and the peace of mind that comes with it, and a huge demand for information about places outside of the colleges themselves, so we started to collect information about social venues such as cafes, restaurants, bars – places where students would go with other students or friends and family, which is such an important part of the student experience.

SociAbility as a data platform basically emerged from the idea that we’d build a tool to meet this need, and that evolved into the app, which is the more comprehensive platform we’re building at the moment. It’s a business that’s built out of lived experience and trying to solve a problem in a novel way, and it tapped into a demand for a better way of thinking about accessibility than was previously available.

SociAbility is about trying to close the information gap, but our bigger mission is to empower disabled people and to foster inclusion, and to shine a spotlight on this as an issue. If you make spaces welcoming to people, then people will come – it’s not that they don’t want to, but that they can’t. If we can show venues that becoming more accessible will benefit them, because it attracts more people to that venue, then that in itself becomes a data point; and then at some point it will tip and a venue will become the odd one out by not having an accessible space, and that in itself will drive greater inclusion.

Disabled people want to go and do things, they often have money, and if you make the space accessible and inviting then they will spend money in your restaurant or bar, so the costs of making a space accessible will pay off in the long run. And while disabled people are a minority – albeit a large minority – they have friends and family, and if a space isn’t available to one person on the group then they will all go elsewhere.

What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?

Covid-19 is currently the most obvious and significant challenge: many venues are closed, so accessibility less relevant, and in the current economy, many businesses are strapped for cash, so less able to make necessary changes.

In the longer term, one issue that has plagued similar platforms with a lot of data spread across a large area is that the available information becomes patchy, so we are trying to keep an area of focus with really good coverage. We started in Oxford and then shifted to east London, where we’re based, but we are hoping to cover the whole of the UK and then globalise in a sustainable and effective way.

At this early stage, there’s something of a chicken and egg problem: for the platform to be useful, it needs a certain amount of information on it, and to collect that information we need either a large number of volunteers or money and time. Once you have more data, it’s easy to get more users, and once you have more users, it’s easy to get more data, but it’s a bit of a slog at the start, especially as we move to new areas of the country.

What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses – what is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?

This is very much linked to what I was saying earlier about our perception of disabled people and how we need to expect more from them and trust that they are capable of doing things if they’re given the space to try.

People tend to freak out when they hear about disabled people doing things and wonder what support they need – but entrepreneurship all about taking a leap of faith. Disabled people are creative, practical and resilient.

Alongside that, there’s a fundamental point about providing early stage support, including money, mentorship, and advice and training, which are all important but have a financial cost to them. Statistically it costs more to be disabled and disabled people are more likely to be in poverty, so there are lots of structural factors in play.

The third thing is about being open to unconventional ideas and markets. We didn’t intend to build a business; we were just trying to solve a problem. For lots of people, as soon as you mention disability then they think of charities and donations, and that’s it: there’s an understood pathway of charity and donations, and a narrative of pity and assistance. People get weirdly defensive if you deviate from that framework, as though you’re trying to exploit disabled people in some way. We need to shift these perceptions: we need to push disabled people to start businesses that are commercial – perhaps they tap into the spending power of disabled people, but lots of disabled people are building businesses entirely unrelated to disability, and that should be celebrated too.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?

When I had the accident when I was 16 and my life trajectory shifted, a lot of people wrote me off. I don’t feel like my disability has held me back from doing anything I want to do – short of running a marathon! I think that’s probably what I’m most proud of: that I haven’t let external things pose barriers to me. It circles back to what I was saying earlier about perceptions of disabled people: success isn’t an exceptional circumstance for someone who’s disabled, it’s just an unexpected one.

If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?

I think it would be my point about expecting more from disabled people, which I appreciate may sound harsh to some people! If we don’t expect more, we don’t create an environment in which people can do more. I would like disability to be something that people think about like any other characteristic – we shouldn’t ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist, but we should be open to expecting more from disabled people, so that we can create the environment where they can do more.

Who or what inspires you?

My parents, partly because of a lot of the things which have helped me so far, such as creativity, resilience and my approach to life, are things that you grow up with; it’s also helped me enormously to know that I can try things and have their support. There have definitely been some difficult periods for them and I’m sure they’ve had lots of struggles that I haven’t seen the full extent of, but the older I get the more proud I am of them.

Before creating SociAbility I never really thought about business, so there’s no one in the business world who has particularly inspired me. Someone who I do look up to however is Roger Federer. I think that athletes have a lot of the same characteristics as successful business people: it’s about hard work, preparation, putting in the hours and pushing ahead, and I think that Federer to me is a role model of how to do that with grace and integrity.

Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge is all about neuroplasticity and how brain can change and adapt. I found it very eye-opening not only because of the idea of use it or lose it, but also because it’s the story of how the medical world had to reconceptualise something that they thought they understood.

The second book is Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It put a lot of things into perspective for me, like we live in world built by people, and therefore it can be changed by people. And that the world has changed before and will change again: that we live in a snapshot where we can only see one particular point of time. I think it’s really important for people who think the world is and can only be one way to know that actually it isn’t.

Matt Pierri