Date posted: 16/10/2017 7 min read

Designing for an inclusive world

Social entrepreneur Minnie Baragwanath is progressing on her mission to make NZ 100% accessible to those with access needs.

In Brief

  • Minnie Baragwanath is Diversity winner of the 2017 Women of Influence Awards in NZ.
  • One in four New Zealanders have an access need (disability) and Wellington is set to become a leading city in accessibility.
  • In a largely untapped market, uptake from the retail and hospitality sector has been phenomenal and one hotel reported a 20% boost to the bottom line.

By Tina Wild

She’s a New Zealand social entrepreneur and a CEO who’s on a mission. Minnie Baragwanath is a strong social change campaigner who wants to make New Zealand 100% accessible for those with access needs. 

Since founding social change agency Be. Accessible, in 2011, the thought leader and major driver of social change has been moving businesses, public spaces, infrastructure, employers, workers and communities towards her goal. The long campaign is seeing good results from sectors such as tourism groups and shopping malls which are now catering better for tourists with access needs.

This year, the efforts of Baragwanath were rewarded when she was named Diversity winner of the 2017 Women of Influence Awards (sponsored by Chartered Accountants ANZ).

“So much of the world is designed for the average human but who is designing for a truly inclusive world?” she asks.

With 25% of the population requiring access ‑ for Autism, vision or hearing impairment, aging, mental health, learning, cognitive functioning, mobility and speech ‑ how are we meeting their needs

Inspiration for positive change

The idea of fairness in society was instilled early on in Baragwanath. “Growing up with my mother’s incredible sense of social justice, I was well aware of my responsibility to act if something isn’t fair.”

At 14, her diagnosis of partial blindness meant she experienced the impact of being labelled ‘disabled’, and also the difficulty of getting an education and getting work. The world responded in two ways to her disability, she says. “Firstly; “how do we think creatively, innovate and make the best of it, and secondly; “you’re disabled, therefore, you can’t do this.” 

Placed firmly in the creative thinking camp, a mixture of desperation for change and inspiration led to the idea of Be. Accessible. As she says: “desperation can be very motivating”.

The turning point was attending the Leadership New Zealand program. Hearing stories of people she admired and respected, Baragwanath knew to improve things for people requiring access she needed to step up and into the social enterprise space.

The idea of a social change movement with New Zealand as the most accessible country in the world took shape. She describes social enterprise as a vehicle that enables the best of social and enterprise to come together and thrive. It’s the yin and the yang, creating diversity of thought and skill. “In my mind, the definition of a good business has social embodied in it. The businesses I respect and admire have a strong social ethos. They are two parts of the same whole.”

Taking risks and pushing boundaries is par for the course when endeavouring to create change, says Baragwanath. 

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“I don’t like boxes or limitations. We are challenging the prevailing belief that people with access needs can’t contribute by creating conditions that will enable the 25% of people in New Zealand with accessibility needs to flourish.”

To do that involves coaching to change people’s mindsets and address unconscious bias about people with access needs. Be. Accessible is reframing the conversation away from cost and burden towards possibility, investment and opportunity. 

“The story had been laden with negatives. What was missing from the narrative was the opportunity. Social enterprise enables people with accessibility needs to prove their value.”

In order to challenge attitudes, Be. Accessible adopted design-led thinking. Working with all business sectors, whether it’s social policy, a business or a design team to innovate a product, they take the creators on a storytelling journey; to design and problem solve inclusively. 

Accessibility affects 25% of people in New Zealand. The World Health Organisation estimates that 15% of the global population have access needs, and the percentage is expected to increase in the future, with the ageing population and modern medicine.

The benefits of improving people’s lives are apparent and the potential returns are manifold: social cultural, political and definitely economic. A New Zealand that is accessible to everyone is a richer country in every sense, and will provide a global role model. 

Baragwanath believes that ‘disability’ has been undervalued as an area of expertise. “We have professionalised accessibility expertise by setting up a consultancy model, advising organisations, government and community organisations on how to become more accessible, to make an investment that will benefit everyone and embrace the opportunities accessibility presents.”

The access economy - an untapped market 

Tourism is one of New Zealand’s most important sectors, directly contributing $12.8 billion to GDP in the year ending March 2016. 

Access Tourism will help to make improvements to public buildings, transport and the urban environment, opening up New Zealand to a market of international visitors who can have an amazing experience regardless of ability. 

Be. Accessible is working with 80% of tourist organisations in Wellington, helping them to identify improvements. There’s been incredible commitment from transport infrastructure, council, private business and community. “The uptake from shopping malls across the country has been phenomenal, most reached platinum rating, and one organisation reported a 20% increase on their bottom line,” says Baragwanath.

“The cluster effect of business works. They’re proud to be known as accessible and strive to implement improvements.” The real value will be in the next few years when Wellington becomes a leading city of accessibility. 

The Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit believes social enterprise is the way of the future. It’s an untapped market, ripe with opportunity. Supporters and contributors say it brings the diversity of thought, creativity, sense of meaning and pride that many seek in their work and lives, she says. 

"To be able to focus on creating a fairer, equal society where people can thrive is as good as it gets.”

Watch the video from Be. Accessible below:

Find out more about accessibility and designing for an inclusive world at

Tina Wild is a Content Writer for Chartered Accountants ANZ.