Joanna Grochowicz | Agent of Change | Professionelle

By Joanna Grochowicz of Bugle

Joanna

There’s a great view from the Auckland offices of Be.Accessible.  Several floors down, Queen Street is bustling with the lunchtime crowd.  Students spill out from the AUT campus and fan out across Aotea Square, while others join the steadily growing queues at the many hole-in-the wall ethnic eateries.  Even with so much happening down below, it’s impossible not to notice the word ALCHEMY, spaced out in large letters across the window ledge.  It’s not random.  Alchemy is a big concept in this office.

‘It’s the notion of taking base metals and turning them into gold,’ says Minnie Baragwanath, Be.Accessible’s charismatic CEO.  ‘For us, it’s about taking the toughest parts of life and making them into something amazing.’

Accessibility in the broadest sense

Minnie Baragwanath knows how tough life can get.  As a 15 year old, she was delivered an unexpected blow when she was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a degenerative condition marked by progressive vision loss with no cure and no treatment.  Now 43 and partially blind, Minnie has never let her disability define who she is nor dictate the path she has travelled through life.  If anything, living with partial blindness has made her more determined to achieve her goals.

‘I’ve always had a sense of wanting to be involved in media or storytelling and being part of some sort of creative agency.  Be.Accessible is very much a creative change agency.’

Change is often a hard thing to engender, particularly when you’re looking to change the way people think about an issue.  But Be.Accessible is making real progress towards making New Zealand a truly accessible country, where everyone can feel welcome.  Mention the word ‘accessible’ and people generally fall back on the issue of wheelchair accessibility.  But Minnie is quick to point out that her organisation views accessibility in far broader terms.

‘The physical is just one aspect of what we’re looking at.’

‘Twenty per cent of the population have an impairment – it could be profound dyslexia, or they’ve suffered a massive stroke so there’s also signage, customer service, websites, and marketing collateral to consider.  I’m partially blind so access for me is not so much about ramps and more about how do I find the reception desk, or if I can use the website or see the numbers in the lift.  That’s the sort of thing that can make or break my experience of a business.’

Accessibility as an opportunity for growth

It’s a courageous undertaking, making every building, public facility and community truly accessible but as Minnie and her team prove day in and day out, it is not impossible.  Through its Be.Welcome programme, Be.Accessible has enabled a range of businesses and public sector groups to tackle the issue of accessibility in a comprehensive way that doesn’t just address policy but results in real changes to how they interact with their customers.  The programme has been so successful that now Be.Accessible is launching Be.Welcome Lite, a free online tool for small businesses to assess their own levels of accessibility.

‘The whole space has been hugely undervalued so it’s about getting people to place greater value on accessibility.  One way is to encourage people to look at accessibility, not as a cost, but as an opportunity for growth.  We need to think about it in terms of an aging population.  By the age of 65, 50% of us will have at least one impairment.  A large part of our programme is finding an appropriate frame – economic development, accessible design, or technological innovation.’
But it’s not just about organisations being outwardly focused.  The recently launched Be.Employed initiative helps organisations achieve as accessible employers.

‘Unfortunately people often think about accessibility at entry levels – blind people in the call centre, for example.  But what about at management level?  This is our chance to work with corporate values, to stretch an organisation beyond what they think is possible. If you can get employers accessibility-confident, provide leadership and support to them, they can become leaders in the accessibility space in their own right.’

Hard won resilience

Minnie is a CEO who knows the road to leadership can be a long one.  Her own leadership journey has required not only strength of character but huge resolve to achieve her aims.

‘Where I am today is not where I’ve always been.  I’ve had tricky times, real lows in my 20s and even through my 30s when I felt disabled – not so much by my sight but by the world.  I felt the world was constantly putting up barriers.  Initially it was difficult to find employment.

Blind women are the most unemployed group in society.  It can be demoralizing, and difficult not to start doubting yourself.’

A graduate of the Communications degree at AUT, Minnie secured a position at a production company where she was introduced into the world of media. This ultimately led Minnie to take on the role of researcher and presenter on a television series about people living with disabilities, which has no doubt contributed enormously to Minnie’s talent for engaging others in the wider story and guaranteeing buy in.

Minnie credits her mother, Rosemary Baragwanath, with instilling in her a strong sense of worth and the need to stand up for what she believes in.

While she’s had moments of self-doubt, Minnie’s belief in her vision and skill in articulating it has enabled her to secure government funding, appoint a high profile Chairman and a strong board, forge close working relationships with central and local government as well as with a range of private sector businesses.

‘We needed an agency that was not local government or pure business or pure charity.  The vehicle needed to be nimble, working across sectors, combining the best entrepreneurial thinking with strong social values.  Being with people who believe everything is possible helps,’ says Minnie of her team.  ‘Collectively we’re very powerful.’

Fostering the leaders of tomorrow

Growing leaders in the disability community is also an important part of the picture for Minnie, who participated in Leadership New Zealand’s year long programme in 2007 while still working with Auckland City Council as Disabilities Adviser.

‘I was hungry for something.  I needed a stretch.  The idea of deep questioning, being exposed to great leaders who shared their own stories of struggle and triumph – it was a perfect fit for me and my life.  It demystified leadership for me – I took real strength from that.  I went from having feelings of wanting to make a difference to actually making a difference.’

The success of the programme has been in part replicated by Be.Accessible’s own leadership course.  Now in its fourth year, Be.Leadership coaches 16 participants a year on their own leadership journey. Now that the number of past participants has achieved critical mass, the next step will be to get a formalised alumni programme going to further leverage knowledge across the disability sector and New Zealand society.

It all comes back to the notion of alchemy and turning moments of adversity into resilience.  Says Minnie,

It shouldn’t be about disability.  It should be about removing those barriers that inhibit people’s growth.  I don’t want people to get in my way and tell me I can’t do something because I know that actually anything is possible.

Acknowledgement

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We write it, you take the credit. Contact: joanna@bugle.co.nz.

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