Starting a business is a tough challenge for anybody. About 143,000 businesses closed in the UK in 2006 – that’s roughly one every four minutes. But if you are disabled there are extra barriers to overcome.
However, three determined and enterprising people have been recognised by a new award for disabled entrepreneurs, run by the charity Leonard Cheshire and sponsored by Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet, who has pledged £50,000 a year for the top prize for the next 10 years.
Community Care spoke to the winner of the Stelios Disabled Entrepreneur Award and the runners-up to find out the secrets of their success.
Winner: Amar Latif, Traveleyes
Amar Latif, a Glaswegian living in Leeds, is “the blind guy who wanted to show people the world”. And he proved you don’t need to have sight to have vision.
After eight years working as an accountant, he realised that travel companies weren’t accounting for his tastes: “I love travelling – but what I wanted in terms of travel opportunities didn’t exist,” he says. “There were two choices: either I went without or I did it myself. So I did it myself.”
In April 2004, he had the idea for Traveleyes, the first commercial operator for blind people to travel the world.
“There are huge challenges in setting up a business whether you are disabled or not,” says Latif, “But when you are disabled – in my case, registered blind – you have some additional challenges such as the inaccessibility of information on setting up a business.
“Another barrier is people’s preconceptions about what a blind person can achieve. But it’s great because it gives you an amazing platform to stand up there and say, ‘Look, I’m blind but I can do it’.”
Traveleyes takes groups of about 20 people – half of whom are sighted companions – to destinations including Iceland, Cuba and Spain, as well as on holidays where they take part in activities which use the other senses. There is jet-skiing in Malta, walking with lions in Africa and cooking in Italy.
Latif has negotiated special agreements with airlines so that blind passengers with their companions can board the plane first. He adds: “We also work with hotels. For example, to make sure they don’t move things in blind people’s rooms.”
A critical part of the Traveleyes success story is the sighted companions. “They travel for a reduction in price and in return they are the eyes for the blind people. About 90% have probably never met a blind person before and they come from all walks of life – students to retired people to corporate workers. They are not carers but companions – our blind travellers are independent in every other respect.
“Sighted people get so much out of this as well. They say that when they describe things to blind people they take more things in, take away better memories and become improved communicators – and that really helps their confidence.”
The future for Traveleyes looks as bright as the paint on an easyJet plane, especially with the £50,000 top prize in the bag. “We started off just with UK-based travellers but we are now taking people from other countries,” says Latif. “The Stelios award money will help us expand by offering a service to people all over the world.”
Blind travellers or sighted guides can contact Traveleyes on 08709 220221 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Runner up: Julie Ryder, TalkFirst baby signing
Not content with the challenges of running one company, Julie Ryder, who is profoundly deaf and married with two children (both hearing) in Bacup, Lancashire, decided to set up a second.
In 2002 Ryder set up HearFirst to deliver deaf and disability equality awareness training. Among her clients were a number of Sure Starts. They asked whether she knew about baby signing. Ryder had used it with her own children but wasn’t delivering any training. “So I had a think about it and did a lot of research and set up TalkFirst as a sister company to HearFirst.”
The courses teach eight new signs each week and are based on a theme, such as mealtime or going to the park. “We teach the parents the signs during the class – so when they speak to the child they use the signs as well. The benefit then is that the children can express what they want and how they feel before they can speak.”
Crucially, TalkFirst developed a unique signing puppet, named Dexter. “We know that children learn best when there is a character involved. There is also a lot of music and rhymes.”
Children can attend the classes at any age up to 30 months. “This means we have some babies that come to class but they are not going to sign back until they have enough dexterity in their hands to do so,” says Ryder. “When they are at the age when they are waving bye-bye and blowing kisses then that can be developed.”
Ryder believes everything is in place to franchise TalkFirst. “This allows other people to take on our business model,” she says. “We provide the expertise and training, supply them with what they need and they can set up in their own area.”
There are also other developments under way. “We’ve developed the first baby signing dictionary with 172 signs, and a production company has taken Dexter and the concept of baby signing to CBeebies – so we’re just waiting to hear whether Dexter gets on TV.”
Contact: TalkFirst on 01706 872 816 or e-mail email@example.com
Runner up: Gareth Almond, Bulldog Spirit Driving School
After losing his right arm and then his police career after being knocked off his motorbike by a drunk-driver in a near-fatal accident, Gareth Almond felt there was little to live for. So 30 years on, as Britain’s most successful disabled motor sport competitor and a career specialising in instructing disabled people to drive, it is little wonder that he called his company the Bulldog Spirit Driving School.
“I had lost the will to live at the time of the accident,” says Almond. “It took me a while to get my head around everything but I realised that I needed to get on with it.”
He ended up working in finance. However, something more fulfilling was just around the hair-pin corner. “I’ve always been fond of motor sports – so I tried that. I was treated as a bit of a joke at first but as with any sport you need time to develop your skills. After a few years I started becoming successful.” Indeed, over 25 years Almond has nearly 300 wins in club and national events, including British championships.
It was during racing events that he found himself being approached by other disabled people asking him how they could go about doing something similar. “It became more apparent that there was little, if any, training for disabled people to drive, full stop, let alone go into motor sport,” he says.
Having “got bored to death with the finance game”, Almond, who is based in Barnoldswick, Lancashire, opened a driving school. “I re-mortgaged the house, bought two cars, designed a website and made sure the car signs stood out. The assessment centres in Yorkshire and Lancashire started to put business my way.”
He adds: “I wanted to give people the ability to change their own lives, and often it’s mobility that they need the most. Disabled doesn’t mean dysfunctional – just give people the opportunity. And what better way can there be than to learn from someone who has already been there?”
Contact: 01282 816589 or 07778 734090 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Enterprise Directorate Statistics Team
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This article appeared in the 7 February issue under the headline “Enterprising spirits”