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After experiencing challenges related to her own disability, Beth Kume-Holland decided it was time to take action and transform workplaces to become more inclusive.
On a mission to create more opportunities for those in the disabled community, Beth had the idea to create Patchwork Hub, a disabled-led employment platform and provider of training and consultancy services.
At the start of her conversation with investors, they were willing to offer her £300,000, but once she disclosed her own disability, they quickly dropped this figure to £30,000.
But no barriers were going to stand in Beth’s way, as she found new investors who were much more value aligned.
In this episode, we explore the power of flexible working, how businesses can make themselves more inclusive and accessible, and the issues disabled entrepreneurs have with access to funding.
Here is her unfiltered advice below:
- Flexible working has given the disabled community more work opportunities
- Hidden disabilities and integrating disabled people into the future of work
- Changing people’s perception on disability
- How much progress has Patchwork Hub made?
- Making content more accessible
- How funding went from £300k to £30k
- Your disability shouldn’t make you any less of a role model
- How to respond to discrimination
- What is the structure of a social enterprise and what are its benefits?
- Small steps startups can take to become more inclusive
Flexible working has given the disabled community more work opportunities
It feels like this is such a great time to be talking about this topic, because during the pandemic I felt like it was this amazing moment for those who needed to work from home, who had a disability, had a chronic illness, because it proved to the world as a whole, that you can do this job remotely.
But here we are a couple of years on and I kind of wanted to check in with you and find out is that still the case? How is the situation looking for those who want to work and have a disability?
That’s a good question. So yeah, the pandemic was, for all of the difficulties that it brought, and especially for disabled people as well and everything that brought with it, it did validate that remote working works, flexible working works.
It’s a shame that it, I think, took a pandemic for society to adjust, to make those sorts of adjustments that disabled people had been asking for, for decades and had been denied for a really long time. It made the world of work a lot more accessible in that way.
And certainly with Patchwork Hub, I remember in 2019 when I spoke to employers about what we were trying to do and about more accessible ways of working, they loved the idea, but they were like, “We don’t have jobs that can be done remotely. We don’t have jobs that can be done a little bit more flexibly.”
I think for most people it was like one day a week, with Fridays working from home. That was the typical response.
Whereas now, there’s a real moment of opportunity I think for employers and for businesses to ensure that as we move into a hopefully post-pandemic world and sort of the new normal, to make sure that those accommodations and those accessibility adjustments stay not just for disabled people, but people who might have caring responsibilities, might be parents.
It makes the world of work so much more accessible for so many people. So it’s a real moment of opportunity, I think.
So, Beth, set the scene for me. Tell me about this disability employment gap. How big is this issue?
So, just to initially explain, the disability employment gap for anyone who’s unfamiliar, it’s basically the difference between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people, and I think the latest data, it stands at around 30%.
So in other words, the employment rate for disabled people is around 30% lower than the employment rate for non-disabled people. And it’s a really serious issue.
I think first of all, it represents a serious failure and letting down of disabled people in the country. While there’s obviously some disabled people unable to work due to their health, and that’s really important to recognise.
There’s far too many disabled people who are kept out of work because of barriers in conventional practices and the way we do things that just simply don’t need to be there. And the issue’s not just serious for the disabled people who are being excluded and let down, it impacts everyone.
I think there was a recent government report that said about getting 1 million more disabled people into work, would increase economic output by £15 billion annually, and that’s just getting disabled people into work.
Imagine the potential for society if we can lower the barriers that disabled people face once in work and truly allow them to pursue their full potential. Disabled people are the largest minority group, comprising over 20% of the working population, and it’s also the only minority group that any of us can join in an instant.
So, it’s such an important issue to be thinking about.
Hidden disabilities and integrating disabled people into the future of work
And you’re so passionate about this.
Do you want to tell me a bit about how your experiences prompted you to create Patchwork and how, I don’t know, how you managed to not be dissuaded, how you managed to keep on plugging away and getting the opportunities that you wanted despite perhaps the barriers?
Yes, definitely. I guess to go back to where I was when I started Patchwork Hub, because I think that paints a bit of a picture for it.
So, I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to study in the States, and it was at Harvard University, and before I arrived, I did everything that I could have done in terms of trying to prepare, I provided medical documentation of all of my needs and everything.
But unfortunately, because I wasn’t a primary wheelchair user, I was given a room up eight flights of stairs with no lift and no other suitable alternatives.
And it meant there were periods of the year where I was completely confined to my room, because my illness meant I physically couldn’t climb the stairs to leave the floor. And this was just one of a whole host of inaccessibility issues that I faced.
But it was frustrating because the university was on paper, an institution committed to accessibility and meeting the needs of its pupils, and I had all of the doctor’s letters and things that I needed to say why I needed the adjustments.
But I think part of the issue was that I was speaking to people that had a very traditional view of disability or what a disabled person was, and I didn’t fit that, because a lot of my disabilities were invisible.
And I actually think that assumption works both ways. Sometimes the barriers that I’d faced were around when people, once they realised, I was disabled.
Especially as an entrepreneur, far too often I’ve experienced this switch from being treated as an innovating entrepreneur who’s been to Oxford and Harvard, to people treating me like my business must necessarily be some small-scale, even frivolous thing.
That it’s good I can keep myself occupied and that because of my disability, they sort of immediately reduce their expectations of me and their assumptions about what my aim must be. And it was sort of all of that that led to me realising the need for Patchwork Hub.
I had the original idea when I was in the States, and I was facing all of these challenges and I identified as disabled in a way I hadn’t really needed to before, and I was living on another continent without my family or support network, and it was quite tough.
But in feeling so alone, I found community in getting really involved in disability advocacy work, trying to find and use my voice to drive positive policy change. And it was through that work that I met so many talented, amazing people who were facing really similar issues to me.
They had skills to offer and ambitions that they wanted to achieve, but the barriers in the way things were done just meant they were missing out, and it meant society was missing out on their potential as well.
And obviously, that was pre-pandemic, and it’s a different climate now, but it was definitely my experience which led me to having the idea for starting Patchwork Hub, and also trying to approach disability and inclusion in a way that hadn’t been done before.
I found in starting the business that the only accessible solutions that existed were disability-specific, and while they’re doing really important work, it’s so important that accessibility and disability inclusion is mainstreamed, and that’s what Patchwork Hub is doing.
So, through the platform and our training and consultancy, we’re working to ensure that disabled people are integrated into the future of work, front and centre of the change, rather than a sort of separate category added on at the end or an afterthought, which I think has sometimes been the case in the past.
Changing people’s perception on disability
So, tell us how through the consultancy, I suppose specifically, you are helping to change the job market, change the wider industry, and how you are also advocating for policy change that’s going to actually make this much fairer for people.
In terms of our services that we do, alongside helping employers attract the diverse talent for our recruitment schemes and our jobs board, the training and consultancy is helping employers who a lot of the time have the commitment to make change, and it’s just a lack of know-how or a lack of awareness of the barriers.
So, we run training sessions through to bespoke consultancy projects, where we help them on their disability inclusion journey. And a lot of the times, it’s not just improvements around disability, it’s improvements around flexible working for all members of the workforce.
It’s about helping employers improve their approaches across the whole talent lifecycle, from the attraction of talent through to retention, and by working with employers to build their understanding, their processes, and their approach to drive the more inclusive future of work.
And in terms of the policy side, that’s something that we do a lot of, and I do a lot of advocacy to try and help to make sure that the narrative around disability and the approach that government takes is one that doesn’t see disabled people as the problem, but as the opportunity that it affords.
The way in which we do that with employers and with government, we use a social model of disability, which is something that a lot of disability-inclusive employers and charities now use. So, just to give a quick explanation of this if anybody’s unfamiliar, which they will highly likely be if they’ve not come across it.
Traditionally, when people think about disability, they would often think of what’s called a medical model of disability. The medical model focuses on what’s wrong with a person and says that people are disabled by their impairments or differences.
In contrast, the social model of disability is a way of viewing the world which says people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference.
So for example, a barrier could be something physical, like being in a wheelchair and unable to get up the stairs because there’s no lift, or it could be barriers caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming there are certain lives disabled people can’t lead or things they can’t achieve.
The social model frames the problems as the societal barriers rather than viewing disabled people as a problem, and it’s a much more helpful way to think about a lot of the issues we face and the policies that we can drive in terms of positive change.
But I think sometimes the political approach still seems to be stuck in that old-fashioned medical model view of disability.
So whether our government, or any government in fact, when they frame disabled people as a problem rather than the barriers that they face being the issue, it fuels a very unhelpful narrative, which makes it very difficult to drive positive change.
So, a lot of the work that we do is in trying to educate employers and businesses, but government too, in terms of disabled people not being the problem. They’re a disenfranchised, underutilised, and supremely talented cohort of society whose potential is currently being wasted because there’s nowhere near enough action taken to remove those barriers that prevent them from excelling.
So, I think a lot of the work that we’re doing both in the business side and the government side is also trying to change attitudes as well as the actual processes and practices, which is a key part of the work.
How much progress has Patchwork Hub made?
I’m getting a sense of just how enormous this task is, this almost Sisyphean task pushing this boulder up this mountain, because you’re not just dealing with employers, you almost have to be speaking to the people who build the offices in the first place.
You have to be speaking to the planners who are giving the planning permission for these places to be. I mean, it touches every part of life really, civil, and professional.
So, how much progress have you made? How have you changed things for the better so far?
That’s a good question. It definitely is a mammoth task that one person can’t take on, on their own.
But I think for us, it’s the changing the policies and making sure, it’s those quick wins and those things that might seem small victories in terms of connecting a disabled person with a job that they deserve and removing barriers in the process for them, so they can just be set up to thrive.
But it’s also in the making sure that employers are creating a culture for disclosure for their disabled employees, because sometimes we speak to employers that employ hundreds or thousands of individuals, and they say, “We don’t currently have any disabled employees.”
And that’s probably unlikely to be the case given the fact that one in five of the UK population is disabled, even though there probably are a lot of barriers that are preventing people.
Sometimes if there’s not a culture where people feel able to share their needs or there’s no sort of adjustments process in place, that can actually be at the very start in terms of just making sure that employers and line managers and recruiters are aware of what those barriers are so that you can then go about addressing them.
But it’s also in terms of the quick wins that we have.
So it’s sort of both the long-term vision for change and the impact that we do with our work, but it’s also those things that might seem small, but for individuals in your team or for people who are enjoying your social media content that make so much difference in removing barriers.
And I’m happy to talk a bit more about those quick wins if that’s helpful at all.
Making content more accessible
Yeah, I’d love to hear about those, because that must be the thing that keeps you going when you’ve had a hard day or you feel like you’re banging on a brick wall, and then someone sends you an amazing message saying, “Thank you, I’ve got this great job and I’m loving it and I would never have got here without you.”
I mean, that must just be the biggest buzz.
Yeah, absolutely. It makes everything worthwhile, and it’s something that’s definitely been a tough journey to get to that place.
But to be in a situation where we’re impactfully helping individuals that are so talented, that for so long have also become disenfranchised in the job-hunting process where they’ve had hundreds of applications that have been unsuccessful just because of sharing their access needs, which a lot of the time are very small adjustments that they might require. But it’s just that lack of awareness for employers.
So yeah, the sort of even small wins, like in small businesses that we work with, where they might not be employing people, but in terms of making their content more accessible.
So, making sure that all of their videos have captions, alt text and image descriptions on their posts. It’s small things like that really make a big difference. It’s also in terms of brand improvement, brand reputation and employer branding.
There are so many different areas, alongside making a more positive user experience for candidates or employees or customers, it also just makes it a bit more accessible for everybody to enjoy the content.
I know for me, I watch too many reels and TikToks, and using captions for that, it makes so much difference for so many people that might not be dependent upon it.
And it’s that idea that goes through a lot of our work, that accessibility, even though it’s essential for some people, it’s useful for so many of us in terms of those innovations that come through being more accessible and inclusive.
How funding went from £300k to £30k
Yeah, that makes sense. And I’m fascinated by what you said earlier about it’s not just about infrastructure change, you’re also pushing for sort of attitudinal change.
And you mentioned that you’ve been in situations as an entrepreneur where you’ve been treated one way, and then you’ve explained, “Well, this is why I’m invested in this idea, I have a disability,” and then the temperature’s dropped, and you’ve had a very different response.
Can you tell me a bit about some of those experiences and what you did?
In terms of access to funding, I’ve been in rooms with investors, where in the early days before it was as public about my own disability, and they weren’t aware going into it that I was a disabled entrepreneur myself.
And unfortunately, the reality was that I would go in, the conversation would start with us talking about raising £300,000 as a sort of pre-seed round, and then by the end of the conversation it had slowly gone down to £30,000.
And literally, it was nothing at all to do with the financials, the strategy, it was as soon as I was discussing the nature of my disability and because for me, my conditions are chronic illnesses and a lot of the time the symptoms that come with that, can sometimes be unpredictable.
I guess for some investors that are unaware, it can switch them off to it, just because they’re not used to dealing with disability and what that looks like.
There’s that traditional view, and it goes back to the workplace as well, that rigid view of this is the way things are done, this is the way you should work and produce these outputs. It’s about the work getting completed rather than how it gets to that end result.
And that’s I think something that’s been really frustrating and something that I’ve had to overcome in thinking about access to funding, and also the burnout culture that’s quite pervasive in the startup world.
It’s why I’ve been fortunate to be a part of mainstream accelerators and entrepreneurial spaces, and I’ve always tried to advocate and raise the issue of accessibility. Because whilst it’s fantastic to have disability-specific support programs, a lot of the time, until disabled people have access to those mainstream spaces, I don’t think that things are going to change at the rate that they need to, and I think sometimes it can feel a bit like an echo chamber.
And I think this isn’t just true of disability. I think this is true in so many areas now, where the only people that engage with certain issues are the people that were already educated or allies to begin with, and that’s why I think it’s so important to raise awareness.
And I think the other thing with barriers that entrepreneurs often face with disabilities, is the sort of pervasive burnout culture and burning the candle at both ends, and that sort of idea that to be a successful entrepreneur you’ve got to hustle and have a side hustle and things.
And that’s something that’s very difficult for people with disabilities to do, in terms of holding down a full-time job whilst starting a business, when you’re also managing conditions that sometimes in themselves can feel like full-time jobs.
I think that’s something that often gets overlooked. And it’s about finding another path forward, even though I definitely haven’t quite found that balance yet myself, I’m still currently working on it.
But it’s trying to change that culture that can sometimes be a bit toxic, and it causes burnout with so many entrepreneurs.
But I think especially when you are dealing with health conditions with quite complex symptoms, that can also be something that’s quite difficult to try and keep up with when that’s the environment that you’re operating within.
Your disability shouldn’t make you any less of a role model
Is it a lot of pressure being a kind of more high-profile business owner who’s becoming very successful with a disability to be this aspirational, inspiring character to other would-be entrepreneurs with disabilities?
I think the first thing I’d say is, that I would love to think that I might be able to lift up and help other would-be entrepreneurs with disabilities. There’s so many amazing disabled entrepreneurs out there, and people that have definitely acted as role models for me. I’d be honoured if anybody ever thought the same about me.
And I think that a massive pinch-me moment last year was I made it into the Shaw Trust Power 100, of the 100 most influential disabled people in the UK, and I’d literally looked up to the people on that list for years in my own journey.
And so it’s just an incredible honour to think that I might be in that position, and that’s why I think conversations like this are so important. I’m so grateful for the opportunity, because I think it’s really important to ensure that in mainstream entrepreneurial spaces, that people are getting those voices and that we are able to share our stories, and it not feel like a risk to our business.
I think so often, I felt worried about being vulnerable about my symptoms. And May awareness month has been the awareness month for lots of my conditions, and it’s something that I really worried about sharing exactly what I went through in terms of my everyday barriers and what that looks like because of the worries around clients seeing certain things or investors seeing certain things.
But actually, thinking about it, it shouldn’t make any difference because it hasn’t affected at all what I’ve achieved or what other disabled entrepreneurs manage to achieve.
It’s about measuring us on, and if anything those additional things is, and that lived experience is what makes our stories and our journeys even more fulfilling.
And also in terms of the work that we deliver and that expertise that we bring, particularly in this sector, is really important.
How to respond to discrimination
Because you could have walked into that investment meeting and not mentioned any of it. You could have just taken the £300,000 and gone home, but you didn’t.
So, what was your response when you saw that number dwindle? I mean, do at that point just walk out of the room, or do you challenge the investor, or do you just think, “You know what? I’ve dodged a bullet. I’m really glad that you’re not backing my company.”
What happens next?
I think now, I feel a lot more confident calling people out on it a bit more, but when it happened, I wasn’t.
And I think this is the thing, is that a lot of the time people might assume that disabled people are really confident with their needs and confident with advocating for themselves. A lot of the time people are, but sometimes if people haven’t gone through those barriers, like the first time it happened to me, I was just shocked.
And I think I went away from the meeting, I was very easy to convince myself I hadn’t missed out because I didn’t think they were quite value-aligned by the end of it. But I think that it’s so important to try and challenge where we can challenge inaccessibility.
And I think one of the things I’d say as well, if this is something that any listeners have ever gone through, is not always you need to challenge people in the room.
Sometimes it’s educating people afterwards or before, and that’s something that, there’s no right way of advocating for yourself or advocating for your needs. And I think as much as it’s great to be bold and challenge people, that’s not always easy for people.
And for me with the way in which my disability can affect my speech, and as you can tell sometimes through my answers to these questions, it can affect my cognitive functioning, and so sometimes saying stuff on the spot isn’t necessarily the best way for me to get my point across.
So, that’s definitely something that I have followed up afterwards, and they’ve since improved on it. But they won’t be investing in Patchwork Hub anytime soon, by my choice.
That’s very diplomatic, very well put and very measured.
I think that many people probably would’ve felt like they could lose their temper and been completely vindicated.
What is the structure of a social enterprise and what are its benefits?
And I just want to find out a bit more about the structure of Patchwork. So, this is a social enterprise. What were the benefits on going that particular route? Why not be purely for-profit?
And how has that particular structure affected your plans for the future, your growth, maybe some of your ambitions beyond just having a successful business?
So actually, we get the best of both worlds being a social enterprise. We’re a certified social enterprise, we’re also a for-profit business.
So, just to explain what that actually means in practice. Our formal legal structure, we’re a limited company by shares, but our company’s social mission and purpose is enshrined into our articles, and that mission is basically decent work for all with a vision that everybody who is able to and wanting to, is given the opportunity to thrive in work.
And as a social enterprise, that aim is at the heart of all we do, and in particular half of our profits go back into the company and supporting its social mission.
But what that means in practice in terms of our approach, is that some avenues of funding just aren’t that suitable for us. So for instance, obviously VC investors that are purely driven by profit, although there’s technically nothing to stop them investing, they might not be the best fit for us given that social impact commitment.
It’s actually something I’m thinking quite a lot about at the moment, because we’re currently gearing up for an investment round, and in doing so, we’re looking more at impact investing to ensure that value alignment that’s really important to us.
But to be honest, I think that that value alignment is so important to anyone raising investment regardless of the nature of your company.
But the reason I wanted to go down the social enterprise route and the specific structure we’ve taken was because in looking at the competitive landscape, both in recruitment and the consultancy sector, and just in the mainstream startup space, I was frustrated by the lack of social responsibility that big firms took when their scale afforded them so much opportunity for impact.
So I wanted to build a sustainable social enterprise that had the potential to scale in the same way as other companies that monopolise the market, but that authentically produced measurable social impact and had it at the core of its ethos.
And it’s not just from a societal angle of building a more inclusive society. Even with my pure business hat on, this avenue made the most sense in terms of giving us competitive advantage.
I think is something like 87% of consumers choose a company based on its advocacy of a social issue, and I think that in 2023, corporate social responsibility is not an issue that can be ignored.
So, I genuinely think when people are given the choice of a platform to use, whether it be an employer or a jobseeker, given the option they would choose a social enterprise that authentically lives its values, and any money spent on services, you know you’re also making the world that little bit better by doing so too.
So yeah, it sort of runs through everything that we do really, that social mission.
Small steps startups can take to become more inclusive
That’s makes perfect sense, because convinced, I’m a hundred percent convinced.
And to that point about how some of these enormous companies that have the resources to really be more inclusive and how you’re kind of guiding them on that journey.
But I want to speak for some of our listeners who might be very small startups, they might be at the beginning of their journey, and they might be listening to this thinking, “This makes perfect sense to me. I would love to be more inclusive, but I’m so busy, I’m already working all these hours and I don’t have any money, and we need to hire someone in five minutes.”
How do you speak to those people about making small changes, and what should those small changes be in the moment that could help your mission?
It’s a really good question, because I completely appreciate running a small business and everything that comes with it, it can feel like a whole issue to approach in terms of accessibility and disability.
I think the first thing that I’d say in terms of myth-busting a bit is the idea that access has to cost money. I don’t think in lots of cases, and I’ll just go onto a couple of examples that might help, but it doesn’t have to cost money.
And even from an employer side, if you are employing anyone, reasonable adjustments, I think the average cost is £75 for employers, and there are access to work schemes and things that can help.
But in terms of things that are sort of quick wins that small businesses could do, and anyone really, regardless of if you’re a small business owner, you could implement this in your work, I think first on the communication side.
So, whether it’s internal comms or external on social media or elsewhere, there are lots of things that businesses could implement really quickly and at little cost.
One of these things could be on all meeting invites, making sure to just ask whether there’s any adjustments people might need to help them access the meeting.
So, literally just a sentence or two in an invite with, or if you are running sign up forms, and you’ve got an Eventbrite event where you can just add a simple question that asks people about their access needs, and it takes the pressure off of the individual to always have to advocate for themselves.
The other thing is having a mandatory video on policy at work and running workshops and things like that. As someone who runs these workshops and meetings every day, I totally get it that sometimes it’s less than ideal when you’re hosting, and everyone has their videos off, and it’s hard to gauge engagement.
But for some people, putting their videos on at certain times of day can be a real barrier to participation.
For example for me, because of my symptoms in the morning and the personal care I undertake, it’s often not possible for me to have my video on. And that’s not to say you shouldn’t invite people onto video, as it’s lovely to be able to see people’s faces virtually, but just always trying to remember to pose it as a question on an invite.
So, say something like, “You are able to come on video?”, rather than making it a mandatory requirement, if that makes sense.
I think the final practical quick win just for anybody who uses social media is just, you might not realise it, but there are so many barriers that prevent disabled people from accessing and enjoying your content.
So some initial things you can do is making sure to always include captions in your videos, making sure to provide transcripts to any audio, and image descriptions and alt text for any images you post.
On this last point, alt text is basically a simple description of the image which allows users with low vision to consume your content via a screen reader or assistive technology.
And an image description is very similar to that, but it’s a written description of the image in the caption itself, and it’s not only helpful to people with a visual impairment, but people with different styles of learning and relating to the world.
So, for people with sensory processing differences like me, or autistic or dyslexic people, they might benefit from having something written in text rather than the image. There are so many benefits for so many people.
But I could go on forever giving different examples.
But hopefully that gives a flavour of what small businesses can do, and none of that stuff costs any money to implement.
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