The Luminary Tech Visionary Award recognises young people demonstrating creative thinking and making a significant contribution and social impact through the use of digital. For more information, check out this blog post about Luminary’s sponsorship of the Victorian Young Achiever Awards.
Growing up with two family members with special needs, Alexandra Irwin Liu already had a unique understanding of the challenges in finding venues that are accessible and able to cater to different needs.
But her greatest inspiration in building Accessibly.com.au – an online social network that allows people to find and share information about accessible bars, restaurants and cafes – came from her close friend who uses a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury.
“We had made plans to see a comedy show at a bar. While we called the venue to confirm the accessibility, when we arrived at the location, we discovered that the comedy show was located in the upstairs lounge of the bar. While there was an elevator, it was a goods lift and it couldn’t accommodate the power chair. We had no choice but to head home – disappointed at what would have been a great night out,” says Alex.
“The truth is, for anyone who spends time with people with a disability, you end up drawing a mental map of places that are and aren’t accessible,” she says. “It’s hard to go somewhere new when the opportunity to explore isn’t readily available. In Australia, one in five people are living with a disability. Everyone has their own individual map of places that are accessible to them.”
These statistics presented an opportunity for Alex. Inspired by her personal experience and the number of people living with disability, Alex had an idea to create an online platform for people with a disability to help them discover new bars, restaurants and cafes tailored to their individual needs.
Since she was young, Alex has always been intrigued by tech. “I spent most of my childhood creating my own websites, but I never thought of pursuing a career in tech. I ended up studying psychology at Monash University. I thought I would be a psychologist after graduating.”
After graduation, Alex landed a job in a management consulting company. She worked with companies and clients to analyse their corporate decisions. “I came to learn about the power of digital and data analytics to re-evaluate how business is done. Through working with software engineering colleagues, I was exposed to software development and established a network of software engineers I can call when I have questions.”
It was during this time that Alex received a newsletter from the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) and found out about the Federal Government-subsidised accelerator program, an intensive boot camp to train young people to create solutions for the causes they are passionate about.
This program pushed Alexandra to bring Accessibly to life. In her words: “I sat on this idea for a long time, but what really gave me the confidence to put my foot on the pedal was the accelerator program.”
When it came to the technical part of this project, with no formal qualification in coding, Alex impressively created the coding to Accessibly’s website on her own with some advice from people within her network and by watching videos on YouTube. “YouTube is a very good platform for learning how to code!” she says.
"Covid threw a massive spanner in the works. One of the big challenges was deciding whether to continue with the product the way it is or to pivot and cater to people’s more immediate needs. I decided to stay with the original value proposition of creating a mapping platform for people with disabilities to navigate local areas."
When met with challenges, Alex was never shy to reach out to mentors for advice. Two mentors in particular that Alex reached out to the most were Thomas Szmidel and Jack Rose.
“I was put in touch with Thomas by his co-founder at ServiceDeals2Me, who I networked with at a startup event. With his background in business, Thomas provides advice on general corporate operations. When it comes to anything tech related, I would go to Jack who helped me shape how code should be structured and the overall user experience of Accessibly. I met Jack at an event for self-taught programmers where he was a mentor. We kept in touch from there,” she says.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Alex to bring Accessibly to life. Accessibly was originally created as an enterprise software to audit workplace accessibility. However, through research and exploration, she found out that the Federal Government already had similar initiatives in the works. So, Alex pivoted Accessibly into a location discovery app.
2020 was supposed to be a big year for Accessibly in terms of partnerships and business development. “There were a lot of opportunities in the pipeline. I was in talks with a few restaurants to pilot a few accessible social gatherings, but these have all been put on hold till we establish what is safe for ourselves and our communities.
“Covid threw a massive spanner in the works. One of the big challenges was deciding whether to continue with the product the way it is or to pivot and cater to people’s more immediate needs. I decided to stay with the original value proposition of creating a mapping platform for people with disabilities to navigate local areas.
“But Covid also forced me to focus more on the tech, because tech is something you can continue working on without necessarily liaising with other stakeholders. It’s something you can do on your own and online.
What keeps Alexandra motivated throughout these challenges is keeping in mind the impact that Accessibly will have on people in the long term. “It’s about knowing that after this pandemic subsides, people are still going to face accessibility challenges.”
Alex believes that if you learn from your mistakes, work hard, and surround yourself with supportive people, great things are possible. “If you’re unsure about an idea, try to test it and pilot it in a way that’s quick and easy - and incrementally work your way up. If you have an idea for an app, draw a prototype on paper and show it to a few people and work it out from the feedback there.”
Read about the other finalists:
- Morgan Coleman, founder of Vets on Call
- Zoë Condliffe, founder of She's A Crowd
- Catherine Allingham, founder of the Fertility Preservation Decision Aid
The winner of the 2020 Luminary Tech Visionary Award will be announced on Friday 18 September.
About the Author: A final year advertising student with a passion for food, Andrea lives her life around one simple concept – 'Be brave and kill your inner chickens!' When not busy killing inner chickens, you can find her in the kitchen experimenting on new recipes with leftover food from the fridge.
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