Interview | Disabled Entrepreneur Josh Wintersgill

Josh Wintersgill, 26, was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 3 at 18 months old. He has been a full-time powered wheelchair-user since the age of 10.

SMA is a progressive muscle-wasting condition. As a result, Josh requires assistance from carers, though his disability has never prevented him from achieving.

He attended university, completed a placement year, works full-time, started his own business, and is now on the Great Britain Air Rifle Talent and Development Squad. Josh is able to drive a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) and has lived independently since leaving his parental home at 18.

Josh shooting an air rifle ~ Disability Shooting Great Britain

1. University ~ Can you tell us about the process of putting a care package in place and living independently as a disabled student?

During my last year of college, I expressed an interest in going to university. After research with my social worker and factoring my needs and desires, we identified appropriate universities that fit my criteria. I then had to decide on a live-in carer or a care agency. I opted for the agency route in order to be as independent as possible.

Once accepted by the university, I sorted accommodation and started looking for care agencies. My social worker provided me with a list of care agencies registered with the CQC, but it was down to me to make arrangements. The first care agency turned out to be unpleasant! So, after 4 months, I switched to another agency who I remained with for the duration of my university experience.

2. How was your overall university experience?

My overall uni experience was, let’s say, fruitful! From falling asleep in my wheelchair in front of the mirror to having university staff put me to bed within the first week because I was so drunk. It was clear that I was going to make the most of my 3 years at uni!

I got involved with numerous societies and activities to keep myself active and included with the student culture. I had a fantastic time and never experienced any discrimination or abuse. The staff made me feel at ease, allowed me to be as independent as possible, and provided access to necessary resources.

I graduated with a first class honours in IT Management and Business and, 4 years after graduating, I was invited back to receive an Honorary Masters in Technology.

3. You carried out an internship with Hewlett Packard during your studies, and then worked as a cyber security manager. What, if any, challenges did you encounter in finding employment and how does your disability affect your working life?

The general employment process with assessment days, face-to-face interviews and telephones interviews were fairly seamless. Most employers are extremely accommodating if you give them notice and make them aware of your access needs.

I do remember one assessment day with a popular car manufacturer where the activities impacted my ability to take part due to my physical requirements. This may have affected their decision to not employ me, even though I was just as capable, if not more so, than the other candidates. But apart from that, I have not had any issues finding employment.

Obviously, my disability limits me physically. However, as I work in technology it does not affect my ability to do my job. Yes, working full-time is not easy for me, but it’s also important to remember it’s not easy for able-bodied people either.

I have always been the sort of person who just gets on with it. I also believe that with technology making everything more accessible for disabled people, in most cases, our disability should not affect our ability to work. If you have any employer with an inclusive work culture, who is willing to support, understand and give you flexibility within the work place, then for sure you can work!

4. You returned to university to speak to students about entrepreneurship, and inspire them to start their own businesses. How did this make you feel and why do you think it is so important to encourage other disabled people to pursue any entrepreneurial aspirations they may have?

This gave me a sense of achievement and fulfilment. I believe that sharing experiences, whether positive or negative, helps others to follow their own passions and aspirations.

There is a general consensus that employment for disabled people is difficult to find, and arguably this could be due to the lack of inclusive employers. This is what makes the entrepreneurial world an attractive proposition for disabled people – it is flexible, offers them ability to work around their needs, and also avoids the hardship of being in a culture that is not disability confident.

5. You ventured into self-employment and founded AbleMove. Why was this so important to you?

I have always wanted to start my own business. When I realised I could create a product to make travel more assessible for disabled people, it was a no-brainer decision for me.

When you’re working on something you’ve created and can see the life-changing benefits, there is a real feeling of fulfilment.

Josh accepting his £30,000 prize from Sir Stelios (easyJet)

6. In 2018, you won the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs from easyJet founder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. How did that make you feel and what impact has this had on you and your business?

Winning the award gave me a sense of personal achievement and recognition. It gave me a fresh perspective on developing my own business and the benefits it can provide versus working for a large company.

The prize money and a business deal with easyGroup Ltd enabled me to give up my full-time job in order to pursue my own business. This allowed me greater flexibility regarding how I manage my disability.

Award-winner Josh with Sir Stelios
Josh and his family with Sir Stelios at the Stelios Awards for Disabled Entrepreneurs
Josh with easyJet founder Sir Stelios

7. Prior to winning the award, you had to move home and rent within the private sector. What challenges did this present?

The challenges with the private rent sector (PRS) are vast, especially given almost 85-90% of PRS homes are inaccessible for wheelchairs.

After applying for the Stelios Awards, I was told I had to move out of a good sized two bed apartment due to the landlords requiring their property back. Having lived there for 3 and a half years, it was time to start the dreaded challenge of finding a needle in a haystack.

It’s purely pot luck if you can find an accessible house to move into straight away that doesn’t need any adapations.

After fighting with the council and various estate agents, we eventually managed to find a property on rightmove. Now, when moving home I need to consider carers since I rely on them throughout the day. My main PA (personal assistant) was unable to continue working for me, and so I had to re-jig and was then only able to maintain one PA.

Finding an accessible property and then having to manage your care situation around it is extremely stressful, tiring and irritating. On top of this, I was working full-time, getting the business of the ground, doing weekly exercises and training for the Great Britain Shooting Talent and Development Squad.

8. Can you tell us about your invention, the easyTravelseat. What is it and how does it benefit disabled people?

My travelling experiences involve being manhandled from wheelchair to aisle chair and then manhandled again onto the aircraft, which is highly undignified and uncomfortable. I therefore sought to create something that would help me travel in a more comfortable and dignified manner.

The easyTravelseat is a sling/seat combination that is designed to work as an in-situ piece of equipment. It is placed in your wheelchair, and you then remain seated in the easyTravelseat until you reach your destination.

For instance, when flying, you would remain comfortably and securely seated within the easyTravelseat for your entire journey through the airport, onto and during your time on the aircraft and off again.

Once I created it, I realised the many benefits it offers disabled people. It allows users to travel in a more safe, dignified and comfortable way, on all modes of transport. Furthermore, it opens up leisure opportunities such as canoeing, kayaking, skiing and so on. The easyTravelseat enables users to be transferred quickly and easily without having to be manhandled. The user is comfortably seated with their own cushion, a gel pad or foam.

9. Where did the idea for the easyTravelseat stem from, and what did the development process involve?

The development process involved researching the types of equipment already available, and the demand for such a product. I conducted market research to determine whether wheelchair-users would find the product useful. Then we identified a concept and progressed to prototyping in order to test how the seat would work. We then moved on to the point of manufacturing the seat and getting the required medical marking and approvals in place. During this process we had been working initially with airports around the lifting side of the device, including our sling manufacturer and then an airline. We started production in February 2019.

Josh Wintersgill sat outside an easyJet aircraft, ready to try the easyTravelseat

10. Does the easyTravelseat cater for disabled people of all shapes and sizes?

The easyTravelseat will cater for the majority of disabled users with the exception of very young children, bariatric passengers or people with extreme contoured seating.

11. How does the easyTravelseat compare with similar products on the market, such as the ProMove sling or the NEPPT Transfer Evacuation Sling Seat?

The difference with the easyTravelseat is the specific design and application of use for aircraft, whilst ensuring passenger comfort. It allows users to be moved around the aircraft, including during an emergency, and to then disembark the aircraft in a much safer, dignified and comfortable manner. All other slings are designed to be removed and offer no protection or comfort when in-situ.

Josh and carer demonstrating the easyTravelseat
Josh travelling by car, using the easyTravelseat

12. What other assistance do you think airlines could and should be offering to disabled passengers?

I think the most important area airlines should be focusing on in the immediate is the loading of wheelchairs, both electric and manual, to prevent damage. It also concerns me the people on the ground lifting these wheelchairs are at risk of causing serious damage to themselves. There is industry equipment to load wheelchairs onto an aircraft without having to manually lift a wheelchair. This would help the loaders and reduce the amount of damage to both the chairs and the airport staff. Also, a secure area in the hold may also be advantageous to prevent luggage damaging wheelchairs during turbulence.

I also think the UK should be pushing (as Canada has done successfully) the airlines to provide free tickets for a carer when flying with a disabled person. After all, the airlines make it a necessary requirement for WCHC passengers who cannot move without any support to fly with a personal assistant/carer.

Airlines should also be addressing the toileting situation inside the cabin too. It is currently impossible for the majority of disabled passengers to access the toilet whilst flying.

Regarding hidden disabilities, there are those who are much more calm when they are surrounded by objects which are all different colours.

Long term, all airlines should be looking to allow wheelchair-users to remain seated in their wheelchair, inside the cabin, during the flight.

13. What does the future hold for you and your business?

The future is bright for easyTravelseat! We are off to a steady start with interest across the globe. We believe in an accessible aviation world and are able to provide an immediate solution to help reduce some of the significant problems with maintaining safety, dignity and comfort when flying with a wheelchair.

We will now look to ensure easyTravelseat is easily accessible in as many countries across the globe as possible in the coming years.

easyTravelseat.com


Thanks to Josh Wintersgill for answering my questions. 

Guest Post | Employing Older Workers

Are Employers Doing Enough to Help with the Wellbeing of Older Workers?

The business world is going through a radical change to workforces right now. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), one in four workers in the UK is now aged over 50.

Research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) found that from 2011 to 2014, the proportion of workers aged 50 and older rose from 21% to 24%. The same ONS survey estimated that, by 2030, the number of people in the UK aged 65 and older will have increased by 50%, while those aged 20 to 30 would see a 4% decline.

This figure may vary depending on a variety of circumstances including the location, industry, policies and more. One thing’s for sure though; these changes will have far-reaching consequences across society, including the workplace.

With this in mind, it’s even more important to acknowledge and invest in supporting the changing workforce. Organisations are now in competition for the best and most experienced staff.

In this article, we explore what this means for businesses. We identify areas where employers can further support their older workers and offer some tips for ensuring their wellbeing.

Older Workers and Wellbeing

Anyone that’s been in employment in the last five to ten years would no doubt have noticed the increased focus on employee wellbeing. It’s the trending buzzword relating to the health and safety of not only the physical but also the mental health of workers.

To keep your workforce happy (and by extension increase productivity), you should consider investing in both physical and mental support.

To achieve this for your older workers, you need to first consider what they need and want in the workplace. Research conducted by CIPD at the Centre for Ageing Better showed that just like younger workers, they’d also like a job that is meaningful, stimulating and sociable.

At the moment, older workers feel less appreciated compared to their younger counterparts. They’d like a job that’s not only flexible but also offers opportunities such as mentoring, training and career progression.

Benefits of Age Diversity

A study by Ageing Better shows employers report greater levels of loyalty, reliability and commitment from their older workers compared with younger colleagues. Their experience in life and in their sector places them in an ideal position to manage themselves and other members of staff.

According to a survey by CIPD, the number one benefit of age diversity in the workplace is knowledge-sharing. They found that 56% of HR decision-makers believe that older workers transfer vital knowledge and skills.

Having a diverse workforce, not only in age but also race, religion and (dis)ability can also help to solve complex work problems. By bringing a mix of ideas, skills, strengths, experiences and backgrounds, you’re ensuring that strengths and weaknesses are balanced.

Finally, because of the estimated increase of over 50 year-olds in the general population in the UK, age diversity in the workplace can help to match the profile of your customers which will, in turn, improve the product or services you offer.

4 Tips for Supporting Older Workers

Be open to flexibility: This is important to workers of all ages. It helps them to create a balance between their work and social life. Specifically, for older workers, it also provides a transition period to retirement. Remember to inform your staff of their right to make flexible working requests.

Mentoring: By allowing your older workers to mentor younger employers, they’re able to pass on their experience, work habits and attitudes towards work.

Training: Some employers are concerned about this investment because they worry that they’re investing in someone who may soon retire. However, it’s worth noting, training these workers means as well as keeping their skills sharp, they’ll be more employable.

Employee Assistance Programmes: As well as retirement benefits, you should also be supporting them while they’re still at your company. Offering employee assistance programmes gives workers access to support that’ll help them deal with personal problems that might impact their work performance or their health and wellbeing.

On top of all this, you should also be conducting regular one-to-one meetings to review their performance, offer feedback and keep on top of any issues.


My thanks to David Price from Health Assured for providing this guest post.

Interview | The Trailblazing Women of Muscular Dystrophy UK

5 Questions ~ 3 Influential Women

Emma Vogelmann (left) with Lauren West (right)

Lauren West, Trailblazers Manager

Michaela Hollywood, Co-Founder

Emma Vogelmann, Employability Officer

Michaela Hollywood (centre, front) campaigning with MDUK

1. What is your disability and how does it affect you?

Lauren West: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’ve never walked independently and got my first powered wheelchair at the age of two and a half.

Despite the severity of my SMA, I passed my driving test, went to university three hours from home, and moved to London to start my working life. I now still live in London with my partner and with support from live-in PAs who do all my personal care and domestic tasks.

Michaela Hollywood: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I commonly say that I can do pretty much nothing without assistance except speak! Although, I have recently learned to drive using hand controls.

Possibly the biggest impact of my SMA is my breathing and the impact of chest infections, which can make me sick quite often. I’m also deaf, and have pancreatic insufficiency which affects my ability to digest food, and that can cause a lot of pain and fatigue. My motto is; I can drive a van, and boil a kettle but I can’t make a cup of tea!

Emma Vogelmann: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’m a full-time electric wheelchair-user and since contracting Swine flu in 2009, I also use a portable ventilator via a tracheotomy.

2. How and why did you become involved with MDUK Trailblazers, and what is your role?

Lauren West: I became involved at the very start of Trailblazers, after I left the Whizz-kidz Kids Board. I felt I had a campaigning void in my life after leaving the board, so I was really excited when I heard about Trailblazers. For a long time, I was the only Welsh Trailblazer and so I formed a great bond with the original team, Bobby and Tanvi.

I stayed involved throughout university through participating in work experience and attending events like APPGs. I was delighted after a few years in different jobs to be offered the role as Campaigns Officer, as I’d always wanted to work for Trailblazers. It was then super exciting to take up the role of Trailblazers Manager at the beginning of 2016.

Michaela Hollywood: I was involved with Trailblazers from the very beginning, before it even started!

I was at a MDUK Family Weekend when I was 16, and, because of my disability and access requirements, I couldn’t book tickets to see the band McFLY perform in my local arena. Consequently, I spoke to the then Chief Executive of the charity Phil Butcher, and said we need a “young people’s forum”. My idea at the time was that those of us with a muscle wasting condition have powerful voices that weren’t being heard, and too many non-disabled adults were making decisions that affected our lives without even thinking of consulting us. And out of that Trailblazers was born!

I volunteered for the first number of years, and directed the organisation from Northern Ireland for a year before it became official. I went to university and did my undergraduate degree in Public Relations, followed by a Masters in PR and Communications, specialising in political lobbying. I then joined the team from home in Northern Ireland a little over 3 years ago.

Emma Vogelmann: I was invited by MDUK to a Parliamentary roundtable meeting about disability employment. I really liked that a prominent charity was directly engaging with young disabled people and their lived experiences. After that, I asked if there were any opportunities to get involved with the organisation which led to a 4 month internship with the Campaigns team. I absolutely loved it, so when the role of Employability Officer was advertised I knew I had to apply. The rest, as they say, is history!

Michaela Hollywood, who has SMA Type 2

3. How do you feel about being an influential career woman with a disability? Has your disability made you more determined to pursue your career goals?

Lauren West: I don’t think I would describe myself as an influential career woman but if I am seen that way, then that’s a real honour.

I think my disability has made me much more determined in all parts of my life, not just my career. I have always been quite driven and even when I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to follow, I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference.

But I genuinely think there’s been one driving force behind my ambition and that was a social worker who was sorting out my university care package. She made an off-the-cuff comment about how when I was done having fun at university, I’d come home and she’d help set me up on benefits in a little flat. Whilst this is needed for some, this is not how I wanted my life to go, but I knew I’d face similar beliefs and attitudes throughout my whole life. So I was determined to fight against that societal expectation.

Michaela Hollywood: For me, I think it made my education very important. And it’s made me steely and determined. It’s a good advantage to be able to use my voice as communication is so important when your impairment is so physical. I’m proud to be in the position I am, and try to keep my focus on what I can do for others.

Emma Vogelmann: I never really thought of myself as an influential career woman in all honesty. I suppose you just crack on with your day-to-day work, so you never stop to think about it.

Now I am starting to see the impact my work has on other people, such as my employment work. I’ve seen the people involved in my project access jobs, find a careers mentor and so many other meaningful changes. That’s incredibly rewarding for me.

My disability makes me more determined to do a lot of things, but definitely in my career. Someone in a meeting I ran summed it up perfectly, “disabled people feel the pressure to be exceptional just to be considered equal to their able-bodied co-workers”. While this is not the culture at MDUK, I do feel that internal pressure to prove myself constantly. I’ve learned first-hand and from others that it is unfortunately really hard to enter the working world as a disabled person, so once you’re there you feel like you need to show your employer why they made the right decision.

Lauren West, who has SMA Type 2

4. In relation to employment, what challenges have you faced due to your disability, and how have you overcome these obstacles?

Lauren West: Throughout school and university, getting a typical student job just wasn’t on the cards for me. For one thing, I just didn’t have the stamina to study and work. But also the usual student jobs just weren’t physically accessible to me. I was worried that this lack of work experience would put me at a severe disadvantage for getting a job once I’d graduated.

I was lucky that Trailblazers found me an internship at my local MP’s office, so I did one day a week there for three months in my final year of study. I also did work experience at MDUK which gave me a great taste of living and working in London.

I was incredibly fortunate to secure a job in London prior to graduating from my Master’s degree. However, when this job turned out to not be what I expected and complete with a very abusive boss, I had real trouble finding a new job. I mainly applied to charities and many claimed to be part of the ‘two ticks scheme’ which offered guaranteed interviews for disabled applicants.

However, it was rare I’d even get called for an interview and it took many unhappy months before I was offered a role as a mental health advocate. The same year, I started working for MDUK and I love being part of a charity that values diversity and inclusivity.

I think the only way I’ve overcome challenges within employment is just through stubbornness and determination. I really think there are organisations out there for everyone but it can just take a long time to find the right fit.

Michaela Hollywood: The biggest one is my health. Self-care is important to keep me ticking over. I’ve been really lucky to work for a group I wholeheartedly believe in, and where we see real help and progress happening. I try to make sure others are afforded the same opportunities I have been lucky to have.

Emma Vogelmann: I struggled to find an employer willing to give me a chance after university. Of course, this is true for most graduates. But I do feel that being a disabled graduate made it harder. I remember asking Lauren West for advice before I started working at MDUK about when, where and how to disclose my disability, because I didn’t want to be counted out too soon for jobs, but I also didn’t want to hide something I consider a strength. I decided to always disclose my disability, though this is a very personal choice that isn’t necessarily right for everyone. I work within a disability charity, so it is extremely relevant to say I’m disabled, but I know a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with this and that’s completely okay too.

Emma Vogelmann, who has SMA Type 2

5. What is your proudest achievement?

Lauren West: In terms of in my career, I think it was being in charge of the Trailblazers’ 10 year anniversary celebrations.

As someone who was part of Trailblazers from the start, being able to bring those 10 years together through an incredible event in Parliament was just the best experience. Seeing over 100 people all in one room celebrating their successes of the past 10 years will be forever one of my best moments.

Michaela Hollywood: This is a tough one! My dad, Michael, likes to tell anyone and everyone he meets to “Google” me because he is so proud of what I’ve achieved.

In 2015, I was given a Points of Light award by then Prime Minister David Cameron, and a few weeks later was named on the BBC 100 Influential Women List. I think those few weeks were a definite highlight.

Emma Vogelmann: What a tough question! I suppose it would be winning my case against a taxi driver who discriminated against me due to being a wheelchair-user. It happened on my second day of work at MDUK and it was a difficult experience to go through. But to have two courts agree that wheelchair-users cannot be overcharged was a great feeling. I really hope it will empower other wheelchair-users to not accept discriminatory treatment from taxi drivers.


Many thanks to the brilliant Emma, Lauren and Michaela for answering my questions.