It seems unimaginable that in 2020 you can get a package delivered the same day via drone to your doorstep, but in 70% of the U.S. you can’t text 911. This is the frightening reality for millions of Americans who are left out of our emergency help system, like those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Gabriella Wong knows this better than most. Both her parents are deaf – and after almost losing her father in a medical emergency, she’s on a mission to make emergency help accessible to everyone. She’s building AccesSOS, a tech nonprofit that enables users to text 911 right from their phones.
Shannon Farley: 911 is a call away for most Americans. But it’s not that simple for everyone. How is emergency help inaccessible for certain groups?
Gabriella Wong: Like many of the systems in the U.S., our emergency help system is designed without marginalized communities in mind. While the 911 call system is tenable for people who speak out loud clearly, and understand fluent English, it overlooks whole communities: like people with hearing disabilities and those who speak limited English. If we add up these populations, it’s a staggering 65 million Americans who don’t have access to quick emergency help. The stakes are huge – this lack of access could lead to unnecessary loss of life.
Farley: Why is this issue important to you?
Wong: I’ve lived through the helplessness of seeing someone I love in trouble, but unable to access emergency help because of their disability. Both of my parents are deaf, so we communicate using American Sign Language. When my father got into a car accident, he texted me to call 911 for him. What if he wasn’t able to reach me? This nightmare became a reality when my father had a gallbladder rupture. He was all alone and I didn’t see his texts for help in time. During one of the most vulnerable, desperate moments of his life, he couldn’t contact 911 to get help. He almost died because of this inequity. These personal experiences motivate me to keep doing the hard work of fixing this problem.
Farley: Your tech nonprofit, AccesSOS, is on a mission to solve this urgent problem. Can you tell me about what you’re building?
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Wong: AccesSOS is a free, accessible, mobile web app that helps communities that can’t call 911 access emergency services. After making their way to 911text.app and choosing their preferred language, users specify their location and type of emergency. The platform then converts this information into a 911 call. And because our solution works with analog 911 systems, it’s easily scalable to all call centers.
Farley: Your product is a no-brainer. Why doesn’t text-to-911 already exist?
Wong: Right?! 911 was built in the 1960s using the landline system, meaning that in order for these systems to actually receive texts-to-911, precincts need entirely new physical equipment. As you can probably guess, this process is pretty pricey. Many municipalities lack the funds and the urgency to prioritize converting their equipment. Right now, 70% of 911 call centers in the US can’t receive text-to-911, and the soonest we’d get access nationwide is in 10 years. People like my parents can’t wait that long. AccesSOS exists to fill this gap by enabling legacy hardware to meet this pressing need now.
Farley: As an entrepreneur, what keeps you focused on pushing through barriers when it seems like the barriers will never end?
Wong: It’s the stories that keep me motivated. The heartbreaking accounts people have shared about how they or their loved ones weren’t able to get the help they needed. When self-doubt creeps in – and it most definitely does – I remind myself that I need to continue fighting because I’ve lived the problem I’m trying to solve. Not only are my parents deaf, but they’re also immigrants – another community that has been excluded from emergency assistance. As a proud member of both of these communities, I’ve made it my life’s work to use the power of tech to expand accessibility.
Farley: What’s been the most challenging thing about social entrepreneurship?
Wong: In the beginning, I felt like AccesSOS was a misfit. We didn’t fit into the tech world because we weren’t profit-driven, and didn’t quite fit into the nonprofit world because technology was core to our model. Few resources exist for tech nonprofits, which is why I was thrilled to find the Fast Forward community. Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely journey, but once I found this community, I finally felt like I belonged.
Farley: What’s the best piece of advice you’d pass on to other women entrepreneurs?
Wong: We need YOU. You’re the only one with your story and your vision. If you see a problem and you have a vision to fix it, go for it. Be vulnerable and surround yourself with a community that’s supportive, but honest. When you face obstacles, lean on those who believe in you, and most importantly: believe in yourself.