Full transcript: 'Disabled people make the best entrepreneurs'


This is a full transcript of Disabled people make the best entrepreneurs as first broadcast on 22 November 2018 and presented by Emma Tracey with Rachel Shapey, Josh Wintersgill and Samona Williams.

MUSIC - BBC Sounds, music, radio, podcasts.

EMMA - If you've ever dreamed about having your own business or if you're disabled and self-employed this one is for you.

This is the Ouch podcast, hello, you're very welcome. I'm Emma Tracey and with me today are three disabled entrepreneurs who Sir Stelios, the founder of easyJet, thought had such good business ideas that he gave them a massive cash boost at his business awards ceremony recently, which is run in conjunction with Leonard Cheshire Disability charity. With me today is Rachel Shapey, Josh Wintersgill and Samona Williams. Hello.

So, Rachel's on the phone and Josh is in Bristol and we've got Samona in the studio with us. Now, can you tell me what your business is and what you're going to do with the money? Let's start with Rachel. You were one of the finalists and you won £10,000 from Stelios. Tell me a bit about your business and what you're going to do with the money that you got.

RACHEL - My business is an online music education platform called I Can Compose. I used to be a secondary school teacher and I've created lots of resources and online courses to help students with composing their own music. It's just fantastic to have won this prize because I can now step up the marketing, I can visit some music education conferences and have a trade stand, so I can really move the business forward now.

EMMA - Okay. Samona?

SAMONA - Cocoa To Thrill is a bespoke personalised chocolate gifting service. We make fabulous extraordinary chocolate. One of our signature pieces is a chocolate stiletto which is adorned in pearls and edible gold. We're absolutely thrilled to have won the Stelios Award. And now it means that our business can now expand and we can bring more chocolate and more gifts to people all over the world.

EMMA - Fabulous. It sounds amazing. And Josh?

JOSH - Good morning. I'm the founder and director of Able Move Ltd. It's a company designed to improve the lives of people with physical or reduced mobility in order to access aircraft from a transferring point of view. What we've done is we've designed a product, the easiest way to describe it to people is it's a sling that's combined into a seat that goes in the wheelchair on the day of travel and it's used by the ground crew and cabin crew if need be in emergencies to get you on and off the aircraft. So, that's the simplest way to describe it.

EMMA - You were the winner. You won £30,000, what's that going to do for your idea?

JOSH - Well, Stelios won't like it but it might fund a party or two. No, I'm joking! The crux of it is that it allows me to launch a massive marketing campaign. It allows me to go to a lot of the disability events around the UK now, including Naidex and Kid to Adult events which you'll see me at in 2019. The other thing that it will allow me to do is broaden my product development. One of the things that I want to do is create more bespoke slings for those that have got more complex physical needs, and also to create a lighter version of the sling as well. It allows me to do so much. And I've also got some patent costs to pay for in the New Year as well. So, for me it's the best possible start that you could ask for.

EMMA - Absolutely. Josh, can you tell me why you created the sling, the Able Move from your own personal experience?

JOSH - So, I've got spinal muscular atrophy type 3, which is a muscle wastage disease. I was diagnosed at 18 months old. As I get older the muscles get progressively weaker and weaker, and as I've got older I've become bound to an electric wheelchair. My physical needs have got worse and worse, which means obviously I can't dress, walk, stand blah, blah, blah.

And as I've got older getting on and off aircraft has become particularly difficult because I can't transfer myself and I'm reliant on people lifting me on and off the aircraft. It's a very unpleasant experience. It tends to be very rushed. And I thought, there must be a better way of getting on and off aircraft. When I thought about a sling and I thought about a seat, because I was getting uncomfortable on the plane, I thought why not let's try and put the two together. And from that I've basically brought the product together into one solution.

EMMA - So, it's a sling and it's a seat. Somebody gets their hands in underneath the sling seat but they don't have to touch you, is that the way that it works?

JOSH - Yes. Essentially what happens is the sling or the Able Move goes into the wheelchair in the morning before you travel. You then get hoisted into your wheelchair on top of the sling, so you stay sat in it in your wheelchair, and then you stay in it right the way through until you get to the airport. And so when you arrive at the airport special assistance don't need to worry about getting transferring equipment out to put under you to then lift you onto the plane to then take it out again. You literally turn up to the airport, they see the Able Move, they lift you out of your wheelchair without touching your arms or your legs and put you straight into the aircraft and off you go. And when you get to the other end they can lift you straight off using the seat.

Remember it's not just people that have got physical mobility that benefit from this; it's the people on the ground that are lifting you on and off the aircraft. If you've got steams of people turning up to the airports with these already in it saves them so much time in terms of turnaround from a lifting point of view. And also from an emergency perspective at the moment if you're on an aircraft and you've got nothing under you how do you get off the aircraft if you can't move? And this is where this seat comes into its own. You land on the runway or wherever you land, you've got to get off the aircraft, the cabin crew can come up and with your PAs grab the straps and lift you off instantly. At the moment there's nothing to get you off. They've got an aisle chair but you've still got to be physically lifted onto that to get you off. From an aviation point of view emergencies it is disgraceful.

EMMA - Absolutely. Now, the latest Office of National Statistic figures say that there is a 31% disability employment gap, which means that 51% of disabled people are in employment as against 81% of the general population. And Leonard Cheshire are also part of the Stelios Award, and Neil Heslop the chief executive says that it's this employment gap and barriers to employment that sometimes forces disabled people to become entrepreneurs. Is that part of the reason why any of you became an entrepreneur? Rachel, we'll start with you because you've got to go soon.

RACHEL - I really wanted to be able to work more flexible hours. And being able to work from home is a real advantage for me because I've got two young children.

EMMA - And you've got MS.

RACHEL - And I've got MS, which is quite stable at the moment. But working on my own business is just fantastic. I've never felt healthier actually since I've started the business.

EMMA - And why do you think that is? What was happening in your previous job that would not have helped your condition I guess?

RACHEL - I think teaching is notoriously a stressful career to have, and it's quite inflexible, just the nature of the job: you're on your feet all day, anything can happen. There are lots of deadlines to meet. You're working in the evenings as well. I'm just in charge of my own time now and I'm doing what I love. I feel like I'm still teaching but I just don't have a classroom anymore; I'm just doing it in an online way.

EMMA - One in five employers would be less likely to employ a disabled person according to a fairly recent research by Leonard Cheshire. And almost three out of four of those line managers asked said that they'd be worried that disabled people wouldn't be able to do the job. Now, this kind of brings me on to the disclosure thing and whether you admit to having a disability or not. What do you think?

RACHEL - I haven't always told employers. I've been upfront about it if I've needed to be, but there have been some schools I've worked in where I've not mentioned it, partly because it's not really been relevant; I've been able to do the job. But if I've been asked about if I have any health conditions then I've always been honest. And there have been times when I have needed some extra support. And so I think it is important to be honest as well.

EMMA - What about now you've got business, how do you deal with it?

RACHEL - Well, it hasn't been an issue. I don't feel I need to shout it from the rooftops. But now that I've won a Stelios Award it's come to light and a lot of people have been very surprised, people who know me, because I have kept it fairly private I think. They think it will affect my business negatively I don't think.

EMMA - Rachel, I know you have to go and pick up your children so thank you so much for joining us and well done on your award.

RACHEL - Thank you very much. It's been great talking to you.

EMMA - Okay bye. Josh, I guess it's different for you because you've got a very obvious impairment and also your business idea is a disability related one.

JOSH - People that have got disabilities know their disabilities better than anybody else, right. And in order for employers to really understand your situation for me personally the best way is to be open, honest and transparent, because not every employer is going to know about every single disability under the sun. So, I think people really need to just voice to their employers, be open, because everybody's different. Some people like to communicate their disability; others don't, for various reasons. The more people can communicate about their disability the better.

EMMA - Samona we were just talking to Rachel there about disclosure and telling or not telling. What are your thoughts on that?

SAMONA - In my experience people don't really understand disability. So, my kind of go-to really is not to tell people, and then if they ask then I will explain more. But it does take a lot of explaining. People see disability in one dimension and they don't understand things like invisible illness. So, yes it is difficult.

EMMA - And you talk about invisible illness; we haven't actually talked about your disability. Can you tell us a bit about that and why you know so much about this disclosure business?

SAMONA - Well, I suffer from Ehlers-Danlos type 3. It's a rare condition which affects the connective tissues in the body, so all the connective tissues in the body are weak. That basically means that it affects people in lots of different ways depending on where they've had tears or breakages in their connective tissue. So, for example with myself I had a stomach collapse, a throat collapse, and I also had a stroke where the artery collapsed going to my brain.

EMMA - You seem reasonably well today, and you've just talked about all those horrendous things happening to you. Tell me about your journey - is that what they say: your journey - from considering yourself non-disabled through to this happening to you and then all the way through to the chocolate that you now make.

SAMONA - I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos in 2009, 2010. Prior to that I did not know that I had any kind of illness, although I know that I found things more difficult than most in my working career. I used to get very, very exhausted and I didn't really understand why. It used to take me a long time to recover from injuries when I was a child, and I was told I was playing up or faking it as it were. So, my diagnosis came very late when my body literally gave up on me and I couldn't eat and I couldn't walk and I couldn't dress myself or any of those things. I was actually in hospital for over a year and then in and out after that.

How that affected me really was I always say that the pain is one thing, and it is excruciating pain, and then adapting to being able to wash and dress yourself, or not being able to do so, again was very difficult; but the mental strain in suffering from a debilitating disability really does get overlooked and it's definitely something I want to highlight because I know that many disabled people suffer from this. You really do lose your identity. I felt that I went from having a successful career and being treated one way by friends and family to then being overlooked and being treated as a second class citizen. And just because I wasn't physically capable it was assumed that I wasn't mentally capable as well. And I think that is something that needs to be addressed within society at large.

EMMA - Samona, that's a really important point about losing your identity. What did you do before you became ill? Did you get back to what you were doing or did you have to figure out something else?

SAMONA - Well, I'm sitting here in your lovely studio surrounded by lots of people who I used to work with. Yeah, I used to be a television producer but then moved on to being a film director. I had a very successful career prior to becoming ill. As a result of becoming ill I then lost everything. I had built up my own media company and I had built up my own offices and staff etc. And I lost all of those things obviously, after being in hospital for a year and not being able to do anything. And so then I also lost something I trained in for many, many years. I started out at GMTV as a runner, and worked at the BBC and Channel 4 and various other places and built my career up to a certain standard, and then found I was then unable to do those jobs anymore, running around on set and that sort of thing. So, it meant I had to really rethink my strategy on what I was going to do in life.

And to be honest most people didn't have very high expectations as to whether I would be able to do anything, because when you're looking at somebody who literally cannot speak or swallow or use their hands or get in the shower, basic things, it's very difficult to visualise them being able to, for example, run a chocolate company.

EMMA - Yeah. So, how did you go about proving them wrong?

SAMONA - Well, first of all I'd like to say it was very difficult. It's not like the Rocky movies; you don't wake up one day and do a bunch of exercise and then suddenly be able to take on the world. It was about understanding what I was going through, living up to only my own expectations and not anybody else's, and what I did is I paced myself very slowly. For example I couldn't speak, I couldn't recall words, so I started to play Scrabble. My dexterity had gone completely in one hand and so I started to paint. And actually that's what Cocoa To Thrill was born out of: it was born from a therapy that I had created to be able to gain back some of my dexterity, but also to gain back some value. Because of course making beautiful things for people, making cakes and then eventually making chocolates, brought smiles on people's faces, and I then began to feel that I was valuable in society again and I could contribute.

And that's what Cocoa To Thrill is about: it's about people feel valuable, even when you may not.

EMMA - When you may not feel valuable yourself?

SAMONA - Yeah.

EMMA - And this baking therapy thing I'm starting to think they should prescribe it on the NHS because we had Bryony from Bake Off in a couple of weeks ago and she said roughly the same thing: she was off work ill and she started to bake and that's how she got to where she is now.

SAMONA - Fantastic, yeah.

EMMA - It's a thing this baking therapy!

SAMONA - Sugar is therapy.

EMMA - Absolutely. I really don't think that other businesses have as incredible back stories as the ones that disabled people seem to create. Maybe I'm biased. We were looking for self-employment figures for disabled people, because obviously we know about the disability employment gap, but we couldn't find good figures on how many disabled people were in self-employment. And Diane Lightfoot from the Business Disability Forum said when I asked her about it that it's because people don't necessarily identify as disabled for a start, but then don't talk about their disability in relation to their business because they don't have to. And the reason they don't have to is because being self-employed means that you are arranging your own support and your own adjustments and you don't have to.

Something I find is I have to talk about my disability all the time at work to get what I need and to figure out ways around things. And actually working for yourself, you're doing it in your own head, but you're not having to talk to this manager and that manager.

JOSH - I think self-employment is a great option for people with disabilities that don't necessarily want to have to rely on employers and communicate. It gives other people the option to suit their personal needs, and I think that's really important.

This is what comes back to the Stelios Awards in the fact that Stelios and his team and Leonard Cheshire have put this award together in order to give people like myself, Samona, Rachel, Mark and Nick the platform to share what we are capable of. And I think a lot of employers don't really see the opportunity that people with disabilities bring to the workplace.

I work full time for a large IT firm. IT works in really well with my personal needs. I was brought into the role based on what I can do rather than my disability. And then my disability came in behind that, which I think is the right way. We should be employed on what we're capable of doing. And what I think employers then need to assess is okay, so we've got this individual that is capable of doing this however he is limited or she is limited because of x, y and z so we can bring these tools in via access to work or via the workplace to enable them to achieve their ability. And that's the way it's only ever going to be in the workplace because that's what you're assessed on. Whereas if you're going self-employed no one's assessing you, you're doing it your own, and so you don't have to fight those battles. It's a mix and it's based on individuals.

EMMA - I guess the whole thing is one would want the choice rather to be self-employed or not. Do you think you have the choice, Samona, do you think you could work for somebody else?

SAMONA - Yeah, I think that my experience is slightly different to Josh's. I think Josh you've been very lucky that your employer has accommodated you in that way. My experience has been that especially when you're working in high-level competitive markets you are already against people who are great at that job. So, you're going into a job and there's 150 people who also want that job, and if you then say to that employer actually I can't go up the stairs, you need to put a lift in your grade II listed building, unfortunately they're not going to do that and they're going to employ one of the other 149 people who have applied.

Becoming self-employed basically yes Josh, I do agree with you, it means that we can now talk about disability from a higher level because we are in control of what we're doing. And so we can demonstrate and show that actually we do have something that is high value to build; we can build big multimillion pound companies. In order to be given that opportunity to me it does seem that you do need to do that yourself.

EMMA - In your flexible role as a self-employed person what do you do to manage your disability and to manage your life with Ehlers-Danlos that you wouldn't be able to do if you were in a nine to five Monday to Friday job?

SAMONA - Living with Ehlers-Danlos I always describe it as being like a Duracell bunny, so you're given a certain amount of energy and you have to manage that energy. So, for example I work more efficiently than I have been able to work in the past. Coming in to this interview today and having to do this journey to come in meant that I had to rest for half the day yesterday, which meant that I had to do only two hours of work and then I had to stop. And it really is that strict: I have to plan everything weeks in advance; I can't take a meeting the next day; I can't take a phone call immediately. Everything has to be scheduled and everything has to work around my energy levels and what I'm able to do. Every task is concentrated so once that time for that task is up I have to stop that task.

Now, you could imagine trying to work in a corporate environment in that way and saying to your employer, actually I can only do one hour of emails and then I have to go home, or if I come in for a meeting I have to have the day before off and the day after off. I don't think that would necessarily work for most employers.

JOSH - That exemplifies what Samona has achieved and how going self-employed based on Samona's individual needs suits. And that's the beauty of going self-employed. And fortunately Samona has got a great business there so it's going to hopefully allow you to do that, which is just amazing.

SAMONA - I just want to say thanks, Josh!

EMMA - Tell me your advice guys for disabled people who might be struggling in another job, who may not be working because of their disability, like you were for some time, Samona, and who have an idea and want to start working for themselves or start their own business. What is your advice from both of you for them?

JOSH - People need to assess what they're capable of doing first, and if they feel like they're ready to take the jump then they've got to go for it. I was umming and ahing about starting my business, I wasn't really sure whether or not I was going to be able to commit, and I thought let's just give it a go and give it a leap of faith. And I found myself here now with a potential massive business behind me. So, I think it's just having that drive and determination just to go for it. I'd encourage others that have got a business idea, that have got a disability to just go for it, apply for the Stelios Awards next year and yeah go for it.

EMMA - It's not that easy, Samona, is it?

SAMONA - No, I do echo Josh's thoughts on knowing that you're ready to do it. I think that's important. When you're lying in bed and you're staring at the ceiling and you're in lots of pain and your mind is whirring about what you're going to do next and that idea, that spark does come to you develop on it, use it, use that to distract you from whatever is going on around you. And don't believe that that environment or what you're around at that time will be always the case.

Of course it's not easy at all. And I would say that not only does it take determination but it also takes implementing certain practices within your capabilities and your needs to be able to then execute those ideas. Able bodied or not we all have ideas. What helps us to stand out from the rest are those people that implement those ideas and those people that get it done. And even if it's just one little step every day you'll look back three months behind you and think actually I'm here now. And I think that's important to keep going.

EMMA - What do you guys wish had been available to you when you were starting your business? I know they're both in early progression but what do you wish was available for you? Samona, start with you.

SAMONA - In what terms do you mean?

EMMA - It's very hard to come off benefits and go into starting your own business. There's a lot of concern or maybe you would have liked some sort of financial help - I know you've won the award but that's amazing and that's an unusual thing to happen.

SAMONA - Without things like that in place it would be near impossible for disabled entrepreneurs to really be able to start a business, depending on your background and where you're from, or whether you were born with your disability or whether you gained that disability throughout your lifetime, it has tremendous financial strain. And actually there's a ceiling of earning as well. Even if you are in employment you can only work to a certain level because you have to accommodate that disability. So, you for example may not be able to work the long hours that they require you to work in management, or you may not be able to attend overseas conferences that you would be required to do if you wanted to progress your career.

Things like the Stelios Awards are invaluable, and let's hope that more people cotton on to the fact that disabled people make the best entrepreneurs because guess what, we've been through every challenge under the sun. Falling down in business is one thing; being a good entrepreneur is about getting back up. And I can guarantee that most disabled people have had challenges that able-bodied people couldn't imagine, and are able to get up when there's a business crisis. And so they make fantastic directors of companies.

EMMA - Josh anything to add?

JOSH - The Stelios Award is fantastic. And remember there were 82 this year and only five got the finance, so that's 77 applications or people that have got businesses that still need funding or want funding. And so there are a couple of other organisations out there that do provide investments to disabled entrepreneurs. The main one that I know of at the moment, and Samona I don't know if you met Hardeep from Kaleidoscope?

SAMONA - Yes, from Kaleidoscope. A fantastic company.

JOSH - Yes. They can go up to £250,000 of funding, but their niche or their key area is between £2,000 to £50,000 I believe, so that's a really good one. And they have a whole pool of resources and experts available to support your application if you get accepted. So, that's a really good one to have a look at.

EMMA - But isn't it a pity that you have to rely on these philanthropic things to move forward?

JOSH - I've used Business West in the southwest, there's probably something in the other areas of the UK, and what they did is they provided me - I can't remember the amount of hours now - but I've had support for investments, intellectual property, marketing, financial forecasts, and that was all paid for via a grant. I've had support from professionals that have given me advice on everything and that was free. And I applied to that, but that wasn't specifically for disabled people.

EMMA - Okay. Now, I'm kind of hoping that Samona has brought some chocolates. I'm really hungry!

SAMONA - I was just about to say I actually have some fabulous chocolate here for you.

EMMA - Amazing.

JOSH - Hi Samona. Me please.

EMMA - Send some to Bristol.

SAMONA - Yours is in the post, Josh, don't worry. I've sorted you out.

JOSH - Thank you. I'm changing address; I'll send it to you.

SAMONA - So, this one here is vanilla infused white chocolate and black forest chocolate gateau. The black forest gateau it's in the shape of a lipstick, you've got a lipstick there. That's the vanilla one.

EMMA - That's cool. I can't eat that, it's beautiful!

SAMONA - It's hand painted so it's got a little pink tip and it's got lots of gold on the bottom of it. Emma's eating the vanilla one right now.

EMMA - Amazing. Absolutely gorgeous.

SAMONA - And she's just like…

EMMA - Mmm.

SAMONA - Yeah.

EMMA - So, I'm going to say thank you. This has been the Ouch podcast. You can find us on BBC Sounds, and please tell your friends about us. You can contact us ouch@bbc.co.uk is the email. We're on Facebook @bbcouch, Twitter @bbcouch. You can find all our stuff at bbc.co.uk/disability.

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