Dream for a fairer world leads Saman to create a unique accessibility app

The influence of a ‘superhero’ and his own determination to make a difference helped wheelchair-user Saman Akbaryan overcome personal challenges, achieve academic success and use his skills to develop an app to improve the lives of others with disabilities.

A recent graduate from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, who arrived in Melbourne as an international student in 2020, Saman drew on his IT skills and personal experience to find a new way to solve the physical access challenges often faced by people with disabilities.

Saman was born in the Iranian capital, Tehran. As a wheelchair user, he felt he was ‘different,’ from an early age. At around the age of six, he realised he had to make the choice to either be vulnerable for the rest of his life or find ways to channel his disability into a power and thrive in the face of challenges.

In Iran, Saman used to walk around with two elbow crutches, as most of the city and buildings are not accessible for wheelchairs. This challenge in his hometown sparked the idea of an inclusion app later in Australia.

“As a child, using Batman as my inspiration, I decided to face my fear,” Saman said. “I taught myself how to use my uniqueness to achieve success in life.”

Disability taught him how to be creative and adjust to any situation in his favour.

“At an early age, to have a spot in children's games, I needed to come up with ideas to score and even challenge other players. For instance, in hide-and-seek, I could not hide very far away, so I picked some leaves and mud before the game started and used them as camouflage somewhere near the home base.

“In another game called ‘Gol Koochik’, a variation of street football in Iran that has a small goal, since I walked with crutches, I chose to be a goalkeeper and leaned on the goal frames to stop using crutches.

“In most of those games, I was among the top scorers, and even sometimes, team leaders argued with each other to have me on their own team.”

Saman Akbaryan

Saman went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering, a Master’s in eCommerce and is now a fresh graduate of The University of Melbourne. His Master of Information Technology, specialising in Human-Computer Interaction, has positioned him perfectly to develop technological solutions for people with disabilities.

Beginning with locations in Melbourne, Saman and his team have developed a mobile app and website, called the Inclusion Atlas, which helps users to uncover the accessibility and inclusive features of buildings and locations they plan to go to in advance.

“In my own life, there have been countless times where I've arrived at a venue that wasn't accessible. Therefore, I needed to alter my plans,” Saman said.

"People with disabilities, as city dwellers, always struggle to deal with physical accessibility in buildings, transportation and access to different services. These issues can affect their social interactions as they are unable to interact with colleagues, friends and family appropriately. Ultimately, they are likely to be socially excluded and prefer to stay at home or visit a limited number of places.”

Working as a Project Manager and UX Specialist with the company Cultural Infusion, Saman developed the Inclusion Atlas mobile app and website over the past 18 months, while studying for his second Masters, and now has an eight-person team working on the project at Cultural Infusion.

“As a part of my course at the University of Melbourne, I enrolled in an internship. I conducted research about Cultural Infusion and learnt that the company has introduced the world's first diversity mapping platform,” he said.

“Therefore, I was passionate about having the opportunity to do my internship there. I presented my idea to Peter Mousaferiadis, the founder and CEO of the company. He was fascinated and gave me the offer to continue working there on my project. Without Peter's generous support, it was literally impossible to see the day we are currently at in the project.”

The Inclusion Atlas app is unique because of its User Generated Content (UGC) application that supports diverse-ability needs in the physical world. It is a crowdsourcing application that allows users to be actively involved by voting, uploading photos, or doing micro-tasks where voluntary input from participants achieves a cumulative outcome, to establish a register of access capacity of venues (eg: restaurants, retail outlets, public transport etc.) across a given city.

“The credibility of this aggregated data can be verified by a phenomenon called ‘Social Proof.’ People often look to others who were in a venue before them to uncover its inclusivity. Therefore, the more users participate, the more accurate information about venues we get,” Saman said.

The Inclusion Atlas encourages users to give private feedback that can lead to constructive outcomes. Also, venue owners are encouraged to make their location more inclusive by a real-time rating system and by notifying previous customers about renovations or other changes if they were unhappy with their visit. The app works with a premium subscription model and contains ads, but all functionalities and features are free for users.

Saman’s team is in the process of finalising the design to launch the beta version on the website, Google Play and App Store. The aim is to cover accessibility for people with all forms of disability, then gradually expand to support all types of inclusivity, such as gender, age, culture etc.

Users might be able to download the beta version and start rating venues as early as October 2022. The team plans to expand coverage across Victoria, Australia and beyond within a decade.

“The Inclusion Atlas is for everyone, not just people with a disability. Everyone can advocate for a friend or family member who requires assistance. All of us can be a part of the solution.”

Saman recently shared his journey as an international student with a disability with readers in the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine. Read more here: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/blogs/international-perspective-iranian-student-australia

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