AccessMakers: Wisdom at the Edge of the Crowd

Accessibility can be a challenge for smaller businesses and non-profits, and even large enterprises and public agencies can be slow to meet standards for accessibility. By definition, people who experience access barriers are marginalized within a given community, and effectively engaging people ‘at the margin’ is difficult for most organizations, whether they are trying to deliver public health outcomes, electronics, financial services, or opportunities for civic engagement.

The pressures of competition in the marketplace make things worse, and the disciplines of marketing (in the retail sector and advocacy campaigns) and strategic planning (in entermprises and the public sector) systematically exclude ‘outliers’. Meeting the needs of people with disabilities is very often seen as a cost that has no intrinsic justification.

There are examples all over the world of organizations that have found the sweet spot where accessibility overlaps with their value proposition or mission. This is a development pattern that I call ‘inclusive innovation’:

Beyond ‘Special Needs’: At the Abilities Centre in Whitby, Ontario, barrier-free sports and recreational activities bring together many types of people including people with activity limitations. People with disabilities benefit from its inclusive approach and fully-accessible facilities – but so do children and older adults. Rather than being segregated in ‘specialized’ facilities, the Centre brings peopel together for fitness, culture, and learning. ‘We learn how to relate to one another not by being separated, but by being together,’ accoding to its mission statement.

Beyond the Visual: Art galleries long preseted obstacles for individuals with visual or mobility challenges. It’s called visual art, after all. In the first wave of accessible design, many museums and galleries took basic steps like installing braille signage alongside traditional labels for paintings, sculpture and artifacts. lBut institutions such as the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) took up the challenge by taking a human-centred (not regulatory) approach, and now offer multi-sensory and ASL-intepreted art experiences – exploring new shared value with their patrons, rather than hiving off accessibility as a matter for building maintenance or customer service personnel alone.

Double-double value with PWD: The well-known Canadian coffee-and-sandwich chain, Tim Horton’s is a champion for hiring people with intellectual disabilities. Tim HortonsLed by franchise-owner Mark Wafer, Tim’s has hired dozens of individuals who are typically marginalized in the workforce, but it’s not a matter of charity: Wafer says that his employees with disabilities are among his most hard-working, take fewer sick days, and demonstrate positive attitude that boosts the morale among the other employees. “Hiring people with disabilities often doesn’t require adding accommodation measures and can boost the profit of a business,” says Wafer.

These examples show that being inclusive about people’s abilities can be a way to marry an organization’s mission or offering more closely with the needs of stakeholders – not just ticking off the check-boxes provided by a government regulation.

Introducing AccessMakers: Wisdom at the Edge of the Crowd

AccessMakers is a design methodology that helps organizations replicate these successful examples of inclusive innovation. It brings together people who experience access barriers (due to disability, language, cultural norms, or other factors) with the businesses or organizations that have the levers to change the situation.

It is a strategic approach to mobilize ‘the wisdom at the edge of the crowd’. By providing a platform for customers, employees or users to co-create solutions to access barriers, AccessMakers empowers individuals and, at the same time, uncoversopportunities for innovation that benefit the bottom line and the wider community.

hand-written notes from a flipchart shoinwg the outcomes of an access barrier story, such as 'fewer options' in a restaurant, and feelings such as anxiety and embarrassment.

Discovery Through Storytelling
The first workshop is a step-by-step storytelling method to bring forward lived experience of access barriers, in a safe and productive way. It also gives groups of various stakeholders a process for building trust and sharing knowledge, based on the stories of real people.

Knowledge Across Bundaries
The second workshop supports and encourages service providers, retailers, public agencies and companies of all kinds to frame the challenges as ‘edge cases’ that can inspire new innovation. And by sharing knowledge across ‘silos’, teams can form to make it happen.

shows symbols and arrows diagram representing the many components and actions within one person's story of encountering an access barrier.

Creating Shared Value
In the third module, a range of possible solutions are canvased and integrated with the existing practices of the organization, to make sure that real change takes place.

AccessMakers workshops create shared knowledge, mirroring the innovation-as-learning process outlined by Beckerman and Barry (2007). It gives every organization a step-by-step method for leveraging their own user-network for ‘outside-in’ innovation based on established elements of human-centred design (HCD).

With the support of digital tools, AccessMakers will also be a trove of research and insights for inclusive design in services, products, policies, and places.

AccessMakers – innovation that’s as diverse as we are.

Inspired by the ‘maker movement’ that emphasizes open-source collaboration, AccessMakers is for

  • Anyone who experiences access barriers in software, networks, places, products and services – and who wants to share their knowledge of how to improve the situation.
  • Designers, service providers, small businesses, corporations, customer experience specialists, architects, policy-makers and non-profits
  • Anyone who wants to share knowledge, learn new skills, break down silos, and be inspired to breakthrough design by the experience of people ‘at the edge of the crowd’.

Request more information here.


Beckerman, S., and Barry, M. (2007). Innovation as a learning process. California management review, 50(1).

Willis, John (2015). AccessMakers: A Platform for Inclusive Innovation. Masters thesis, OCAD University. Unpublished thesis.