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02.12.20

“Nothing about us without us”: Feature interview with Josh Wintersgill

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Josh Wintersgill is a multi-talented and highly successful young British entrepreneur, aspiring Paralympian and founder of Able Move Ltd. 

His company produces the easyTravelseat, an innovative transfer device designed specifically for people with Physical Reduced Mobility to ensure safety, dignity and comfort when being transferred in and out of a wheelchair. 

We spoke to Josh to hear his entrepreneurial story, ambitions for the future, and what he thinks can be done to make entrepreneurship more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

I’m Josh Wintersgill. I am 27 years old and I've got a physical disability called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, which is a progressive muscle wastage condition. I was diagnosed with the condition at 18 months and I've been in a wheelchair since I was 10. After graduating with a degree in Information Technology and Management for Business at the University of the West of England, I worked for three years with an IT company as a cybersecurity manager. Now I run my own business, Able Move. I also do quite a bit of volunteering with different charities around the UK, including Leonard Cheshire, Disabled Living and Spinal Muscular Atrophy UK. I’m also training to be part of the Great British Paralympic shooting team. 
 
What drives you? 

Anything that makes life easier for people with disabilities particularly drives me. You know you're doing something right when getting out of bed in the morning doesn't feel like a chore, and you just want to crack on and get stuff done. I’m also driven by sport, I’m very competitive!  
 
Tell me about when and why you founded your company, Able Move. 

On holiday in 2017 I read a book ‘Start With Why’ by Simon Sinek and it made me realise I wasn’t fully passionate about what I was doing. Whilst on that holiday I started thinking about all the challenges presented by travelling with a disability, specifically getting on and off an aircraft. Many people with acute disabilities rely on airline staff to physically lift them under the arms and legs from their wheelchair into a tiny little narrow, confined space into like a window seat. It’s very, very uncomfortable and undignified. 

I Googled ‘aircraft lifting seats’ and didn’t find any results, so as soon as I got back from my holiday I started looking at business plans and doing market research. I received support from a local entrepreneurship support organisation to get some professional advice around marketing, sales and intellectual property, and I put a business plan together. I was working full-time at this point, so my evenings were just spent at my laptop doing endless research. But, about a year later, I had a physical prototype, business plan and marketing strategy. 

“I Googled ‘aircraft lifting seats’ and didn’t find any results, so as soon as I got back from my holiday, I started looking at business plans and doing market research” 

When and how did your product become the easyTravelseat? 

I made an appointment with Head of Innovation and Regulatory Compliance at Heathrow airport to show them the product prototype, and she pointed me towards the charity Leonard Cheshire. I went home and followed them on Twitter. A week later in the evening, a tweet from Leonard Cheshire announced in partnership with the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation announced the UK Stelios Awards for Disabled Entrepreneurs. I quickly filled in the application, then a month or so later I got an email back saying I was one of the finalists. 

I was fortunate enough to be overall winner that year and was awarded £30,000 from the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation to get my business going. After I won, Sir Stelios [Haji-Ioannou] arranged for the CEO of easyJet to meet with me. Over the space of two weeks, we entered into negotiations; and agreed an investment deal for an equity stake in the company including a brand license deal, so you’ll see that the easyTravelseat is branded very much like easyJet. We've been trading under that name now since February of 2019. 

In your opinion, why is it so crucial for entrepreneurship support organisations, to support disabled people specifically? 

Disabled people have a huge amount to offer to society: collectively, we are a £249 billion market in the UK, if we want to truly realise that spending power we need more businesses run by disabled people. Disabled people have the keys to what they really need and want, so giving them the platform to bring their products to life will really improve the way in which disabled people are supported by and able to support society. I strongly believe that if organisations do more to help disabled people in entrepreneurship, we are all only going to reap the benefits.  

“Disabled people have the keys to what is needed for disabled people, so giving them the platform to bring their products to life will really improve the way in which disabled people are supported by society” 

What advice would you give to entrepreneurship support organisations, that want to support more people with disabilities to start their own businesses? 

There is a huge amount that organisations can learn by listening to and investing in disabled people. Firstly, they need to start with their board of directors. Only 2% of boards across the globe have disability representation on them. That is clear evidence to show why society has been lagging so far behind in terms of enabling disabled people to be more independent and integrated: because people making decisions at the top don't necessarily understand what's going on at the bottom. The more disabled people we have working at higher levels, the more change we will see. 

Organisations should deep dive into their end-to-end business processes, services and infrastructure and consider disability throughout, and ensure their support services are inclusively designed, to allow people living with disabilities greater accessibility to them. Certainly, the most important thing is that people need to be judged on their ability. Disabled people absolutely have the ability, but in order to prove their ability, they often need different support mechanisms in place. That’s why it's so important for organisations to create an inclusive and diverse workplace. 

“The more disabled people we have working at higher levels, the more change we will see” 

‘Disabled people derive skills through facing and coping with their disability, which equip them well for entrepreneurship, notably problem solving and innovation skills honed by having to overcome adversity throughout their lives.’1 Do you agree with this quote, and do you think this applies to you? 

100%. When you grow up with a disability, particularly from a young age, it becomes second nature to be patient, to manage your time, to be calm and not get stressed out, or just being in your own environment with nobody around you. Certainly, many people with my disability or with neuromuscular conditions can get quite isolated, so you learn how to do things on your own or do things in ways without the support of other people. We look at the world in a slightly different way, or grow up with a slightly different mindset, and that’s really useful in the entrepreneurial world because you have to be independent, learn things for yourself, and adapt to change. You can't always rely on other people. 

“We look at the world in a slightly different way, or grow up with a slightly different mindset, and that’s really useful in the entrepreneurial world” 

What has been your proudest moment since becoming an entrepreneur? 

One of my first ever customers used the easyTravelseat to go to Florida, and his mother sent me a photo of him, being loaded into the pool, using the seat to get into the water and swim with dolphins. At that moment I thought: “Wow, we're really making a difference.” When you actually see the pictures of the difference the product is making, it really hits home. You realise why you created it in the first place. 
 
Has your attitude towards yourself changed at all since you've become an entrepreneur? 

I feel I've learned even more about myself since becoming an entrepreneur because you don’t have a manager to ask for help. You have to do things yourself and use as many people as you can, so it's definitely improved my networking skills and made me more able to make decisions for myself. I’d also say that having an idea, bringing it to fruition, and seeing the impact it makes it gives you quite a boost. I definitely feel more confident now. 
 
What advice would you give to a young person living with a disability who was considering starting up their own business? 

My best advice is if your instinct is telling you to do it, just do it, and everything will naturally just fall into place. It's going to be a challenge and you're going to have barriers. That's just the world of entrepreneurship, regardless of disability. So my advice to a young person is to go for it, and to reach out to organisations that provide entrepreneurship support. You might have to educate them on what it is you need, but ultimately, they're going to give you advice around the business. There's no better person to provide advice to those organisations than you yourself, as someone living with a disability. I say: “Go for it.” I've done it and I've not looked back since. 

“If you don't include us then you're not going to have us. And why would you not want to have us with a collective spending power of £249 billion?” 

Is there anything else you'd like to mention? 

I’d like to quote a phrase that’s being used across the disability community a lot at the moment, which is: “Nothing about us without us.” It basically means: “If you don't include us then you're not going to have us. And why would you not want to have us when we have a collective spending power of £249 billion?” I think it’s a really powerful and important message to send to society

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