DEALING WITH ILLNESS AND DISABILITY AS AN ENTREPRENEUR TRANSFORMING DISABILITIES INTO OUR BUSINESS POWER: “Let’s focus on someone’s skills not situation.”

How do you ‘be authentic’ yet ‘professional’? Should I work through illness? What do I say as a business owner with a disability? “I need to explain how I work so I can perform at my peak…

It can be hard enough navigating work and life as an entrepreneur. Not to mention the two popular buzzwords of ‘needing’ to be authentic yet professional! Surely they are in conflict?! But with the right support your set-back can be your leap forward into creating a better business community for all.

The choice really is yours, primarily, whether you disclose your own ‘disability’ or ‘illness,’ you have a right to privacy because authenticity as a leader doesn’t have to be declaring ‘everything.’ Authenticity is about being an open and ethical leader because not only can it ensure your organisation is sustainable, it can mean that you set a positive culture for your team and yourself, as professionalism is about integrity and can be individually defined by the culture you set.

Authenticity and professionalism is subjective and as we finally evolve into a more inclusive world, we look at the skills that disabled entrepreneurs can offer, with a comparatively large percentage of entrepreneurs thriving with a ‘disability.’ 

Did you Know?

  • The UK has one of the highest rates of ‘disabled entrepreneurs’ with many people starting a business because the ‘workplace’ isn’t appropriate (Enterprise Times) 
  • Many millennials search for ethical businesses to work for with ‘purpose not pay check’ (Forbes) 
  • Work as humans-to-humans rather than ‘faceless brands’ just transacting with one another 
  • Hoping for a healthier more holistic future for entrepreneurship and indeed, the workplace…

Entrepreneurial spirit has always been present within AD:VENTURE ambassador, Freelance Journalist and Communications professional Sophie Mei Lan, who set up a documentary and story-telling multi-media company Evoke Media Group Ltd (http://evokemediagroup.co.uk) with her film-making colleague with the dynamic support of AD:VENTURE (https://ad-venture.org.uk), utilising their diverse skills to flourish in business and life. Sophie (https://sparklecommunications), who has a range of ‘hidden disabilities,’ has since worked with Channel 4 News, ITV and BBC News. In her latest blog, she shares how she navigates a communications business, life and so-called ‘disabilities…’

“I would love to see a more inclusive world, where we are seen for our skills rather than labels… Let’s unlock our business powers…”

The Power is in Your Hands

“Power” as a leader is not about exerting ourselves over others, it’s knowing our own power and what is important for you and what values in which you want to build a business. 

For me, it’s all about maintaining your own dignity, whatever that means to you. 

We have the choice to choose what we want to share. 

It has always been important for me to be fairly open about my “hidden disabilities,” because ironically they have helped me to harness and hone my own success story, especially as I began to to really build my profile in the media and win international enterprise, communications, digital and journalism awards.

The more my personal brand accelerated, some of my more corporate-looking enterprises, merged into this brand as I represented them all as a leader, evolving into the ethical entrepreneur that I had aspired to become. 

That said, over time I have told my ‘story’ but just parts at a time as and when i feel comfortable to do so and think it will help others. I still not choose to disclose everything. 

I consciously have chosen, however, that my core values in business and life are to showcase the fact that despite our challenges, we can use these to our advantage… with the right support! I wanted to demonstrate that even what other entrepreneurs and clients may deem as the ‘ultimate’ success such as me appearing regularly in the press, on national TV and Radio. The more I felt inclined to use my profile as a personal brand to talk about disabilities and inclusivity, because not only am I surrounded by other neurodiverse and so-called ‘disabled’ entrepreneurs, the more I realised that I wanted to share about my invisible disabilities and how they have enabled me rather than disabled me. And anyway the media thrives off powerful personal stories and it’s much easier to connect with people as humans not ‘corporations,’ so ideally in terms of your own business (as long as you’re aware of any possible repercussions of sharing any personal story), it is much more powerful getting press coverage and better coverage as editorials and feature pieces rather than relying on clear adverts. As they say… 

Facts tell… stories tell.

“How should I treat someone I am working with if they are undergoing an illness or have a disability?” 

My own “disabilities”which I see as my “superpowers” help me in business and life and I am proud of them. But whilst I view my neurodiverse mind and even my own current physical ailments as strengths, some may still hold bias (consciously or subconsciously) and judge what tasks someone can or cannot perform. 

Whereas, for me personally, I find that by always managing my ‘hurdles,’ I am hyper-aware of what my ‘genius’ skills are (in writing, creating powerful communications content for brands which tells stories, digital training and empowering personal brands with a purpose to get heard by their desired audiences worldwide) and my own coping mechanisms with the right support. 

That said, I won’t pretend that everything is ‘easy’ to navigate, as I candidly share on my personal blog and vlog. I can at times feel ‘awkward’ when my personal world has leaked into my business communications online. But I choose to blog and vlog openly about mental health and wellbeing and disabilities which is becoming more prevalent and even ‘on trend’ in the business world. But most of all, it is part of my values as an ethical business that I am relatable and open about my ‘diversity,’ to empower others thinking of building their own personal brands. 

As I say in the not-so very corporate quote of ‘Flashdance: The Musical’: Take your Passion and Make it Happen! 

Hopefully one day, I am seen beyond a diversity champion and that we foster a truly inclusive transformation. 

Changing the face of ‘work’ and ‘productivity’ 

The beauty of this challenging yet transformational period of the Pandemic, I believe, has been the fact that working has changed. What it looks like, what it involves and what it is, as it’s finally becoming more respected and a holistic future for those running businesses, leading teams and employees. 

That’s said, no one model fits all which is why it’s important for all of us to focus on how to untap someone’s strengths whether that be through ‘agile working’ or ‘flexible working’ or being part of a physical team… or a hybrid approach. But again we return to the power of ‘choice’ and working with our team as individuals because not only does this make sense to boost productivity and for everyone to perform at their peak at work but it also means that everyone feels happier, healthier and prospers.

We do however need to make a conscious effort to improve internal communication so people still feel connected. 

Fostering communication, empowering people and creating spaces for all to HEAR, SEE and hyper-focus on the human… because: “Together, one gives each other energy to live – to create health for life.” A quote from the international Microsystems Festival which I delivered a speech at, as a ‘multi-platform Journalist and ‘multi-faceted’ person. Microsystems are a way of transforming huge healthcare systems, breaking them down into their smallest fun

ctioning form to cultivate growth within teams and exploring solutions so that everyone’s voice is carefully heard and accepted at the ‘metaphorical’ table.

Here’s How I would like us to support one another to unlock all of our superpowers…My Top Tips:

We have a choice over what we share about others but most of all, we can decide how we act in the face of ‘adversity’ or when you’re unsure what’s best to do…

  1. Let’s change our language so it is positive and uplifting around a more inclusive and fruitful working environment for all. There’s a lot of power in language. 

 

From diversity to inclusivity, from disability to accessibility, from tick boxes to human communication, From social mobility to levelling up, From divide and rule to Kinship…

  1. Human-centered support for each other…  no one size fits all – see beyond someone’s hurdles respect one another’s wishes, as autonomous humans! 
  2. If someone does disclose an illness or disability..The worst thing we can do to entrepreneurs who are unwell is to assume it’s ‘best’ NOT work with them or consider not offering them a job…because we know best.  Whether it be physical health and visible or they choose to disclose a mental or invisible disability or illness…  Why? “But you genuinely care?” “you don’t want to bother them” they look poorly you’re concerned?”

4) So you either don’t work with them, stop contacting them or you try to turn a professional meeting into a therapy session because you want to help …

5) Instead, if you’re in a position to support them in some way… Ask them if, how and what you can do to best support them? 

I also run a Yorkshire Families blog to help all families access the best of the region and to make online and in person activities more accessible for all especially those with disabilities. Online we have a project called Digitally Active 

One of our volunteers aka “Digitally Active Dan,” he has shared how he feels his only option ‘career wise’ as someone on the Autistic spectrum would be to volunteer at a cafe or charity shop rather than find work digitally… until he took part and helped co-create Digitally Active with his mum Julie and I – which trains people with disabilities to work as a freelancers (and hopefully one day for the project) assisting small businesses with online virtual assistance tasks from blog writing to cleaning up websites… 

Digitally Active’s Dan writes on https://yorkshirefamilies.co.uk: “The world as a digital entrepreneur is a good world for me as it means I can showcase my knowledge and skills of things such as: Sports blogs, using Canva to make templates and graphics, using IMovie to make videos and other knowledge and skills, and I would say I am finding my own way online with the help of my social media coach The Sparkle Coach by using my skills to the best of my ability. 

“I prefer the digital world to a workplace as the workplace would probably be too busy and too much going on for me and it wouldn’t suit me working in a garden centre or a café for example as they wouldn’t utilise my skills, whereas a job to do with computers or technical stuff would be much better for me.” 

He said that his parents have had to fight for every opportunity for him including sixth form. 

“Some famous entrepreneurs who inspire me are Richard Branson who has dyslexia and made his first million when he was 21, Lord Alan Sugar and some famous sports people who have a disability who I like or admire are:

Ellie Simmonds whose sport was swimming in the Paralympics

Jamie Stead who’s taking part in the Paralympics in Tokyo after the Olympics has finished, he’s from Normanton and he plays wheelchair rugby.

David Weir who took part in London Marathons despite being a wheelchair athlete 

Hannah Cockroft who is a wheelchair racer.”

Whilst I don’t personally face as many barriers as some, as a mixed-race single mum who doesn’t have a car, works freelance from home, whilst running magazines and a city centre company based at Wakefield University Business Centre, all whilst thriving with an array of invisible disabilities and having derived from a richly diverse yet low-income background.

That’s why we all need bespoke support because for a lot of us ‘entrepreneurs’ whether we’ve built a business through necessity or purely passion, we have to factor in life, work and finance into the equation. That’s where AD:VENTURE ( https://ad-venture.org.uk) have been brilliant at seeing the human not just the spreadsheets.

I have definitely experienced some of the roadblocks faced by many since childhood but I am so relieved to see that we are joining together to stride forward as a sport-tive community! Not to mention a vast array of self-love and life needs from dancing to Disney films, from threaded brows to treading the earth on my running pursuits fuelled by a love of nutritious foods and fresh shakes to proper coffee and a proper brew! Whatever suits you step back inside this flourishing fountain of community spirit which is welcome to all.

You can read more from Sophie Mei Lan at https://sparklecommunications.co.uk and her Women in Business Magazine https://sparkleupnorth.com as well as a community reporter project which supports all families regardless of ‘disability’ to get active across the region at https://YorkshireFamilies.co.uk or you can follow her @SparkleComms, @SparkleUpNorth & @YorkshireFamilies on social media.

To access free support from AD:VENTURE, go to: https://ad-venture.org.uk

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