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Meet Minnie Baragwanath, the woman leading the global accessibility change

Minnie Baragwanath

About one million New Zealanders have an access need. This could include a physical impairment, vision or hearing loss, a learning impairment, a short-term injury or an age related access impairment. Accessibility innovation is the new 21st century way to ensure access equality in our society. Stripping away the ‘disability’ title and replacing it with the word possibility is Minnie Baragwanath’s goal with her company, Be. Lab. 

The word disability too often defines someone’s entire personality, says Baragwanath.

“At Be. we shake up some of those old narratives and let go of some of the imagery and the language that’s largely grown out of health and rehabilitation, which is fine but I am not defined by health or rehabilitation. It might be a part of my life, but we kind of had to cut the that had held disability as a health issue,” says Baragwanath.

Be. Lab is situated within the AUT campus and has been partnering with the university for the last nine years.

Andrew Codling, head of the Vice Chancellors Office at AUT says working with Minnie has been beneficial for the university and their students with access needs. “AUT has been there right from the very start, and our vice chancellor, Derik McCormack, has been active and was the activator on behalf of the university. We’ve never been far away from Minnie’s accessibility dreams and share them. We’ve done our best and made big strides with the hope to be more accessible, in the past 4 or 5 years.”

Baragwanath’s life changed at age 14 when she was diagnosed with a rare sight condition meaning she has no vision in the centre of her eyes.

She grew up realising the difficulties of living in a world where there were very few accessible options for her.

Fast forward through her teenage years, her university studies and some life experiences, herself and her team at the Auckland City Council knew it was time to make a change for people with access needs.

Minnie Baragwanath

Baragwanath said that she had been waiting for change to happen, but it just wasn’t, so she decided to make it happen herself.

Alongside her team at the council, they used the 2011 Rugby World Cup as a way to promote the accessibility industry. “We created a programme of work that was focused entirely on tourism and accessible tourism. We were able to come up with stats and evidence that showed that actually one of our fastest growing tourism markets in New Zealand are the baby boomer cohort, who are made up of 50 percent of whom have access needs of some form,” says Baragwanath.

“We kind of let go of the narrative being about welfare and we focused the whole narrative around economic development and tourism. It gained the attention of government and for that reason we became a partner of the New Zealand government 10 or so years ago and have continued to be ever since,” says Baragwanath.

From this event and development came Be. Since the origins of Baragwanath’s company, she has been striving for access in design and innovation.

Their new location in an ex-gallery space on the AUT campus aims to incubate and support young innovators and entrepreneurs who may have access needs.

Baragwanath says that people regularly think that accessibility issues means the person is in a wheelchair or can’t get into places like others. “The majority of people with an access need are not wheelchair users. They may be blind, be deaf, have a learning impairment or mental health issues that are often invisible.”

She says that we need to think about things like deaf people attending GP appointments and trying to get an interpreter to come along, or a blind person trying experience design.

Baragwanath says that while the physical environment for access needs is still largely important there is far more room to grow outside of that. “We need to develop a more sophisticated conversation.”

Be. Lab was once Be. Accessible and recently made the name change happen as they are entering a new era of innovation. Codling says, “Be. has an identity in New Zealand now that doesn’t need further explanation.”

The economic benefits of the accessibility and possibility industry are major.  Baragwanath says, “As we have noted, the value of the ‘yellow dollar’ – that is, spending by people with access needs – to the New Zealand economy is an enormous and largely untapped resource. With the number of Kiwis and visitors with access needs rising from one in four today to 30 percent by 2030.”

Baragwanath is a big believer that if companies knew more about the revenue that could be made through the yellow dollar, that they would be jumping at the chance to be a part of a more accessible world. “The yellow dollar talks to the opportunity that sits latent within the access community and their friends, and family, and loved ones. There’s a huge multiplier effect. It’s considered globally to be worth $8 trillion, the yellow dollar, or the access economy. If we were to put all the people who have access needs who could purchase goods and services in one place it’s equivalent to the size of the population of China.”

At Be. Lab they are making sure that people with access needs are seen as a person with a disability rather than a disabled person.

The difference in outlook is staggering. Many people define people by their disability instead of seeing it as an opportunity to expand their target market by making things more accessible or generating new and innovative ideas thanks to having a variety of minds.

Baragwanath says, “We have all these gorgeous young and diverse minds coming together to actually go, what possible for the 21st century, so let’s lift up in terms of possibility and to get away from the minimum standard.”

Be. Lab has had support from some big industry players in many different stages of their business. Their current partners include AUT, ACC, Microsoft, the Ministry for Social Development and Sudima Hotels.

Baragwanath has since developed a framework called the Be. Spectrum, to help people understand where Be. sits in relation to usual disability support.

Baragwanth says, “It’s showing that the conversation around accessibility needs to keep evolving. What we’ve found is most businesses and governments are stuck in a disability narrative.”

She said that it is important people understand accessibility and possibility because if we are lucky enough to reach an elderly age then we will all have access needs at some point.

2020 is set to hold a lot of important growth for Be. Lab, including the launch of their accessibility index.

This will be the first accessibility index globally and Baragwanth said it’s not about comparing one person or company to another, it’s about inspiring ideas and creation of access needs based off of previous innovation.

Baragwanth said that in 2020 Be. Lab will be thriving, with events for the public and a CEO summit.

“We’ll be continuing to engage with progressive businesses, communities, government, who are really interested in pioneering what’s possible for their own organisation.”

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