Our community can take it upon themselves to become advocates for accessibility by participating on the platform. Our app is NOT only for those with disabilities, it’s for everyone. Anyone can be an advocate for accessibility by simply looking at the world through the eyes of someone else who may not have it as easy.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandon Winfield.
In 2008, Brandon Winfield was injured in a motocross accident that left him with a thoracic spinal cord injury (paralyzed from the waist down). Only 14 years old at the time, he was faced with the decision to either let this dramatic event stop him from truly living the life he wanted or to turn it into an opportunity to triumph in the face of tragedy — Brandon chose the latter. He continued his love for racing in the form of four wheels, entered sprint kart racing, and won numerous events across the country. As he traveled, he realized that although some places he visited were compliant according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many areas were grandfathered in and never forced to retrofit to accommodate the mobility impaired.
These experiences sparked the idea for iAccess Life, a mobile app that enables people with disabilities to rate and review the accessibility of venues such as restaurants, lounges, clubs, and bars. Through his startup, Brandon and his co-founder Sayeed Mehrejerdian, aim to empower users to “know before they go” and feel confident making plans with their friends, colleagues, and loved ones.
Since the app’s launch on iOS and Android platforms in 2019, they have amassed over 3500 unique locations rated in over 45 states and 30 countries. Their work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including CNN and CBS. In addition to being a SXSW Social and Culture Alternate Pitch Winnert, iAccess has participated in the Ascend Atlanta program and NPR’s How I Built This Fellowship. In February 2020, iAccess was selected to join the incoming class of Atlanta Tech Village’s #ItTakesAVillage accelerator program.
Outside of this work, Brandon has served on numerous panels highlighting the importance of accessibility. Most recently, he’s partnered with various Atlanta organizations to help launch Operation Bus Stop Census for Transit Equity Day, an initiative championing safe and reliable public transit for everyone.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I would say growing up, that I did not miss out on too many life experiences. My parents and sister sacrificed a lot to allow me to chase my dreams and I cannot thank them enough. I was competitive, loved sports and adventuring outside with friends. My dad was in the Air Force, so the beginning of my childhood was spent on Edwards Air Force base in California. My dad was always into motorcycles. His best friend’s kids raced dirt bikes and I was instantly hooked on them from day one. My life revolved around racing. All I wanted to do was be sponsored by American Honda and race professionally. I was able to accomplish one of those dreams, but the second one was taken away from me before I was old enough to be a professional. After becoming paralyzed in a racing accident at 14 years old, my life changed drastically, I would say for the better. It taught me resilience and has led me down the path I am currently on today.
You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
This is sometimes such a hard question to narrow down because there are a lot of things we look to change. The misconception around people with disabilities being active and being able to participate in the same experiences as everyone else. We want architectural design and events to be forward-thinking in their inclusion of those with disabilities. But mainly we want to encourage those with disabilities to seek new adventures without the stress of accessibility. We want our community to feel included and not like an afterthought. In turn, I see this inclusion improving mental and physical health, confidence and independence for those who need it the most.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
When you endure a spinal cord injury (SCI), you go through rehab and metaphorically, learn how to crawl and then walk again. Luckily for me I knew the risk of what I was doing and this helped me cope with my experience. Others in rehab were not as fortunate as I was. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time or were doing things that they shouldn’t have been doing. I could tell they were depressed and were having a hard time coming to terms with their new normal and that they may not be able to do the things they once loved.
As I traveled, I started to notice a lack of accessibility consistency from venue to venue. This really bothered me and made me feel like a burden to those I was travelling with. I knew that I couldn’t possibly be the only person that felt this way. I created iAccess Life as a tool to eliminate the stress of visiting somewhere new. It helps create community and inclusion for those who want to partake in everyday activities and adventures.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I can think of two “Aha” moments and they came at two different times of my life. The first one was when I was 19 or 20. I had left a NYE church service with my mom. The service addressed how we could use our resolutions to help our community instead of ourselves. I remember leaving the service and having the lightbulb moment as I reached for my car door, that I needed to develop a platform that would provide information for those who need it the most.
The second moment came about 3 years after the first. A break-up, forced me to look at myself and take responsibility for where I was at in life. I wasn’t happy, I was out of shape, I was eating terribly, and I wasn’t doing anything to further my progression as a person. I knew I needed to make a change and eliminated things that did not serve me or help me reach my goals. I slowly began to do that and the next thing I knew, my personal life started to turn around and things started to fall into place with iAccess, which at this point hadn’t made it off the runway yet. Heck, there wasn’t even gas in the plane, if I’m being completely honest.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
It’s funny to say this since I was never someone who cared all too much about studying or reading when I was in school, but I did A LOT of research and reading. Google searches, YouTube videos, anything you need to know about starting a business can be found through those two channels. I took what I learned from those outlets and applied it to forming a business plan. I talked to a lot of people who were business savvy and received a lot of constructive feedback. The main thing is that you just do not stop trying to progress every day. Even if it’s just baby steps, you’re still moving forward. Slow motion is better than no motion!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Honestly, this whole process has quickly become a blur. There have been so many interesting opportunities that iAccess has brought me that it is hard to recall just one. It has allowed me to work for myself, travel, meet new people and help others. I could not be more thankful for the position I am in now.
Just to name a few things, we were selected as an alternate for the 2019 SXSW Social and Culture pitch and we ended up winning! That was an amazing experience of writing my one-minute pitch before going to bed the night before and somehow pulling it off the next day. We would also get to watch the release of a movie called “Beach Bum” starring Matthew McConaughey and it was cool seeing him there. We were also featured in a Fox News segment hosted by Robert Kennedy’s son, Douglas. I’m not big into politics but there is a certain air around the Kennedy name that made this super cool to me. It’s just crazy to me to think I have his cell phone number haha.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I would say being overanxious and not waiting for the opportunity. Five years ago, I was approached by a consulting team that claimed to have an offshore team they worked with for development. They would have the application developed for what is in hindsight, way too much equity in the company. Long story short, they ran out of funds for the development, tried to hire someone with minimum dev. experience to finish the rest of the application and it was a disaster.
But a setback is just a set up for a comeback. We took what we learned from our first venture, stayed positive and were able to secure a stable development partner in KiwiTech.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My family has always been so instrumental in my success. Their support of my craziness has been one of the biggest influences behind my success, they set the example of being hard working, good people. It inspires me to make them proud.
I also would not be here today without my co-founder, Sayeed. He’s been through hard times like me and was able to make the hard adjustments to better his life. He inspires me every day with his work ethic and dedication to what he does. Thank you, Sayeed.
I also can’t forget about my close group of friends that I talk to daily or weekly. They support what I am doing and help me stay grounded. They’re also great for comic relief whenever the waters get choppy. You all know who you are, thank you!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There’s been many interactions with users who have benefited from iAccess Life.
One review really moved me. That person wrote:
“I am a caretaker of a child with disabilities, and I love to take him out to eat and have fun. With this app, I can finally find the restaurants and entertainment venues that are accessible in entry and in bathrooms. This app helps our fun days out to go smoothly, and I no longer have to worry about disappointing him by driving somewhere only to find out it is not accessible.”
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1) Our community can take it upon themselves to become advocates for accessibility by participating on the platform. Our app is NOT only for those with disabilities, it’s for everyone. Anyone can be an advocate for accessibility by simply looking at the world through the eyes of someone else who may not have it as easy.
2) Politicians can help us by partnering with us to create city and state programs that incentivize businesses to be proactive when it comes to accessibility. One idea we are pursuing is an Accessible Business Certification. We are working with various accessibility advocates to define some criteria that we can audit businesses on that reflects how well they accommodate those with disabilities. Our goal is to find a local partner in city government and work together to prove out this concept and create a reproducible model that we can take to expand to other cities and states.
3) Society can help by trying to change the way they view those with disabilities. We have jobs and careers, we travel, we like to dance and enjoy nightlife. Just because our bodies are impaired does not mean that our sense of enjoyment is too. If anything, we have elite levels of problem-solving skills that are highly valuable in all aspects of life. These are just a few of the many misconceptions about people with disabilities and we need to recognize as a society that we are people who want to live life and have fun, just like everyone else.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
“You can’t do it alone.” I was 19 when I first started this venture. I let my pride and ego get in the way as I tried to learn and pursue this alone. I learned later that running a company isn’t about knowing it all and being able to do it all — you will burn yourself out. The best thing I ever did was surround myself with people who knew more than I did and could help guide me along this journey.
“The only way to fail is to quit.” iAccess Life was formerly known as ParaPerks. After a failed attempt working with a consulting company to develop our application, we had to reset and try again. It was heartbreaking working so hard to get to that point and being so close, just to end up back at square one. But startup life is a marathon, not a sprint. There are always ways to pivot and work around, you just have to believe in what you are doing and keep going!
“It’s ok to take a day off or have a day that is not as productive as you’d like.” There’s a common theme around starting a business which is that you must work 16-hour days and basically eat, sleep and breathe your company. However, that is just not humanly possible for many of us. We all have off days or bad days that zaps our enthusiasm to work and that’s ok. Listen to your body and give it the rest and refueling it needs. There is no blueprint to success and companies progress at different rates. You don’t have to be an overnight success; the main goal is to not be a flash in the pan.
“Self-love and belief are key to success.” If you don’t believe in yourself or feel that you’ve worked hard enough to deserve success, then you won’t ever attract it.
“Have a 3–5 item checklist.” This helped me dramatically. I can easily become overwhelmed with tasks. Making a list of 3–5 things to complete daily has helped me focus my efforts and made my work time more productive.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Just do it! How can you not love clean water, air and land? How can you not love making people smile or helping your community thrive? It feels so much better to give than it does to receive and if you prefer receiving over giving, try making a positive impact and see if you don’t receive more than you could ever imagine. It’s a win-win!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Other than my celebrity crush Margot Robbie, I would choose Donald Glover, Elon Musk, Joe Rogan or the person/people that deal with M&A at Yelp or Google haha!
They are all fascinating, intelligent people who are making a difference in the world and I aspire to be more like them.
How can our readers follow you online?
We are starting a Vlog series now that can be found on our YouTube Channel (iAccess Innovations).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for featuring iAccess Life, it takes strength in numbers to make a change. This will help us in assisting others Access Life!