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 | Home Healthcare Adaptations

Today’s post is a guest feature from Michael Leavy, Managing Director of Home Healthcare Adaptations, a family-run company that specialises in adapting homes for the elderly and less abled. 


How Seniors Can Feel More Secure At Home

It is frightening just how many older people’s homes are subjected to burglaries and break-ins. Worse still, seniors themselves are targeted by malicious criminals with no respect for human life.

Thankfully, there are measures such as alarm systems, CCTV and doorbell cameras which can improve the security of a person’s home. These could be well worth investigating for elderly relatives.

All too often, we hear about elderly citizens having their houses burgled or, even worse, being attacked in their own homes. It takes an especially cowardly individual to deliberately intrude upon an elderly person’s homestead and threaten to inflict violence on them, but sadly these types of incidents occur with regularity.

Therefore, we should advise elderly relatives living in their own houses to take no chances when it comes to home security. No matter how much a security system or other measures might cost to install, the value to be derived from the peace of mind that it’s there is 100% worthwhile.

If an elderly parent living by themselves knows that their home is as secure as it can be, they will feel far more comfortable and we will be at ease knowing that they feel safe.

Home security has been made easier with the advent of automated systems which enable homeowners to set alarms remotely, switch on lights at timed intervals and monitor the house while away.

A burglar will usually be able to tell when a house is unoccupied, so even if they feel that the opportunity is right to strike, home automation can catch them in the act and allow for corrective action to be taken straight away.

We should also check in on elderly parents or neighbours regularly and advise them on small things that they can do to improve the security of their home. Simple measures like giving a house key to a trusted friend or family member instead of leaving it under a welcome mat, or keeping any valuable items obscured from the viewpoint of anyone looking into the home, will help to make them feel more secure.

The infographic below from Home Healthcare Adaptations offers some sensible pointers on how you can make elderly parents feel more comfortable and secure in their homes.

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Living Well | Making a property into an accessible home

Image Source

It’s fair to say that most of us dream of buying our own home, right? That first step on the property ladder is an exciting milestone in our lives. It is representative of independence, responsibility and yes, becoming a ‘real’ adult!

However, for many it can be a lengthy and stressful process. Finding a suitable property in the right location, and at an affordable price is not easy, particularly for today’s generation.

For those of us with a disability, the task is far greater. To some, being able to live independently in your own home, whether renting or buying, feels like an unreachable goal. If and when you’re able to find a property to suit your requirements, you then face the inevitable task of adapting it to ensure it’s fully accessible.

While this can be daunting and even off-putting, if you choose to take a positive perspective, it could be considered a fun, and thoroughly rewarding project.
Remember, you don’t necessarily need to wait for an accessible property to become available. Alternatively, why not find the home you love and adapt it so that it’s perfect for you.

1. Taking Your Time

Perhaps most importantly, don’t rush the process (tempting though this may be). Of course, we’re all impatient to leave the family nest and move into our own place. This is major undertaking (particularly for disabled people) and a great expense, therefore it needs to be done right. It may take months, it may take years! Believe me, I know how disheartening the waiting game can be. But is really is essential to take your time.

2. Consulting A Contractor

Once you have found a suitable property, where applicable, the next step is to consult contractors (ie. builders). If structural work is necessary, seek advice and obtain quotes from at least three builders. I would also advise checking out a range of accessible homes. This will provide information and inspiration, thereby enabling you to plan your new home effectively.

3. Estimating The Budget

Obviously, there is no point obtaining quotes and making calculations if you are unaware of your overall personal budget. It is imperative, from the start, that you establish an estimated budget, and that you stick to it. You could fund the adaptations using savings, your original house buying budget, or you may choose to investigate the option of long term loans. Either way, ensure you have a genuine estimated budget.

4. Making It Your Own

When modifications are required to make a home accessible, it will affect the physicality and aesthetic of the property. For example; ramps, wider doors, level access, hand rails, lifts, lowered units and ceiling track hoists – these are all very visible features. You may feel like you are having to forego style and character in favour of practicality – and it’s okay to feel that way. But regardless of the extent of the adaptations, you can always make your mark. With a little planning and creativity, you really can make an accessible property your own. Have fun with furnishing and decorating your new home.

5. Making Room For Your Things

Whilst working with professionals (occupational therapists, builders etc) who will help to adapt the property to your specific needs, you’ll also want to make sure there is room for your personal items and equipment. Make a list of everything you will need to store – from wheelchairs to hoists.
At the end of the day, thorough planning is key! Prepare, plan and be patient…

Disability & Identity

I was recently invited to participate in a Quality of Life Study, conducted by students at Sheffield University. The ‘Living Life to the Fullest’ research project is aimed at young people (18-30) with life-limiting or life-threatening impairments.

Although data provided by participants is anonymous, I thought the questions asked, along with my personal perspective, might be of interest to some of you.

Below is an extract from my interview. I’d be really interested to know your views and how you might answer…


Do you think the general public hold an accurate understanding of disability? Why or why not?

No, I don’t. I think people who have never had any particular connection or interaction with disabled people lack the knowledge, experience and empathy required to hold an accurate understanding of disability. Furthermore, I think there’s a lack of awareness of how diverse disability is and how many people it actually affects.

I also think people’s perceptions of disability are heavily influenced by the depictions they see in the media. Depictions of disabled people played by able-bodied actors can be very misleading for various reasons. Quite often these portrayals are ‘airbrushed’ and sentimentalized.

The next topic is about your relationship with yourself. Do you have a strong sense of identity? What factors contribute to your identity?

I’m really not sure to be honest. I guess that implies that I don’t have a strong sense of identity. I’ve never really given this question much thought.

I’m not a fan of labelling or categorizing people. At the end of the day, we are all very different, unique individuals.

I guess, in the simplest terms, I am a daughter, a sister, an auntie and a friend. Despite the fact that I often blog about certain aspects of my life, I am actually a very private person who prefers to remain anonymous (or at least, as anonymous as possible).

I identify as somewhat of an introvert. I am incredibly insecure and self-conscious (painfully so) due to my physical disability and the presence of my powered wheelchair. I do feel like people look at the chair before they see me.

I’m very much aware of how different I look compared to ‘normal’ able-bodied people, and how others view and perceive me because of this. I think, because I am so lacking in confidence, my sense of self and identity is negatively impacted.

I am much better at thinking, talking about and dealing with other people and their problems versus my own!

Do you identify as disabled? Has this changed over time?

Yes, I do identify as disabled, though my disability does not define me as a person. I have no problem with the term, nor being referring to as a disabled person. It is simply a matter of fact. In the same way I would describe myself as a white, British female, I am also physically disabled.

I have Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy. There is no hiding or escaping from it, therefore I choose to accept and embrace it.

Since I began blogging, I have noticed a lot of discussion, within the disabled community, regarding the topics of terminology and semantics. There are those who take offence at being identified as, or even labelled ‘disabled’. Some may prefer terms such as ‘differently abled’. (Personally, I find this descriptor a little ridiculous and would never refer to myself as ‘differently abled’). Then again, there are those who don’t consider their impairment to be a notable part of their identity at all.

My view on this has remained consistent throughout my life. My condition is congenital, meaning that I have lived with it from birth and have always been aware of it. I am disabled. In all honesty, I really wish I wasn’t! But the fact is, I am. To me, there’s really no point in denying or ignoring this part of my identity.

You’ve mentioned your thoughts around how others perceive you and how you therefore perceive yourself. Does how you think others perceive you (or even how you perceive yourself) change depending upon context (e.g. at work; with family; with friends)?

I think the way others perceive me varies depending on context. If I’m out and about amongst the general public – for example, shopping with friends – I do notice looks and stares from strangers. It can be bothersome. Some people are so indiscreet and don’t think twice about glaring!

Complete strangers have approached me in the street, clearly feeling entitled to pass judgement and make offensive and inappropriate comments regarding my disability. For instance, a man once asked if I believe in God. Put on the spot (and obviously quite shocked) I hastily answered, ‘no’. He then told me that is the reason I am in a wheelchair!

However, for the most part, I don’t take offence at people looking or staring, so long as they are respectful. I appreciate that by nature, people are inquisitive. All of us, myself included, are curious about anything considered different or not the norm. For this reason, I will happily answer disability-related questions from people who are polite and considerate.

I can’t speak on their behalf but in general, I think (or assume) my family don’t even see my disability. I’m just Carrie. The only time it really smacks them in the face (so to speak) is when I get ill.

In terms of how I perceive myself, I think this is fairly consistent regardless of context. I am very self-deprecating and self-critical. Essentially, I have always wanted to fit in, especially during my school years. I want to be able to do all the things able-bodied people can. I want to be independent, to drive, to walk, to run, to be spontaneous and do things without having to plan or rely on others.

This research project is about young people with ‘life-limiting’ or ‘life-threatening’ impairments ( LL/LTIs), the next questions surround living with that.
What does ‘life-limiting’ mean to you?

I consider myself to have a life-limiting condition (Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy). I have come to terms with the fact that my disability will inevitably impact how long I live. Although people with the same condition are now living longer thanks to various treatments and medical intervention, life expectancy is still much shorter than the average person.

I dread winter and all the viruses circulating throughout the community. Every time I get a cold it leads to a chest infection. For me this is very serious since it often develops into a more complex issue. Many times over the years, I have been admitted to hospital with respiratory complaints including pneumonia, pneumothorax (collapsed lung) and pleurisy.

*I did elaborate further during my interview, though for personal reasons, I have chosen not to include the rest of my answer here.

Does this impact any decisions you make?

YES! All of my decisions. I had a particularly bad bout of pneumonia in 2013. It took many months for me to recover and was incredibly difficult to overcome, both physically and mentally. At that point, my priorities changed.

Up until then I had been pursuing my aims of moving out of my parental home, and finding employment….but after realising how fragile my body actually is, I decided to end the lengthy quest for accommodation – an incredibly stressful quest that I had been struggling with for over two years, without assistance!

My primary focus now is health and happiness. I have to do what is best to protect and care for my body.

*I have chosen to remove parts of my original answer to this question.

Do you feel like it is important to set goals? And does anything stop you from doing this? Are your goals are shaped by what support is assumed to be/not be available or by the support you currently receive?

My mother keeps encouraging me to set goals, like aiming for at least one holiday per year. She wants me to make the most out of the time I have – however long or short – which I understand and agree with.

In August 2017, my first nephew was born. This has been the biggest motivation for me to keep going – to pursue good health, happiness and to embrace life!

I am so much happier since he was born – everyone has noticed. I often say, I hope to live long enough to see him grow up. I want most of all for him to remember me. So this is my biggest goal.

This question is rather pertinent as I currently have only one part-time PCA (personal care assistant). She is very young and hates driving my wheelchair accessible vehicle. As a result, I feel very isolated and excluded from society. I would like to be able to get out, to meet friends and go to events. But right now I am unable to, as I don’t have the support in place.

You have talked about not being able to get out of the house. Would you say you ever feel lonely or that you miss out because of your disability?
Do you miss out more because of your own health problems or accessibility issues?

Yes, definitely. There are times I feel lonely even though I am by nature quite a solitary person. I am more than happy with my own company – it’s a good job, really!

I’m not a fan of social media at all. But like it or not, for me it is a lifeline. Without it, I would feel incredibly isolated. I mostly use Facebook Messenger in order to stay in touch with friends and to meet others in a similar position to myself.

Health problems as well as accessibility issues contribute to missed opportunities. So many times I have made plans, then had to cancel due to ill health – usually chest infections. Because of this, I am now very reluctant to make future plans for fear of disappointment.

For example, I finally managed to book tickets for the Strictly Come Dancing, January 2017 tour. I was so excited and had looked forward to it for months. I then caught a severe chest infection and was unable to go. It may sound dramatic but I was gutted. I had tried to get tickets for years but couldn’t, as the limited accessible seating was always sold out.

What worries you about your future with a complex condition? What would you say is your biggest worry?

I worry most about my health and my ability to fight respiratory illness. As a kid, when I got a chest infection I would need a course of antibiotics and a week off school to recover. However, as I have aged, the duration of these illnesses has gradually increased. They have become much more complex to treat too. These days, it takes everything I have to overcome a chest infection. I worry about how many more times I am able to do it and therefore what I might miss out on in life.

How has your family been impacted (for better or worse) by your disability? For example, has it affected them financially or affected your relationships with them? How do you feel about this?

Wow – there is no end to how much my family has been impacted by my disability!

Yes, very much financially. For one thing, I have a ground-floor bedroom/bathroom extension that was built in 2000. Back then, my parents’ income was assessed. They were entitled to a partial grant, though this was a very small sum. In order to fund the build, they had to take out a second mortgage.

Holidays are MUCH more expensive than they would be for the average family. Medical insurance and the need for accessible accommodation, plus equipment hire makes vacationing rather costly.

Essential mobility equipment such as manual and powered wheelchairs are a huge expense!

Furthermore, my parents are affected physically (owing to many years of lifting and manual handling) and emotionally. Obviously they are aware of the fact that my condition is life-limiting, even though this is not discussed. When I am hospitalised, my whole family experience a great deal of distress.

Relationships are inevitably affected. At the age of 29, I still live with my parents in their home, and we are very much in each others pockets. They remain my primary source of support. I am unable to escape when disputes occur – to go for a walk or a drive in order to ease tension and let off steam. This I find incredibly frustrating.

What makes for a good community in regards to disability?

I’m really not sure how to answer this question. Sadly, I don’t think this can ever be fully achieved, as there will always be prejudice, ignorance and exclusion. I think crucially, there needs to be greater awareness, familiarity and education so that disability becomes part of the norm. We need to work in unity to break down barriers and make disability socially acceptable.

How do you feel about dating with a disability? Do you think it is harder when you’re disabled?

It is definitely harder with a disability – or so I have found. I think one of the biggest obstacles is the initial meet and greet stage.

We (disabled people) face assumptions, social prejudice and environmental limitations e.g. Access to buildings and public transport – thus making dating all the more challenging. Then there are our own physical limitations.

I am completely non-ambulant, I have contractures, a severe scoliosis and overall muscle degeneration. These physical limitations have made me overtly self-conscious, socially awkward and anxious when meeting new people.


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