User1st’s Spotlight interviews highlight individuals who have advanced the rights, opportunities and boundaries of what was thought possible for individuals with disabilities.
This interview format offers insight about the lives, experiences and contributions of those who look to advance the presence of persons with disabilities in mainstream society.
This feature is on Brett Heising. Brett Heising is the founder and CEO of brettapproved, a community for individuals to share, review and rate the accessibility of different establishments.
Prior to starting brettaproved, Mr. Heising, who uses a wheelchair to get around due to cerebral palsy, had a successful career in public relations and public affairs, which required him to travel often. After ensuring wheelchair accommodations at hotels, Mr. Heising would often arrive to realize that his room was inaccessible, requiring him to find another place to stay. Instead of getting angry, he got busy, formulating the idea for what would become brettapproved to make sure that others with physical and motor disabilities wouldn’t go through the same frustrations when traveling.
Founded in 2013, brettapproved is rapidly growing and currently has reviews in 44 of 50 states and reviews hotels, restaurants, theaters, sports arenas and more. You can follow Brett Heising (@brettheising) and brettapproved (@brettapproved) on Twitter and Facebook.
User1st: Hi Mr. Heising, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you give us a little background on yourself?
Brett Heising: I’m a proud, sturdy son of Ohio. You can’t appreciate where you are or anticipate where you’re going, unless you respect where you’re from. Growing up in rural Northwest Ohio I learned at a very young age that nothing is given to you; everything is earned. My parents are extraordinary yet humble people who believe in the importance of faith, family and friendship. Each day I will never take the responsibility of representing them lightly.
User1st: Can you briefly describe for us what cerebral palsy is and how it affects your day-to-day life?
Brett Heising: Cerebral Palsy is interesting in that, you could be walking to work, pass someone on the sidewalk with a slight limp and think, “Oh, he must have hurt himself playing recreational soccer on Saturday.” Similarly, you could also pass someone on that same sidewalk who is unable to speak or swallow. At first blush, there doesn’t appear to be any commonality between the two people you have met. Yet, there’s a chance they could both live with and overcome CP.
I’m certainly not a physician but as I understand it, Cerebral Palsy refers to any injury that occurs during or immediately following birth. Consequently, as outlined in my example, the changes that occur in the brain can vary greatly. In my case, I have spasticity and muscle weakness throughout my entire body, but primarily in my lower extremities, that make walking a challenge. Hence, I use a manual chair everywhere but around the house. If I didn’t I’d be too tired to get any work done and I have a business to run. I believe that the body is merely a cradle for the mind. Fortunately, my intelligence more than makes up for the multitude of ways in which my body betrays me.
Does navigating the world in a unique way present daily challenges? Absolutely. Is it physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting? Without a doubt. However, at its core, life is nothing more than an exercise in perseverance and I refuse to allow circumstances beyond my control to define my existence.
User1st: What did you study in college?
Brett Heising: I graduated from The Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, a specialization in Public Relations and a minor in Political Science. I studied what I did because I believe the greatest gift we can give another person is to examine life from their perspective and as a journalist that’s exactly what I had the privilege to do. I eventually transitioned to Public Affairs and then Public Relations work before I became an entrepreneur and started brettapproved.com.
User1st: What was your first job after you graduated?
Brett Heising: Like nearly every recent college graduate, my first job out of school had nothing to do with my major. I was an Inside Sales Representative for a computer and technology reseller. My job was to prospect small to medium-sized businesses and ultimately meet their hardware and software needs. This was a long, long time ago in the year 1999. I loved the company and my coworkers but I didn’t care for the job. But hey, everybody starts somewhere. 🙂
I have enjoyed a very successful career and have been fortunate to secure and keep some amazing jobs working for some exceptional people. There is, however, always the unspoken challenge of landing a job with a disability. No one ever says: “I’m sorry Mr. Heising, while you’re an excellent interview and more than qualified for this position, we didn’t extend an offer because, the uncertainty in our minds around your disability, scares us to death.” It would be neat if they did so an open and honest dialogue could ensue but it’s obvious why this will never happen.
I have been very fortunate to mentor recent college graduates through the years and whether they have a disability or not my message is the same – even if you do everything in your power to prepare and you kill the interview, things won’t always go your way. That however is the beauty of experience. I believe we learn far more through failure than we ever do when we experience success.
User1st: You’re the founder and CEO of brettapproved.com, a community for individuals to share, review and rate the accessibility of different establishments. How did you come up with the idea?
Brett Heising: I came up with the idea on a business trip to San Francisco, California back late 2011. I had booked a room with a roll-in shower, called numerous times prior to my arrival to confirm the room had the shower I needed, I was told it did but when I arrived, you guessed it, there was no roll-in shower. Not only that, the entire hotel was inaccessible. So they put me in a sister property a block away from where my able-bodied colleagues were staying and, in that moment, I became an entrepreneur. Not getting the accessible room I require, despite booking directly with the hotel and well in advance of my stay, happens about 80 percent of the time. Getting upset may feel cathartic in the short-term but it in the end, getting angry is counter-productive.
Instead of getting mad, I founded, as you mentioned, brettapproved.com so that travelers with disabilities could rely on the reviews of our peers to determine if a hotel, restaurant or entertainment venue will meet our needs. At brettapproved we focus on what works. What I mean by that is by celebrating businesses that meet our unique needs we know where to spend our money. At its core, brettapproved facilitates basic economic, market-driven change. If you’re a hotel owner and you know that globally travelers with disabilities spend about $165 billion on travel and related expenses, my question to you is simple: What are you doing to attract and retain this valuable, ever-growing market? Baby Boomers don’t consider themselves disabled but as they age mobility challenges are becoming more prevalent and they control 80 percent of the luxury travel market. It makes sense to meet their needs and make sure that hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues are as accessible as possible. It’s just good business.
User1st: How and when did you make the decision to turn your idea into a reality?
Brett Heising: I was accepted into a competitive, full-time business incubator for first-time entrepreneurs in my adopted hometown of Phoenix, Arizona in 2012. At that point I literally had nothing but an idea. We incorporated in 2013 and it’s been an amazing journey. It’s certainly been the biggest professional challenge of my life but nothing beats the rush of meeting amazing people, forming a team and creating something from scratch. I took a giant leap of faith and together with my fantastic team including my Co-founder and COO, Gillian Muessig and passionate investors, the rest as they say, is history.
User1st: What sort of impact do you hope brettapproved to have?
Brett Heising: My entire team has a singular focus: We expect to continue making travel more accessible for the one billion people around the world who live with and overcome some type of physical disability or mobility impairment. Travel is for everyone. I know first-hand the trials, tribulations and anxiety I feel as a traveler who uses a wheelchair and there’s no reason for it. It’s 2016! We have cars that drive themselves — thank you Tesla — we can certainly make sure that travelers with disabilities have the rooms they need to enjoy a well-deserved vacation or run a successful client meeting. No matter the circumstance, brettapproved exists to help travelers with disabilities travel confidently.
On the hospitality industry side, I’ll continue speaking about the value of marketing to people with disabilities. Last year, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act becoming the law of the land, Chicago, Illinois-based Open Doors Organization researched the market brettapproved serves and they found out that travelers with disabilities and those who travel with us spend approximately $34.6 billion annually. Globally that number balloons to $165 billion annually.
User1st: Are there things other than being wheelchair accessible that can impact the accessibility of an establishment for individuals with mobility issues that many people might not be aware of?
Brett Heising: Having a disability in my view is an extremely personal experience. Consequently, for me everything starts and stops with wheelchair accessibility. But I have a friend, Gordon, who has battled low vision and blindness his entire life. His top priority is the deployment of low-frequency, nonintrusive beacon technology that will tell him exactly how many paces away he is from a retail store he wants to patronize.
Living with a disability means different things to different people. That’s why the user-generated content our community members provide is essential. Perhaps if there is one common theme that I have discovered since launching brettapproved it’s this: No one with a disability defines themselves by way of said disability. Like everyone who is lucky enough to still be able-bodied, first and foremost we’re people. We have the same hopes, dreams and responsibilities as everyone else. We just happen to navigate the world a bit differently.
User1st: What sort of feedback, if any, have you received from establishments?
Brett Heising: I believe everything we do in life is relationship driven. This belief contributes directly to the positive, celebratory culture we foster at brettapproved. Meaning that when we interact with hoteliers, restaurateurs and venue owners/managers we keep things positive and treat every interaction as a teachable moment.
I don’t think anyone in the hospitality industry actively excludes people with disabilities. In my experience people are inherently good and as such, they want to do the right thing. I do think that educating hospitality industry professionals about the varying and unique needs of guests with physical disabilities and mobility challenges is paramount. That’s why brettapproved offers al-la-carte soft-skills training to any organization even loosely affiliated within the hospitality framework. Put simply, knowledge is power and once executives and frontline staff alike get a sense of how large and loyal the markets brettapproved serves are, they experience what I think is a really cool “lightbulb moment.”
User1st: How can the average person interested in contributing to the mission of the brettapproved community do so?
Brett Heising: Thank you for asking this question! Visiting www.brettapproved.com is a great place to start. When you’re there, click on the green “Join Today” button on the homepage. Then, sign-up via Facebook or create a free account directly on brettapproved by providing your email address, a password and your name. In just a few minutes you’re in. From there, community members can review any hotel, restaurant or entertainment venue they’d like.
Because traveling doesn’t always mean boarding a plane and flying across the country or around the world, most people begin by reviewing restaurants in their neighborhood that work for them. At brettapproved, we’re not focused on negative reviews or complaints, we simply want to know what works so can help our community decide where to spend their hard-earned money.
You can also join our community on Facebook and Twitter (@brettapproved and @brettheising). My favorite aspect of my job is interacting with our community members. If you have any questions email me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org. My goal is to be the world’s most accessible CEO. 🙂
User1st: What are your thoughts on the impact of the Internet on persons with disabilities?
Brett Heising: I think the Internet, and technology in general, have done amazing things for people with disabilities. Everyone loves having the ability to shop for goods and services from the comfort of their home but for many of us, the Internet transcends convenience. It offers us something much more valuable – independence.
User1st: Your community focuses primarily of physical accommodations for individuals with disabilities. What are your thoughts on digital accommodations, such as web accessibility?
Brett Heising: Web accessibility is extremely important to me and our entire team. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons we have to be launching an updated version of our site in the future. As an organization, we want as many people as possible to enjoy the benefits of brettapproved.com. I think Web accessibility should be a priority for every company that enjoys a Web presence. We can’t look at the challenges faced by people with disabilities as an “us” vs. “them” issue. Societally, we need to realize that we’re all in this together. Inclusion. Acceptance. Understanding. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of these three pillars.
User1st: What role, if any, do you think the government should have in disability rights?
Brett Heising: I believe that the government should do what it can to champion the rights of any group of people who find themselves on the margins of our society through no fault of its own. There isn’t a person alive today who was able to control the circumstances into which they were born. Some people won the lottery and were born, like me, in the 20th century in the United States of America. My life would have been drastically different if I were born on during the exact same year, on the exact same day and at the exact same time but in a different country. Further still, imagine if I’d been born with the disability I have in the year 1420. I would have led a much different life, if I’d lived at all.
The point being, life is a crapshoot. Some people and/or groups of people need more help from our government and society in general, than others.
User1st: What’s next for brettapproved?
Brett Heising: My team is extremely proud of the fact that we have reviews in 44 of the 50 states as of November 23, 2016. We’re continuing to improve the user experience and usability of our site. I’m particularly proud of the diverse community who believes in us, supports us and contributes to the site with their helpful, informative reviews.
We’re going to continue expanding our product offerings in the form of branded accessible tours and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 2016 has been an outstanding year and we’re poised for growth in 2017. But I can’t say it enough — every ounce of success we have enjoyed and will enjoy, is the direct result of the unbelievable brettapproved team, our investors and above all, our community. From the bottom of my heart thank you!