For this conversation, I caught up with Josh Wintersgill. Josh has the same condition as me, spinal muscular atrophy or SMA, and we know each other through those circles. The reason I wanted to talk to Josh is that, like me, he’s got a background in technology. He’s also an entrepreneur and has set up his own business. Josh has developed a product with universal design built into it. It was initially designed for disabled users, but using universal design, it’s something that many people could use. Josh started us off by telling me about his career background.
‘I’m 27 now and as you said I’ve got SMA Type Three. I studied software development for two years when I was 16 to 18. I wanted to pursue a career in tech because I knew with my disability, the long-term job prospects in technology were going to be extremely accessible and probably keep me in employment for my entire life. It was one of those interesting decisions. Was I naturally drawn to tech? Not really, but I knew that the prospect of being good in tech would be powerful for me later on in life. I went on to the University of Bristol where I studied IT management and business. One of the things I found then was that I didn’t want to have this kind of deep tech focus. I wanted to understand how tech can support business.
It was a very hybrid environment. The degree that I did was led by some of the largest employers in the UK, and they wanted graduates to come out with a mix of IT and business experience. I was, I think, the first powered-wheelchair person on the course. As one person in a wheelchair that’s disabled in a whole of over 500 students and loads of employers, you’re kind of, “Oh my God, where are all these other disabled folk at?”
You get hidden disabilities as well, so I appreciate that there are probably people that have disabilities in the same space, but it’s kind of quite daunting when you go into this environment. Employers are only starting to learn about disability now.
I graduated from university back in 2015. The course gave me a foundation in technology. During that time, I did a year’s placement with Hewlett-Packard in Bracknell. After I graduated I got employed by Hewlett-Packard again to work inside security. I have worked in Defence and been heavily involved in cybersecurity solutions as well. Again, that was more from a business point of view, so I’ve got quite a broad experience with tech and that’s a bit of background to how I got to where I am now.’
Now Josh has gone on to become an entrepreneur, and part of that is working with a very high-profile entrepreneur that pretty much everyone in the UK has probably heard of. They’ve certainly heard of this entrepreneur’s business or businesses. I asked Josh to tell us what his entrepreneurial journey has been?
‘It was very weird and completely separate from technology. Our condition deteriorates as we get older and it makes doing certain physical activities basically impossible. For instance, getting in and out of your wheelchair without support is impossible. I was very fortunate to travel quite a bit when I was younger. I loved flying. As I’ve got older, the travelling has become very, very difficult, getting from the wheelchair, on and off the aircraft. A lot of people have no understanding or appreciation of the sacrifices that people in wheelchairs have to make in order to fly. It’s a very fragile environment and it causes a lot of anxiety. In a recent survey, we just found that 50% of wheelchair users have stopped flying because of the number of issues that it causes.
Back in 2017, I went on holiday and thought, “I’m getting fed up with this.” I’d just seen a 6′2″ gentleman that was pretty much paralysed from the waist down, being dragged onto an aircraft. The chair that they used to transfer him isn’t suitable. They’re having to pick him up under his arms and legs and put him into a window seat over bulkhead seats. Bulkhead seats, for those that don’t know, are basically seats that don’t have a removable arm rest that comes up and down. So trying to lift a 6′2″ gentleman over those is almost impossible with no equipment. I thought that we’ve got to stop this. Flying is uncomfortable, it’s undignified, it’s embarrassing. There are huge safety concerns with it.
On this same holiday, I was reading a book called ‘Start with the Why’ by Simon Sinek. It got me thinking, “Why am I doing what I’m doing in technology?” At the time, I was doing my cybersecurity role. I thought, “Well, am I passionate about what I do? Yes, I enjoy it, I’m good at it, but do I want to be doing it for the rest of my life? Is it giving me that motivation to get excited?”
I concluded that if I can improve somebody’s life rather than doing an internal role within a big corporate company, there might be more value for me. And with this idea of flying as a wheelchair user problem in mind, I came home and developed this sling that is designed to be used by wheelchair passengers to help them transfer on and off the aircraft without being physically lifted under the arms and legs.
Disabled Entrepreneurs Award
Cutting a long story short, I met somebody at one of the UK airports and she put me onto Leonard Cheshire because they’re quite a large charitable organisation. I followed them on Twitter, and it just so happened that a week later after that, the UK Disabled Entrepreneurs popped up on my phone. And it said, “Apply Now”. Over the year of coming back from the holiday in 2017-2018, I’d done a business plan, a marketing strategy, and I applied for the award. I got short-listed for the top five of that year, and I, fortunately, went on to win it. The UK Disabled Entrepreneurs award is run by the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation and Leonard Cheshire.
The Stelios Philanthropic Foundation is created by the founder of EasyJet, which is Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. Every year he gives away £100,000 pounds to disabled entrepreneurs because he recognises there’s significant potential in disabled entrepreneurs and wants to give them a platform to better access funding that they wouldn’t typically be able to get elsewhere, to recognise the efforts and the work that they’re doing. Some disabled entrepreneurs are creating solutions for people that don’t have disabilities. And it’s quite a very powerful platform. After the awards, he decided to invite me up to London and said, “Josh, I really like your business, I’d like to invest in your business, and if you’d be interested in taking a brand license deal and join our Easy family of brands.”
The conversations just led from there. He ended up investing in my company. We took a brand license deal out for five years, and we now trade as easyTravelseat. It’s spiralled from there. We ended up winning the Great British Entrepreneur Awards as well, out of, I think there were a couple of thousand applications. I was voted the best young entrepreneur in Great Britain two years ago, which was incredible. I’ve gone on to receive an Honorary Masters as well from the University of the West of England too. The platform of the Stelios Awards, launching the business, and then being recognised for that, it’s spiralled my entrepreneurial journey, just leaps, and bounds.’
Disability Travel Passport
That investment in the business has allowed Josh to think about other things too. He’s also started to develop the Disability Travel Passport and I took the opportunity to ask Josh what that is all about.
‘When you look at the travel space for people with disabilities, it is all very fragmented. Say if you’re flying from Heathrow airport to somewhere in Europe. To fly from Heathrow, you’ve got to get a train from, say, Reading, into Central London, and then you’ve got to get a train from Central London back to Heathrow, and that involves booking assistance. Especially if you’re a powered wheelchair user in particular or you need access with a route getting on and off. Not only that, but you’ve also got to book your assistance when you go on to the plane, and then you’ve got to make sure that your assistance is booked at the other end. All these things start going through people’s heads about trying to not just plan their assistance to get to the airport and fly but also looking at what is accessible to them when they travel in terms of hotels, locations and attractions. They’re all things that we consider as to what we can and cannot do when we travel.
I just thought, well, there are lots of wonderful solutions out there but everything is fragmented. Why not create something joined up that’s universal for disabled people? I was working with a company in London on this, and it kind of dawned on us very quickly that if we designed the solution to enable people with disabilities to travel more seamlessly, how can we make it so that people without disabilities also benefit from the solution?
Within aviation, for instance, there’s a big problem that people don’t actually book assistance. They arrive at the airport and want assistance suddenly and then it causes all sorts of operational challenges within various time constraints and other factors that can have a knock-on effect on the passengers that have booked their assistance.
We wanted to create a solution that works for all disabled people and covers everyone’s complexities. Then when you then scale up to support people that don’t have disabilities, it becomes a little bit easier. As with the assistance example given, how then can we make the solution available for anyone to use if at short notice they want assistance? It might be somebody that’s elderly, that all of a sudden wants assistance on the day because they feel fatigued. Maybe they didn’t realise the walk from the car park to the check-in desk was so far, and now they need help getting through to the departure lounge.
We thought about how to make our solution available in terms of not just tech, not just using apps, but looking at cards. We’ve historically seen the access card, for instance, that people with disabilities can use, that could be used for the elderly as a way of showing their card when they get to an airport. On the card, it has certain categories of assistance they might require, but obviously, that’s less flexible than using an app. But the idea was to start thinking about other people that may want assistance and how best we can facilitate them.
Another prime example that we see is parents. So for example, a parent with two kids and a pram, with two or three suitcases. This parent is not disabled but needs that extra support like special assistance or assistance to help check-in and get rid of the luggage. Once you design something for disability, you’ve basically designed it for anybody.’
This is exactly the kind of thing I talk to my clients about; how you can use human-centered design to make workplaces more inclusive. The importance of thinking about the journeys that people go on and then try to remove as many obstacles as you can from that journey. I often explain to my clients that if you do this from a disability perspective, you’re of course making life easier for disabled people, but you’re probably going to make life better for everybody in your organisation. It’s a great mindset to have when you’re trying to make a workplace more inclusive.
Josh agreed. For disabled people using a wheelchair, one of the big things in corporate offices is that the main entrance has an automatic door so people can wheel straight in, with no problems. Then all of a sudden you’re hit with a door that you can’t open, and I think, “Well, what’s the point in having automatic doors on the front and then not having them on the inside?” It’s just totally pointless. That’s a classic example of something that design-wise isn’t thought about.
Going back to aviation because it’s kind of my baby, what we’ve realised is that when designing something, you need the whole supply chain to be aware of disability and all the different types of disabilities. This is because if an airline puts in an order for an aircraft, they might not know what needs to be within the aircraft for someone with a disability, and maybe the manufacturer might not know either. How can an airline know what they want if they haven’t consulted in the first place?
There’s this knock-on effect, that when you look at aviation for instance. From the very beginning of when something is needed to be ordered to the very end when something is being created and then into service, you need disability representation at every single stage, whether it’s planning, design, or implementation. What you also need is to have companies with people with disabilities in their workforce that those companies can then leverage for their experience. “Look, hey Josh, we’re looking at building something here for people with disabilities. Can we just utilise some of your experience as someone with a physical disability to give us your thoughts on what we’re doing here?”
Then you don’t need to outsource, you can use your internal workforce to help get ideas and be more adaptable. My ethos is if you include disability at every stage, then will you only ever get a world in which barriers for every type of people can kind of be eradicated because it’s considered at every stage.’
I think that’s a perfect point that Josh makes. I often get asked by clients, “How do I go about creating a diversity inclusion strategy or action plan?” I say to them, “Start with your people. Listen to your employees and their day-to-day experiences in the workplace. Identify those barriers that are preventing people from entering your organisation or preventing people from thriving within your organisation. Then start to create solutions to start removing those obstacles.” It’s a very human-centered approach I recommend. A lot of organisations take a “let’s fix the individuals” approach rather than “let’s fix the organisation culture or infrastructure” approach.
Returning to Josh’s point earlier around the automatic doors, it reminded me of a time when I went to Canada and I had a meeting with CBC. As I was approaching the building, in the main entrance is this post, and it’s about a meter high off of the ground. It’s like a one-metre long button. I looked at it, and I thought, “This is odd.” Then I thought, “Actually, it’s cool because although I can’t lift my hands up and I can’t push the button. But this post, I could basically push it with my footrest on my wheelchair.” But before I got to the door, this FedEx guy was carrying loads of boxes, and he basically just lifted his knee up and opened the door with his knee. I thought this is such a cool idea. It’s an example of universal design: a door-opener that works for a FedEx guy carrying heavy boxes, and it works for me. I can tap it with my wheelchair to open it. This is how a solution that presumably was designed for disabled people can actually help so many other people.
Josh reflected, ‘I think it’s interesting as well though because people can think they’ve designed something for disability to only find out they’ve got it completely wrong. For instance, in toilets. You can go into a toilet and find that the layout of the toilets has been done in a certain way, or there might be a pulley cord or a button to flush the toilet, which might be in reach for some wheelchair users but completely impossible for somebody that’s visually impaired to find.
What you need is to get a group of people with different backgrounds and disabilities, and say, look how this solution or product or service we’re creating, give us all of your inputs into what we’re doing and how can we make it accessible to you? I think only then once you’ve consulted those people can you then say that you’ve actually designed something that is fully universal.’
I recalled a time I was working for a large organisation that was building a brand-new head office. Part of my job was to look after the different diversity networks we had. I was having these meetings and I met the disabled staff network about accessible toilets. I met with the LGBT network around gender-neutral toilets. Then I met the disabled staff network again about providing toileting provisions for guide dogs. Then I met with the parents’ network about parent-friendly toilets for people that wanted to express milk, for example. I met with the Muslim network about providing washing facilities for prayer and things like that. There were so many synergies around the same issue, I wondered why we didn’t have one meeting with people coming from various backgrounds with different perspectives to talk about their needs?
Josh’s thinking was that this is a difficult one to answer. ‘I think one of the biggest challenges is that people might have completely different needs, even within the same group. Take our disability for instance. We all get classified as spinal muscular atrophy, and you can educate somebody on what spinal muscular atrophy is, but when you then go and talk to someone like me and then go and talk to somebody else with the same condition, we could have completely different needs. Yes, we’re in a wheelchair, but one of us might have far more acute medical needs than someone else. I might be more mobile in terms of going to the toilet independently, whereas somebody else might need more support getting in and out of a toilet. Educating people is a real challenge because you can educate generally about disabilities, but then individual people are specific. I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to it. I suppose it’s educational in terms of trying to get these employers to understand this stuff. What’s the right approach to try and educate these employers to stop making those types of assumptions. Because we all do it, right? Even us guys. I probably make assumptions about people sometimes. That doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person, it just basically means that we need a bit more awareness about how we deal with that.’
I agree with Josh. A big part of it is for people in workplaces not to make assumptions or presumptions about what people can or can’t do based on meeting one person who could be disabled. I did some work with an autism trainer, and she said, “You know, you’ve met one person with autism, which means you’ve met one person with autism”. Everybody with autism is very different and unique. But quite often, people make all sorts of unhelpful assumptions or stereotypes about people with autism, for instance.
I know it’s natural human behavior to make assumptions and to stereotype. It’s our way of making sense of the world and being able to create some order in our minds. I think understanding the impact of that on the inclusivity of an organisation is where I begin in my work. If we make assumptions or presumptions in our decision-making, what might be the ultimate impact of that on the workforce.
Josh and I moved on to discuss the current focus for accessibility within the policies of small to medium organisations and whether we are seeing any growth there. I still see a very hierarchical or siloed structure when it comes to diversity and inclusion. There’s a lot of talk around gender balance and reporting on the gender pay gap has probably stimulated that conversation. We’ve also seen an increase in talk around ethnicity, particularly in the last year because of George Floyd’s murder in the States and an increase in the Black Lives Matter movement.
What we aren’t seeing in diversity and inclusion, is people seriously thinking about intersectionality. By which I mean that as human beings, we can have multiple identities. I talk openly about being disabled and gay and tick those two boxes. We don’t just belong to one box. Unfortunately, disability is still at the bottom of the hierarchy and it’s something that The Valuable 500 Campaign speaks openly about. Where we are seeing some conversation around disabilities is within tech firms who are interested in accessibility and making sure that their digital products are accessible for as many end-users as possible.
As tech is where Josh started it was good to loop back and end our conversation there. He concluded, ‘If we look at disability 20, 30 years ago, it wasn’t in the best of places. We saw the ADA Act come in in America, and then we saw the UK Equalities Act come in. Things started to change a little bit. There was more optimism. Suddenly, since the 2000s, we’ve seen this massive boom of technology with phones, technology in wheelchairs, devices that you can have in your home to help you navigate, there’s just so much. What we’ve found is technology means disabled people are more integrated, let’s say, in society, because it’s easier for us to interact.
We’ve started seeing this rise of people with disabilities being influencers or being able to get into the workplace. All of it, in my personal opinion, has been driven by the advancement of technology. Because their margins are so vast, tech companies are one of the best industries for promoting a positive cultural workforce and they invest a lot of money in their culture. I think because they’ve been able to do that and include disabled people more because of technology, it’s allowed us to kick forward in progress with trying to put disability on the map even more.
Finally, the last thing I’m excited about is the Internet of Things, right, and how the whole society is all connected together. How we can use our smartphones and other devices to enable us to navigate out and about in society. I think there’s so much potential in that space as well.’
Josh is so right. Technology plays a huge part in my life and definitely empowers disabled people. It could be assistive technology, like my speech-to-text software on my laptop, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, or technology to control your home environment like turning lights on and off, controlling the temperature, and opening and closing doors. The technology has been around for a very long time, but it was very clunky and expensive. Now it’s become so much more affordable and accessible and we are all benefiting from it.