Oxford Case Studies: SociAbility

Take a look around you: Oxford is a social place. From bops and halls, to coffees and cocktails, not to mention the city’s many heritage sites, there's always something to do – and somewhere to be outside the classroom.

For too long, though, Oxford hasn’t catered for its wheelchair users. Socialising should be easy and pleasurable for them, too – not a chore. To feel truly at home at college people need to be able to enjoy shared social spaces with friends and family. Making all this possible is the idea behind a new app, SociAbility, set up by Matthew Pierri, an Australian lawyer, Rhodes Scholar and Master of Public Policy (Distinction) graduate from the University of Oxford.

Pierri explains the rationale of SociaAbility: “We want to make Oxford a more sociable place for everyone. We’re building a mobile app and an online platform to allow anyone with a smartphone to easily document, share and search the accessibility of local social venues. The basic aim is to empower people with disabilities to achieve greater social engagement by making accessibility information mainstream.”

SociAbility began life in 2016 under the auspices of the Oxford Accessibility Project (OAP). The main aim then, says Pierri, was to “map the accessibility of social spaces within Oxford’s 44 colleges and halls.” As the project developed lessons were learnt, one of which, according to Pierri, “was that we needed a better way to standardise the information we were collecting and to make it more readily publishable in an online format.” From this came the idea of SociAbility: a dedicated app that would extend the OAP’s reach beyond colleges to embrace a broad sweep of social venues, including cafes, restaurants and bars.

And just as the OAP – which continues to run in Oxford – morphed into SociAbility, so too has SociAbility’s focus grown. The project aims to see accessibility information incorporated into mainstream platforms like Google and Apple Maps, as well as venues’ own websites. And, says Pierri, “while initially focused on mobility-related accessibility information, we are rapidly extending our efforts to cover all disability-related accessibility needs. We will launch in the UK with plans to scale globally.”

The app also has upsides for people without disabilities. Accessibility information is helpful for the elderly, families with children and prams, the temporarily injured and anyone planning an event. The platform is also set to be an important resource for venue owners and managers. Social venues can be unaware of the accessibility needs of their patrons, as well as the accessibility features—or lack thereof—of their establishments. SociAbility will help them improve custom and revenue.

Alongside Pierri, SociAbility is being developed by fellow wheelchair user, Dr George Hedger, SociAbility COO and University of Oxford post-doctorate scientist in biochemistry, as well as fellow Rhodes Scholars Dr Andrés Noé and Mr Kaleem Hawa, both DPhil candidates in Clinical Medicine and Public Health respectively. Financial assistance has come from local developers, Global Initiative, as well as the McCall Macbain Foundation, Rhodes Trust, Oxford Hub and Lincoln College, while among the project’s mentors include Mr Charles Conn, former CEO and Warden of the Rhodes Trust, and Mr Miles Young, Warden of New College and former Global CEO of Ogilvy and Mather.

With SociAbility’s pilot slated to kick off in early 2019, it won’t be long before Oxford’s students, as well as the one in five people worldwide with a disability, are benefitting from this most sociable of social enterprises.

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