Setting up a business is challenging enough for anybody, but unfortunately, those with disabilities must work that much harder.
Josh Wintersgill is a British entrepreneur and founder of ableMove, which develops products to improve day-to-day living for wheelchair users.
In this article, he shares his story and talks about how getting funding can be challenging for disabled business owners, before offering advice on how businesses can be more inclusive.
Here’s what the article covers:
Bringing a new business to life
Josh was born with spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive muscular wastage condition. By the time he was 10, he started using a wheelchair full time and needed assistance for day-to-day living.
He says the idea for ableMove came to him after experiencing first-hand the challenges of people with disabilities getting on and off aircraft.
He adds: “There was a chap in his late forties that had a kind of paralysis down the side of his body. He was unable to self-transfer [to the aircraft], and being lifted by three or four people was quite a traumatic experience.”
Soon after, Josh invented a transfer sling that wheelchair users can place within their wheelchair before flying.
Once a wheelchair user arrives at the airport, they can be lifted straight from the wheelchair on to the aircraft without being physically lifted under their arms and legs.
“It gives people of all sizes, shapes and disabilities, a fighting chance of being able to be safely transferred with dignity and comfort from the wheelchair to the aircraft,” he says.
Josh funded the business with £10,000 of his own money to get the research and prototyping underway, using free advice from Business West around intellectual property, marketing, sales and investment.
Armed with a business plan and marketing strategy, Josh applied for and won the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs, winning a grant of £30,000.
EasyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou ran the awards through his philanthropic foundation. He offered Josh a brand licence deal with his company, easyGroup, plus the money to kickstart the business through an equity stake, which saw the formal launch of easytravelseat, which is now known as ableMove.
The past year has been challenging for ableMove due to the pandemic, mainly because it’s a business reliant on the travel sector, an industry hit particularly hard.
Without furlough, Josh admits that ableMove might not be around today, but what they could do in the downtime was find ways to diversify the business and best position themselves against their competitors in the future.
This meant building new products, such as a waterproof wheelchair cover that people can use to keep their wheelchairs dry when lifted out of a pool or out of a shower.
Josh says: “Since the beginning of coronavirus, we have developed four new products—accessories to our core easytravelseat, also known as the ableSling.
“We are now selling these products to suit people in a whole variety of day-to-day situations, as well as for travel.”
Funding is the biggest barrier for disabled entrepreneurs
Josh started his business as a side hustle, working a full-time job alongside his fledgling business.
He says: “When you’re working full time for someone else, a business is hard work.
“But trying to set up a business working full time, while needing assistance with personal tasks and activities, is very difficult.
“An extra pair of hands in the early days would be beneficial just to take some of that pressure away – someone helping out with the physical lifting.”
However, it’s funding that Josh views as the most significant barrier for disabled business owners. He wasn’t on Universal Credit while starting with his business, but he recognises many people are.
Of disabled entrepreneurs, Josh says: “They want to be able to start a business, but they can’t necessarily get funding or support from government or other entities because they’re on Universal credit.
“The actual transition from where they are to where they want to get to—the pathway isn’t there.
“It’s hard for disabled entrepreneurs. With me, because I had a little bit of cash and I pushed myself, I was able to do it.”
Josh’s advice for disabled entrepreneurs
Josh sees that organisations could help disabled entrepreneurs get going, but they often don’t understand how to attract or support disabled entrepreneurs.
He says: “I think the government has a role in working with organisations to make them more aware of the support disabled entrepreneurs need to get where they need to be.
“Maybe initial grant funding to help people from getting from A to B, or have those entities have a better understanding of Access to Work.”
Access to Work is a publicly funded employment support programme that aims to help more disabled people start or stay in work.
You can apply for support from Access to Work if you meet specific criteria. Josh could get a full-time assistant, as he met the criteria needed to access that support.
However, he believes the government needs to rethink the Access to Work criteria set down in the rules, potentially providing pre-support packages for people who don’t yet meet the full scope for support but need help to get the evidence to submit a complete application.
He says: “One of my top tips for disabled entrepreneurs is to get familiar with Access to Work and understand the support they can get through that scheme.
“Another top tip would be if you’ve got an idea is go for it and do your research.
“Spend a bit of time analysing what it is you think you’ve got because it’s very easy to think of something, go ahead and make it, and then find out other people are doing it somewhere.”
Suppose you’re interested in running a business with a disability. In that case, Josh advises you to look at how existing disabled entrepreneurs cope or what mechanisms they use to run their businesses.
He says: “Find someone who has a similar disability to you and ask them questions.
“In the world of disability, sometimes the insight you need must be specific to your situation, and it’s good to go and speak to those people who are in similar shoes to you.”
How businesses can be more inclusive and accessible
Technology and service providers could have a significant role in supporting people with disabilities by making it easier for them to get their projects going, whether with building a website, doing accounting tasks, or shipping and logistics.
Josh says: “There’s a whole raft of businesses that disabled entrepreneurs rely on to get things up and running.
“If you’re asking someone with a visual impairment or cognitive disability that struggles with flashy lights or contrast on visuals, they can be real barriers to stop people with disabilities from carrying out activities everybody else can do.
“For instance, I can use accounting software with no problem, but somebody with cognitive or visual impairment could find that very difficult to use.
“Then they’ll be at a disadvantage because then they might have to go and pay an accountant to do what they should be able to do by themselves.”
When building websites, accessibility isn’t necessarily a priority for businesses during development.
But in today’s world, having an accessible website ensures you allow people to see that your business is inclusive and attentive to all customers.
If you want to make your website more inclusive to people, there are standards out there, such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). This framework classifies whether a website or not is fully compliant when it comes to accessibility.
Unfortunately, Josh doesn’t feel that technology companies and digital teams are doing enough to make websites and apps inclusive to those with disabilities.
He says: “There are not enough businesses out there that make their websites WCAG compliant. Larger and medium-sized businesses that have the money and resources to invest in stuff like that, you’d expect them to do it, but they aren’t.
“What you find on a lot of websites is that accessibility is a last thought. Even trying to find information about accessibility or accessibility services is difficult to find.”
How to make your business more accessible to people with disabilities
First, assess what you are doing to support people with disabilities in each area of your business. There may be a gap between intention and reality. Businesses want to hire disabled people, but they don’t know how to support it.
A lot goes through an employer’s head about the difficulties and challenges of hiring someone with a disability because of the changes and decisions that may need to be made.
And it’s just a plain-speaking fact that there is still a lot of unconscious bias within the HR process of large organisations around disability.
Ultimately, the dream scenario sees good employers hiring people based on their ability to do the job. If somebody with a disability has the skills and is the best fit for the job, you should hire them.
Josh says: “There’s a lot of commercial positives in terms of hiring disabled people into the workforce. It’s good for the culture. It looks good from an accessibility and inclusivity point of view.
“If you’ve got disabled people in your workforce, they can help you improve your products and services anyway without you needing to go out and pay lots of money for consultancy.”
Josh feels that accessibility should be included as part of the foundations of building a business, along with areas such as finances, intellectual property and marketing.
He adds: “Why not as part of those foundations you have an accessibility pillar where you build in inclusivity as part of your design process. Think about how you can make your service more diverse.”
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