[00:00 – 00:28] Viv
From Melbourne to the hallways of Oxford University! Aussie guy Matt Pierri, Creator and CEO of the “Sociability” app, joins us to talk about his mission to empower disabled individuals to benefit from greater social inclusion and meaningful equality of opportunity. We also talk about the obvious but frequently disregarded economic advantages of accessibility.
Hi Viv, how are you?
I’m well! Your setup looks amazing. It also sort of looks like one of those zoom default backgrounds of a library. For accessibility reasons, we were asking people if we could start off, if you wouldn’t mind doing a visual description of yourself. So just what you look like in the setting that you’re in.
Sure. I’m a 31 year old male with dark hair, dark eyebrows seated at a desk in front of a bookshelf and a messy kitchen.
[01:02 – 1:23] Viv
Thank you so much for joining us today. As incredible and vast as everything you’ve done is and sounds, in essence you’re a young guy and there’ve been so many moments where you just want to go out and have fun and there’s just been barriers that have been presented to you. Can you sort of speak to that experience and that sort of frustration points and you just going to create a solution?
[01:02 – 1:23] Matt
Yeah, sure. I mean, I think probably the relevant context is so I had a spinal cord injury when I was 15 playing AFL at school. And so I use a wheelchair now and I’ve used wheelchairs since. And I think that was definitely a real eye-opening experience for me. Just in the sense of, you know, from. The day before, to the day after you know, my whole life shifted, but I think what particularly was a combination of confusing slash frustrating for me was that everybody looked at me differently. There was all of a sudden, all these kind of stereotypes and preconceptions around who I was, who I would be, what I wanted to do, what I could do, you know, what I should do. Because all of a sudden I was using a wheelchair and for me, you know, for all intensive purposes I was just now sitting down, you know, There’s more, you know, there’s definitely more elements to spinal cord injuries, but, you know, in terms of like who I was and my ambitions and, interests, you know, none of that had changed. I just sort of had to go about them in different way. And yet I found it really frustrating that I would go into spaces or I would, you know, apply to do things. And I was just met with a wall of skepticism, but also this kind of somewhat, you know, benign kind of, protection, you know, mentality people, you shouldn’t do this, it’s not safe or you, shouldn’t try that. That’s gonna be too hard or, you know, for your own safety or wellbeing, don’t do these things and that has definitely sort of guided a lot of my actions and activities around what I feel needs to change in the disability space, particularly for young disabled people. But exactly to your point, a lot of what I’ve done is simply to try and find ways to do the things that I was otherwise doing or wanted to do with my friends which are, you know not particularly sophisticated, it’s sort of going out, spending time with each other and having fun.
[03:12 – 03:30] Viv
And you’ve kind of spoken before about your relationship with the word, you know, the language and how important it is. Specifically this, sort of identity first and people first and, mainly this word disability. How do you think language plays a role in the work you are doing? Personally and professionally?
[03:30 – 05:36] Matt
Yeah, for sure. I think it’s a really important part. I mean, I think there is definitely, you know, a caveat by saying, I think definitely it can become sometimes the focus of things and like the kind of core concern or debate, which I think is probably a distraction. But The way in which we talk about things influences the way in which we think about things and, therefore, influences how we act. On my end, I think having personally sort of gone. A bit of full circle with the word disability specifically or disabled. When I first had my accident, I was very adamantI was not disabled. I didn’t have a disability, I had an injury andI didn’t really wanna be associated with the disabled community. And that was, you know, a lot of internalized ableism, really. Over time. I’ve definitely become much more confident and comfortable with the fact that I have a disability and doesn’t really mean much in terms of who I am or what I can do. You know, in this sort of a macro sense I’m not gonna be running up any stairs anytime soon, but I’ll take the ramp and that doesn’t, to me kind of import any value, right? I’m not better or worse cause I used the ramp instead of the stairs. And I think for me, I’ve sort of settled on the idea that actually it’s really important to. You know, whatever we wanna call it, but like reclaim the word disability. People’s talk about how the word disabled is a really negative one and therefore we shouldn’t use it. But not using the word. Doesn’t make it less negative. It just puts it out of sight out of mind. And also every other word that people use instead is very clearly replacing disability. It’s not like we’ve kind of come up with some separate term that is not associated with the concept. We just use a kind of a mixture of, sort of pretend things like special abilities or, you know differently abled or whatever it might be. And I think the real concern there is that we’re not actually solving the problem, which is that we have this false association of negativity with the concept of disability and simply rebranding it doesn’t remove that. It just pushes it under the rug. And so I don’t have a problem now with saying disabled or disability because I’d rather say it. And actually just counter the argument that it’s, negative than to sort of just pretend that it doesn’t exist.
[05:36 – 05:44] Viv
And in terms of your work at Sociability is there anything that you are doing there? That’s really trying to change that narrative?
[05:46 – 10:29] Matt
Yeah. I mean, so yeah, to kind of step back. So Sociability is this platform, is the technology company I’ve started we’re based in East London and we’re building a platform. We’ve built a platform where anybody can go and find information about the accessibility of local venues, particularly. So cafes, restaurants, bars, you know, small format, hospitality and retail sites. And you can find that information in a level of detail that allows you to decide whether or not that space is accessible for you. You know, depending on your personal needs and preferences, but also in contexts, because I think historically. People have said, yeah, I’m sure my venue’s accessible. And they don’t know whether you’re a wheelchair user or whether you’re blind or whether you’re coming with one person or whether you’re coming for half an hour or the whole evening. There’s no right way in which they can sort of meaningfully tell you a space is accessible unless they know who you are, what you’re doing, why you’re coming, etc…and so we want to use technology to help. Break that down and actually understand who our users are and pair it with, you know, really detailed information that is as objective as possible and give people that confidence, and peace of mind that, you know, venue X will suit them in, you know, on day Z and in particular context, you know, Y and that I think is something which we can, you know, do given the, data we’re collecting of the technology we’re building. You know, we’re not a charity, we’re a business, we’re a technology company. And the goal really is to push, you know thats, Actually more so for a philosophical reason, it’s the push against this narrative that like disability is necessarily associated with charity. Because historically the conversation around disability is that disabled people should be pitied and they need your help and you should give to them, you know when you can, because it’s the good thing to do. And the disabled population, at least in the UK has, you know a huge untapped economic spending power. Their rough estimates are for disabled people and their friends and family. It’s around 274 billion pounds a year of spending powers. Most of which is not tapped into because of stupid things like a lack of accessibility or, you know, a lack of accessibility on the website, and in the same way that organizations or businesses will pay to attract more customers who are not disabled through marketing or through amenities or making their spaces, you know, More enjoyable to be in the disabled population should be catered to, because they’re people who have money to spend and who wanna do things, not because there’s some sort of guilt associated with letting in the kind of token wheelchair user. That’s not to say, I don’t agree with the. Argument, this is just an equity thing. We should just do this because it’s a, you know, it’s a human rights issue. I definitely agree with that. But I think part of the problem is that if we just put disabled people in a separate bucket, they’ll always be othered. And you end up with these policies that are inclusive, but othering, right? Which is this, which is sort of where we are today, where you’ll go to a restaurant and the accessible entrance will be around the back through the kitchen and the garbage area. No other patrons have to walk through the garbage shoot to get into the restaurant, but there’s a sense that like, well for disabled people, we have a separate approach and a separate thing. And to some extent they should be grateful that we’ve done, that it’s not built into the framework of, you know, running a business or opening a, restaurant, for example, it’s bolted on as like a luxury and a value. And until we start to see disabled people as equal consumers and customers, which is what these businesses are looking for. Right? It’s a commercial setting. It’ll always be a nice to have rather than a must have for for a lot of these organizations. And so sociability, what we’re trying to do is help kickstart that change by making it easier for disabled people to go into these spaces. And to just be seen, you know, The caveat, obviously a lot of disabilities are invisible, but the general point is that the more disabled people you can get out. And about the more you start to break down these stereotypes, they don’t want to go out that they can’t go out, that they’re not interested. And unfortunately for disabled people in a world that’s not built with accessibility in mind. You know, knowledge is the real driver that will help facilitate this. It’ll be great if tomorrow every building was built with some sort of level of universal accessibility, but that one doesn’t isn’t gonna happen. And two there, isn’t sort of this universal standard accessibility anyway. And so to the extent that we can help disabled people plan ahead and like figure out where they can go and choose, you know, have actual empowered decisions in this context. I think that is gonna make a big difference in terms of then driving representation and driving kind of more positive stereotypes. what we’re trying to do at Sociability really is collect accessibility information and organize it and then give it to the right people initially that’s to your users and individuals, but ultimately that will be to other organizations to enhance their services and unlock those for disabled people. And I think the more we can start to use technology in a really positive. Impactful way for, you know, what has largely been a forgotten population in terms of the tech boom. We can make huge gains in terms of inclusion and equality,
[10:29 – 10:40] Viv
You referenced in the UK, the. I believe it’s called the purple pound. Can you sort of speak to what the current status of the purple pound is like how much we’re talking?
[10:41 – 11:44] Matt
Yeah. So the purple pound at least, I mean, I think estimates will shift, but the latest one is around 274 billion pounds per year of spending power for disabled people and their friends and family. And that’s important, right? Because like, if I go to a restaurant with my girlfriend if there’s a step there and we can’t get in, we both go elsewhere. Or if I’m with a group of friends, you know, I don’t just sit outside while I’ll, while they go inside. And in the same way that you know, establishments have really embraced the idea of dietary requirements. It’s the exact same logic. If you went with a group of 10 people to a steak restaurant, and one of them was vegan, you would all just go elsewhere. You wouldn’t just like, let them look at the steak. And I think that’s the same thing that would happen with disabled people, but we don’t have the same narratives around like disabled people going out, their friends and families to restaurants and bars and clubs. Right? The narratives are the to disabled person is at home ordering Deliveroo, you know, by themselves which is not true. And part of the, kind of our mission and Sociability is to facilitate that, reality, which people don’t see, but to make it much more commonplace.
[11:45 – 12:41] Viv
And I suppose bringing it back, you know, into the tech side of building an app about accessibility you know, Remarkable are the first to flag, we, we absolutely are committed to driving inclusive, accessible tech. However, we don’t always get it right in the tools that we use and the things that we’ve built. And I think that sort of honesty is part of the process. We’re not gonna get it right all the time, but we are committed. And I’m curious to know. As you’ve been developing this app, have there been parts of the app itself that you’ve had to sort of navigate that weren’t accessible because the technology wasn’t available yet to just design an app, completely accessibly from the get go?
[12:42 – 15:00] Matt
Yeah, I mean, I think, I mean, definitely, and we’re, you know, very much in the same boat that we’re building a tool. You know, [00:31:00] physical or real world accessibility. But it’s a digital tool, you know, it’s available on mobile and web and it, similarly has to be as accessible as possible otherwise it’s not helpful and it’s also highly ironic. So on our end, you know, we, I think to your point, also take this approach that accessibility, you know, particularly from a digital standpoint but just generally is not a sort of set and forget thing. It’s not a tick box exercise. You can’t say great, it’s accessible. Now I can just carry on. It is an attitude, it’s an ongoing kind of evolving thing. And you know, on our end, accessibility is all about people. It’s all about functionality. It’s about how somebody can use something or do something in a way that, you know, meets their needs. And to that extent, as the platform evolves and changes and, we add new features and kind of, you know, get user feedback about X, Y, or Z we have to consider accessibility at all stages. So on our end, we’ve done our, you know, kind of best to get it up to a baseline. And we’re always looking to actively improve it, but, you know, really we’re very fortunate that we’re building a community where users are able to feed back to us. Pretty directly what does and doesn’t work? And as a company, you know, we’re prioritizing making those changes around accessibility as soon as possible as, you know, as the kind of highest priority. And I think to your point, it’s definitely a, learning curve, but also, you know, in an exciting sort of sense, we’re building an internal expertise around how to build an accessible digital product, because exactly to your point there, aren’t a lot of It’s not a problem that’s been solved. Put it that way and there’s definitely guidelines to kind of best practice and things like that, but not a lot of it. And part of the challenge is how do you also make something that is highly accessible and cool and fun and like exciting to use, right? That doesn’t look like it was built in a hospital. And I think on our end, you know, to answer your question in one specific area, we’ve found that’s a little bit challenging is, you know, using a map we’ve built a tool. That is based around this idea of finding things nearby and local venues. And we went with a map initially as to the, kind of layout and format maps are not particularly easy for people with visual impairments to navigate. And so that’s something we’ve taken on board in terms of feedback. And you know, Without going too much into the detail. The next version of the app will sort of be pushing a little bit away from the idea of, the map is the central interface, because it’s something that is not fully accessible to everybody. And that’s been a really useful learning curve on our end of also just challenging some of the preconceptions that we have around how the platform should look and feel. But also the reality is like I’m a wheelchair user. So I am biased as to what accessibility things are more or less apparent. And what we’re really trying to do as a team is like really broaden our understanding of what accessibility means for the kind of the pan disability spectrum. And that’s definitely a challenge, but a, you know, a really rewarding one.
[15:00 – 15:32] Viv
So cool. And I’m conscious of time and I suspect you have got a busy day but at the end of these, I mentioned that we like to ask guests. And that sort of is a title that encompasses whatever you feel, you know, speaks to you most, whether that’s a piece of advice, words of wisdom, a fact about the progress and the change that’s happened or, you know, the future of sociability but I’m gonna pass the mic to you. And if there’s one thing you’d like to leave people with. Go ahead.
[15:32 – 16:45] Matt
At the end of the day you know we, as people can choose to do lots of different things and I think the biggest learning on my end has been that if you choose to do things that you’re passionate about and you believe in and you know, you work hard at those, but also you kind of put into the world the, energy that you think should come out of it. It’ll hopefully all be okay. But I think on my end, you know, it’s been a really important lesson to actually be comfortable doing things that I think people disagree with, or tell you that it’s not possible or say that’s not gonna happen. If you are passionate about it and you really believe in what you’re doing and you think there’s a really good reason for why it should exist, or you should be doing it, that’s the main thing. And you know, you spend a lot of your time working and sort of, you know, trying to be productive. And if you’re not doing it for something that you believe in or you’re passionate about, then why are you doing it? So I think on my end, my not sure how remarkable it is, but my insight would simply be that I think with people who are thinking about ideas and have these things in their mind, and they’re wondering whether or not they should sort of take that first step to go and pursue something which they’ve been told is, not feasible or sounds silly, or they shouldn’t do it. I think the main driver is, are you passionate about it? And do you believe in it? And I think that’s the kind of, for me… criterion of whether or not it’ll be a success.
[16:45 – 17:00] Viv
The full interview with our guest can be found in the links below where you pressed play on this podcast, our show notes. Make sure you subscribe or hit follow to not miss another Remarkable Insights episode.