“I’d recommend that startups embed diversity in their business”: Interview with Liz, paralympic swimmer and co-founder of The Ability People

Liz Johnson has been described as ‘a force of nature’. Born with Cerebral Palsy in Wales, the UK, Liz is three time paralympic swimming medalist (including gold in Beijing), multiple world champion, named as one of the BBC’s 100 Global Women destined to change the world, has a business degree and is now co-founder and Managing Director of The Ability People (TAP).

Being an expert in disability inclusion (check out her LinkedIn Talent Solutions talk here), Liz and her team at TAP (who all have a disability) are on a mission to inspire, educate and change global brands on how they redefine the issue of disability in their present and future workforce.

We connected with Liz to speak to her about how startups can embrace disability in hiring, what needs to change in the future, being resilient and learning from failure.

Hi Liz, thank you for joining us : ) Please could you tell us the story of The Ability People, and what is your mission?

I was inspired to launch The Ability People (TAP) when, shortly after retiring from my career as a professional swimmer, I was watching the news one night and saw a feature on the disability employment gap. I was shocked that the gap stands at 28%. There are 13.9 million people in the UK with disabilities but barely half are employed, compared to over 80% of non-disabled people. 

As a disabled person I was already aware of the bias that exists in society and works against those who look and act differently. But seeing the direct impact of this was chilling. I was determined to do something to change the situation for the better. 

Around this time I also met my current business partner, Steve Carter, who has been a recruiter for over thirty years. He had similar interests and concerns to me. Steve was tired of being presented with the same talent pool, and instinctively knew that there was untapped talent out there. 

After some discussion we decided to set up TAP in 2018, with a goal to improve disability awareness within businesses and the wider recruitment industry, and make workplaces truly accessible to disabled people. Our mission is to remove unconscious bias and make hiring processes truly inclusive so that more disabled people can secure roles and excel in them. 

What differentiates TAP from its competitors?

There are a number of other companies that claim to make hiring processes more inclusive – however we are the only one which is staffed entirely by disabled people. This means our team understands the experience of being a disabled job seeker or being disabled in the workplace better than anyone else. Our recommendations are based on real people and real experiences rather than theories or assumptions. 

There’s also an opportunity for corporates to ask our team the questions they’ve always wanted to ask a disabled person, but were perhaps too afraid to. This addresses the elephant in the room and helps people open up, relax and better understand the needs of disabled employees.

How did you finance TAP up until this point? Do you plan to achieve additional funding in the future?

We initially bootstrapped to get the business of the ground, then we were lucky enough to secure contracts with key corporates including HSBC and Chelsea FC, which allowed us to grow.

You’ve said that “many businesses don’t know how to start down the road towards authentic inclusivity”. Can you tell us about your strategy to transform the way big businesses see disability in hiring?

We do a number of things to transform the way companies hire. As I mentioned, we give companies a safe space in which to ask the questions they’ve always been too worried to ask disabled candidates. It helps that within our team, we have a healthy gender mix and diverse age range. There’s a mix of cultural backgrounds, a mix of people who went to university and people that didn’t, people who have got children and people that haven’t. We’re a very diverse group of individuals which means we can answer lots of different questions honestly. 

We then present real-life, authentic experiences to businesses. You don’t know what you don’t know – especially if you’ve never previously needed such knowledge. So we run sessions to normalise difference and get people thinking differently about what disability means and entails. In addition to this we give businesses practical tools and advice on things like how to make their office more accessible for disabled people and the changes they need to make to their hiring process to be more inclusive attract a more diverse range of candidates. 

Our sessions remind businesses that as disabled people we are constantly problem-solving, adapting and having to think outside of the box to navigate daily life, so any big problem within an organisation (or at least what most people perceive to be a big problem) isn’t such a big hurdle for a disabled person. It’s just another problem that needs to be solved, that needs looking at differently. In this way, it massively strengthens a team to have this diversity. This is what our sessions make abundantly clear to businesses. 

What top advice would you give to new startups embracing disability in hiring?

At TAP we’ve found that the biggest challenge for organisations is usually setting the wheels in motion. It’s relatively easy to have that initial chat and get excited about diversity and inclusion, but to actually move forward, companies need to find the right people within their organisation who can make the necessary changes. Businesses often view inclusion as a ‘nice’ thing to do, inspired by morality or the culture of corporate social responsibility. In addition to this ‘tickbox’ approach to inclusion being entirely ineffective, they completely miss the fact that their business directly benefits through employing disabled talent. 

So I’d recommend that startups take diversity seriously and embed it in their business from the very beginning. It’s far easier to create a culture of inclusion at the very beginning, than to change ingrained attitudes in ten years’ time when you’re a big company with hundreds of employees.  

Diversity in the workplace is becoming more talked about, but still has a long way to go. What do you think needs to happen in the next 5-10 years to even the playing field?

I think there’s a huge lack of understanding around what disability is, what it represents, and how people should look or act if they’ve got a disability. The common assumption is that any non-disabled person is more capable than a disabled person in every situation. It’s almost as though being disabled is on a totally different plane to being an ethnic minority, LGBTQ+ or a woman, as disabled people are literally seen as being intellectually inferior. When a disabled person achieves anything, it is seen as inspirational and awe-inspiring. People don’t understand that disabled people just do things differently. Nobody is astonished when a woman, a trans-person or a black person is incredibly intelligent or excels in work or sport. If that person is disabled it’s a different story, and this is what needs to change.

Our definition of what’s ‘normal’ and what isn’t is completely skewed and this starts at a young age. We need to get away from thinking that having two arms, two legs and no neurodiversity is the normal, desirable ideal, and assuming that there’s something ‘wrong’ with anyone that doesn’t fit this mould. There’s nothing wrong with people who are disabled – they’re just different. Until we get away from ‘othering’ disabled people and underestimating their capabilities we will not have a level playing field.

What is your long term vision for TAP? Any plans for international expansion?

At the moment our main focus is on the UK market, however I did present at LinkedIn Talent Connect in Dallas last year and we’ve received lots of interest from US-based companies where the disability gap is just as stark (if not more so) than in the UK. 

What has been one of your biggest failures, and what did you learn from the experience?

Undoubtedly, it was missing out on the team that went to the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games has been the experience that had the most profound impact. It made me realise that no matter how hard you work some outcomes are beyond your control but also that perceived failure doesn’t define you. The experience taught me how important it is to be resilient and have short, mid and long term goals and the relevance of each.