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Fiona Jarvis on how her own disability was the inspiration for her app

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As an able-bodied person, it is all too easy to overlook the day-to-day issues that people who are disabled face – from transport and accessibilty, to inadequate facilities and ugly '70s-style equipment.

Fiona Jarvis, owner of website and app Blue Badge Style, was frustrated with the limited information about disabled facilities when taking clients out for lunch, and so started Blue Badge Style back in 2007.

‘Working for a software company, I had to take people out to lunch a lot.’ she said. When researching venues that had disabled facilities, she began to collate all the information into a website.

‘In about 2012 I decided to develop an app associated with it, primarily because I was driving in a cab back from hospital and I wanted to go to somewhere good for lunch and couldn’t think of anywhere. There were no apps to tell me where to go that had disabled facilities and I thought, well it would be a good idea if we had one that did that.

‘And that was really the impetus for starting Blue Badge Style in earnest.’

Fiona was diagnosed with MS twenty years ago and as her disability progressed, she became accutely aware of the limited information available for ‘stylish, discerning people with mobility issues.’

Her business is based around an app she developed at a UCL course: ‘[It was] called The Mobile Academy, and it was 10 weeks in really horrible winter weather. I had to go in on Wednesdays up to north London, and the classroom wasn’t wheelchair accessible so I had to sit at the back every time.’

After completing the course, a professor asked her whether she really was going to develop an app, to which she replied that she could, but that it would take her a while. They then offered to develop it for her in order to launch it around the time of the Paralympic Games.

‘It was quite good that it happened all at the same time,’ Fiona said, ‘But since then it’s been difficult to get people engaged, so we’ve become very much more a social media company as opposed to someone who’s just got an app and a website.’

Fiona is also one of many disabled entrepreneurs who have decided to run a business from home. ‘The positive is that I’m in charge of what I do every day,’ she says. ‘The negative is that if I don’t physically stop myself from working I’d work from 7 in the morning til 9 at night. So I have to really sit down and say to myself, ‘At 7 o’clock you’re going to stop.’’

 

Travel & disability

Transport is a recurrent issue for Fiona and while not having to travel to work every day is a slight reprieve, she has to go out for business meetings:

‘Transport is a big issue for me. It’s really difficult to get around London…

‘I don’t know whether you’ve heard of the Extra Costs Commission? It’s run by the government and Scope and they’ve said that every disabled person spends around £550 more per month than an able-bodied person. The idea is to get the government to fund that gap.

‘The majority of that spend is on travel because you can’t really use public transport unless you want to plan two hours of your day for a journey. London Transport will get you there in the end, but at the end of the day I want to get there at a certain time. I don’t want to be waiting around for taxis, ramps at stations - that sort of thing - I just want to go. So the easiest thing is to just get into a black cab, which are all 100% accessible.’

Every disabled person spends around £550 more per month than an able-bodied person... the majority of that spend is on travel because you can't really use public transport unless you want to plan two hours of your day for a journey...

Despite the issues with travel, she considers getting out of the house a necessity for those working from home.

‘You have to have contact with other people. Working on your own is not a good thing because you get over-anxious or paranoid and think, ‘We haven’t got enough hits on the website today, what am I going to do?’ And yet if I go out and talk to people and relax a bit, that feeling doesn’t become over-powering or make me feel like I’m not doing a good job – you need some sort of validation from other people.’

Her business is focused on making it quicker and easier for those who are disabled (or people with disabled friends) to know where the stylish places with disabled access are. They provide photographs of venues as well as an audio description and a rating out of three blue ticks based on accessibility, facilities and style ambience.

‘We’re trying to re-launch the app and the website – we’re making it more interactive for the user and the idea is that you can just drop a pin to where you are… and write a review about it quickly and it’ll be up there on the website straight away.’

I mention that it’s a bit like TripAdvisor, and she pulls a face: ‘Yeah, but better.’ In comparison, they don’t review any old place like ‘the Italian down the road’ – simply the kinds of places that stylish, discerning people want to go to.

Government funding for entrepreneurs with disabilities

As an entrepreneur with a microbusiness, Fiona says that she has had minimal help from the government. She mentions the Access to Work scheme, which aims to pay for practical support if you have a disability in order to help you stay in work, start working or move into self-employment or start employment. In order to gain the help you have to apply for a claim.

She has applied twice for the scheme: ‘The first time they said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be employed.’ Well, I’ve got a small business and I don’t employ myself because I’ve got no money to employ myself. I employ one other person.' 

The government initiative has now changed it's requirements so that people without a P60 can be eligible and Fiona is waiting to see if she now qualifies.

45% of people who are diasabled and eligible for employment set up their own businesses, so the government should be doing a lot more to help them

‘45% of people who are diasabled and eligible for employment set up their own businesses, so the government should be doing a lot more to help them. ’ she says. ‘Access to Work is a great scheme but they’ve got to get it out there -they’ve got to make it easier to apply for.’

Changing the aim of the business

Initially Fiona’s business was simply the app, however she’s now increased her revenue streams.

‘We’re going to do that by selling pictorial access descriptions, or PADs, to venues. That’s our main business. We’ll also sell advertising space.’

Something that Fiona didn’t expect to be doing when first starting up her business was to be involved in designing more fashionable disability equipment.

‘We’re involved with Brunel University and I set their design students a challenge to make my bog-standard wheelchair  look more glamorous. I want it to look more than functional and I want it to look trendy...

‘And they came up with designs which we advertised on the website. People voted for them and they are now looking to prototype three of those designs with a view to selling them, which will generate more revenue for us. So we’re going into the equipment business – we didn’t decide to, but we are.’

 

Future perspective

I ask Fiona where she sees her business in five years’ time, and she laughs, saying she’ll probably be at her desk. However, her ambition is to have an office with a group of people working for her:

‘Supporting a global brand or a global community, that’s where we want it to go. We would start in the UK first… we also want to move into the manufacturing side of things – stylish equipment for people who are disabled because at the moment it’s rubbish, it’s not fit for purpose and it’s horrible. It’s like something from the 1970s or even the 1940s.

‘And we want every public building to have one of our pictorial access descriptions, and for that to become the standard for accessibility.’

She also says that she wants disabled people to be treated as ‘a customer, a future employee, or a tourist – not as a health and safety issue.' 

It’s shocking to hear she’s been refused entry to certain establishments because she was deemed a ‘health and safety hazard.’

Fiona agrees that it is ‘crazy,’ but says that the majority of places are very welcoming: ‘If there’s an issue, they will hopefully get over it. So if there’s a step they’ll carry you over it; if the tables are too high they’ll find you one that’s a bit lower. You know, they’re usually very accommodating, but sometimes you get some health and safety person gone berserk.’

Advice for other disabled entrepreneurs

Fiona has given many conferences in the past to reinforce the idea that being disabled is not a barrier to starting, and subsequently running, a successful business. So after asking her what advice she would give to someone who is disabled and thinking about starting their own business, it’s unsurprising there is little hesitation in her answer.

‘I always say to them just do it, just start... but you’ve got to start with a good idea, whether you’re disabled or able-bodied...

‘I mean, just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean that you have all the good ideas. Start it, then get validation from other people to make sure you’re going down the right track whether it be your parents, your family, close friends or someone you’ve known from previous life or business. Just make sure that they think you’ve got something and then just go for it.’

Is her business stronger having drawn from personal experience to build it?

‘Yes,’ she answers, ‘because it’s totally my passion.

‘Even if I don’t make any money I want to carry on doing this until I can’t do it physically – and then I’ll get a Stephen Hawking machine and do it that way! But yes, I believe that there are loads of people like me who don’t want to stay at home, don’t want to settle for second best and want to go out and enjoy life.

Even if I don’t make any money I want to carry on doing this until I can’t do it physically – and then I’ll get a Stephen Hawking machine and do it that way! 

‘Part of the human rights commission for people with disabilities, which all the governments have signed up to, says we have the equal right to enjoy life. And that’s entirely what Blue Badge Style is all about – it’s enabling that, it’s telling you where to go, what to do, what to buy to maintain a sense of style.

‘With that respect we’re like the Vogue or the Michelin guide for the disabled.’

Entrepreneurial support

There are a variety of websites that aim to provide support and advice for disabled entrepreneurs, including disabledentrepreneurs.co.uk, set up by Shane Bratby and Dom Smith.

The FSB (Federation for Small Business) is also currently campaigning with Leonard Cheshire Disability to improve the Access to Work scheme, ensure that disabled people who start a business on benefits should not be worse off after their first year of trading, and push the government to provide free training basics in business financial planning for start-ups.

The Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs in the UK, in partnership with Leonard Cheshire Disability, has also been running since 2007 and aims to support and raise awareness of the skills and inventiveness of those with disabilities.

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