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A3i – Accelerating Inclusion in Israel – is the first accelerator program anywhere dedicated to ventures that improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. A3i nurtures innovative high-tech entrepreneurs, offering intense training, mentorship, one-on-one consulting, and the opportunity to take an active part in the innovative community of entrepreneurs in Israel. The accelerator was an initiative of the Ruderman Family Foundation, in partnership with PresenTense, Beit Issie Shapiro, and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Ziv Navon was in A3i’s 2015 cohort of entrepreneurs. His initiative, Just4Me, is a dating/matchmaking website tailor-made for Israelis with mental and physical disabilities. We interviewed him last week for the final installment in our A3i series.
RFF: How does Just4Me work, and how does it compare to mainstream dating sites?
Ziv: First of all, we made the website very accessible, easy to use and compatible with the needs of people with special needs. We have adjustments for people with visual and hearing impairment, it’s accessible for people with cognitive disabilities, it also has assistive tools for those who need greater effort to move their muscles.
Second, the website has its own algorithm that helps people in different ‘groups of belonging’. For example, if you have a specific form of autism, the top matches will be people who are compatible with someone on the spectrum. If you have a physical disability, your first matches will be people with physical disability.
After the people with comparable disabilities, other people will also show up, but we highlight those who are most compatible. We want to make sure that no one is left out. We don’t want it to be siloed—you can date anyone on the website. But the first people to appear are those who will interest you the most, the most likely for a relationship.
RFF: How did you develop the idea?
Ziv: I am a social worker, and I work with those who have disabilities and speical needs.In my work, I realized that what they need the most—and what they don’t have—is someone to love, to have a relationship of being together as a couple, to get married or even just dating.The need was imminent and it was very clear. After working with them for ten years, I decide to launch the website, to help them to find one another.
The situation today is that people don’t know each other, they’re in different cultural places, and they don’t have the opportunity to meet. For someone without disabilities to talk to the United States, as I’m doing on this call, is not a problem. People with disabilities sometimes need help and guidance to find one another, even if it’s only a distance of 10 or 20 kilometers.
Social services here are siloed by specific categories of disability—they don’t mix. Even in a big city like Tel Aviv, the age group of 21-40, there may be a couple hundred people with autism, and that’s the extent of their social interactions. If you don’t find anyone, then you’re doomed; where will you find someone? The siloing is also geographic; it’s very hard to find people from other places.
The website is a community of people who can come together and find love, find a relationship.
RFF: Is the site only for people with disabilities?
Ziv: Yes, but not because we want to keep people without disabilities from dating those with disabilities. Some of our clients, especially with mental disabilities, tend to require more protection. Our website is well-protected, and we approve every user individually. Someone who isn’t part of a community won’t be admitted, because we want to keep all of our users safe and feeling safe. We want to avoid an outsider who might take advantage of them.
RFF: Of the 1,000 or so members, how much do they use the site? Have there been many couples?
Ziv: The Israeli press has already featured two of our success stories, and one of those couples got married. Thanks to the A3i accelerator, we learned that we need to check in with our users even after they match up, to not just end our connection with them. We discovered that many of our couples fell in love, moved in together, got married. We didn’t have a clear sense of this activity.
As a result, when we developed our plan for the future, we included a focus on keeping track of the people that already met someone and left the website. We got phone numbers for parents, who help us keep in touch with people from the website and with the community. We have a group of involved parents who are in touch with us voluntarily. We know of seven couples that are currently dating, and we have a better idea of how they’re doing. There are even more couples we don’t know about.
A dating website doesn’t need to keep track of all its people, but we’ve had a lot of successes and good reviews, and a broadening awareness by people who think it’s the right thing to do, that it’s the proper way for people to get to know each other.
RFF: Do you provide support to members offline as well?
Ziv: We have a telephone hotline two hours a week, and lately we’ve tried to raise money to expand the hotline. Our vision is that it will be operated by people who have met on the website; we’ll train them to improve their computer skills so they can help people with the website—the older users will help the newer users.
As of now, I’m always in touch—people can contact me any hour of the day. People know me, and they call me. This is what I do. They know they have an address, someone to talk to, to sort out their issues. Sometimes my help goes beyond just finding partnership and love. It can involve finding them other things too, like a place to live, a suitable physician. I use my experience to help them in other areas. Since we’ve become a community, this is part of what happens. It’s more than a website, it’s a community of people who believe love is something for people with disabilities.
RFF: How is the website supposed to make money?
Ziv: We are approaching Israeli officials and government agencies. We’ve already proved the website is effective on a therapeutic level. It’s obvious that people who find love have better quality of life. Now we’re trying to appeal for help to finance this service. If this doesn’t work, we’re considering charging the users. In our first two years, we haven’t yet charged anyone to use the website, and we’d like to continue this. But it’s a good option.
I don’t think it’s wrong to take money, that there’s any ethical problem. But I prefer that helping people with disabilities to find love is a basic right. It’s like helping them find a job, to access schools. If we’re helping them find schools, we also need to help them find love. The website is meant to educate the population that this is right and proper, and necessary. It must be a part of every rehabilitation program.
It’s what they need the most, what they want the most. We should be addressing what they want, and not just what we think is right.
RFF: How do members first connect with Just4Me?
Ziv: In Israel, we are now very popular. People hear about us and know about us. We just had a big campaign to tell our story, including the video [in Hebrew]. Back at the beginning, when we weren’t sure about our ability to keep the people safe, and to build a strong community, we publicized the website only through families and professionals, and others in the therapeutic community. Once we developed ourselves in a way that they could trust us, and we knew we could protect our users, then we went public. We were able to do this because of A3i, and since then I’ve been on Israeli television and in newspapers.
When users sign up for the website, they can choose how you want to be viewed. Those who agree to publicly appear on the front page get higher interest, but we need to know them—to know that they’re really OK. For someone to just agree to be on the front page isn’t enough for me; I need to check with their family, their friends, with their caregivers. Just saying “yes” isn’t enough. Everything we do is double-checked in this way, because we need to keep a very high ethical standard that protects our members.
We hope eventually to accommodate English- and Russian-speakers on the website, and to also target people who live outside Israel. We learn from and cooperate with other dating sites, like JDate, and we adapt their tactics. You can find everyone, but it also distinguishes by where you’re located. It seems ridiculous, but Just4Me is bigger than the biggest comparable website in the U.S.; there’s one website just for people with physical disabilities, and another for special needs, but very small. All we need to do is plant the flag.
RFF: Are there certain types of disabilities that are more common on the website, people who are more or less integrated into the workforce, disabled veterans?
Ziv: Recently, we’ve been analyzing these questions in order to better understand our population. People with mental health issues are our most common clients. We also have many people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
When we started the website, we didn’t think people with physical disabilities would want to use it. We figured they have their own websites and their own communities. They don’t have the same interpersonal communication issues. But those organizations came to us and asked us to add categories for people with physical issues — they also need this website. And so this is what we did.
We learned that many of our clients are people who were injured in car accidents or in the military. Many of them, in their new lives with disabilities, prefer to share their life with someone who also has a disability. Those disabled from an injury usually prefer someone who was also injured.
People from Haifa University are using the data from our website for their research purposes. One thing we discovered is that someone in a wheelchair is looking for someone in a wheelchair; someone with crutches is seeking someone with crutches. It’s the same for people with autism and mental health issues. There’s also a lot of research in the United States to back this up.
RFF: What were your biggest surprises in launching the website?
Ziv: The biggest surprise was when we organized a meeting with parents, and they told me they want us to charge money. They said, don’t wait, just start charging and make the website more awesome. My approach wasn’t to take money, but to base my business plan on state funding. But the people on the inside were telling me to charge money, it’s the right to do. It’s something that I hope won’t happen, but it’s still possible we’ll turn to that option.
A second surprise was those telling me we need to also include people with physical disabilities. I had thought they were already well provided, with many opportunities. But our website really works well.
What always surprises me is the imminent need. Parents and users can’t believe no one ever thought of this idea before, and neither can I. I don’t know how no one before managed to come up with the algorithm — which isn’t so complicated.
I get surprises all the time. Just yesterday, someone emailed to say thank you for the website. This person said he doesn’t need a girlfriend, he just likes to meet people and hang out on the website, to chat with people from other cities and other places.
Also surprisingly, we have people from abroad: A woman from England, someone from the United States, from Australia. It’s always moving for me that people from other countries are using our website.
RFF: What’s your biggest challenge?
Ziv: Perhaps the greatest challenge is educating society—teaching the society that this is the right thing to do. Lately, I’ve been going to civic organizations and explain the importance of finding love for people with disabilities. Even people from my profession, people who work with special needs, get caught up in the conception that people with disabilities can live without love, because this is what they’ve had until now.
It’s always a big challenge for me. Often the agency supervisors are locked into the assumption that their clients don’t need love, and it’s better not to take the risk. But everything we do carries risks.
Integrating disability into the community is now the trend, and over the last ten years, we’ve improved the employment situation. But if we integrate them and forget about love, we’re setting them up to be frustrated. Now they’re in the community, they see other couples, and they find themselves alone. If we’re going to integrate them, we need to go all the way, and that includes giving them the option to find love and live as a couple.
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