Diana Award judge, Josh Wintersgill, created the easyTravelseat, which helps with the transferring of wheelchair users on and off aircrafts. On Disability Awareness Day, he shares his experiences, challenges and triumphs to inspire all of us to ‘define your own ability’.
“Put ‘can’t’ in your pocket and pull out ‘try’”. These are the words that helped me find my ability to overcome my disability, inspire others and drive change in the disabled community.
“Row, row, row, your boat, gently down the stream”, the sounds of my nan’s voice as I was doing sit-ups with her.
“Nan, I want to stop now.”
“You must keep going, if you see a crocodile, don’t forget to scream.”
“Nan, I can’t do it anymore.”
“Josh you have to push yourself to do these exercises, remember there is no such thing as ‘can’t’. You must always put ‘can’t’ in your pocket and pull out ‘try’.”
Little did I know then that this would be repeated throughout my life and still is to this day.
Four years earlier, at 18 months old, was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy – type three. A rare genetic condition that weakens the muscles and causes problems with movement which deteriorates overtime. The condition has four types. New borns with type one rarely survive beyond the first few years of life. Most children with type two survive into adulthood and can live long, fulfilling lives. Types three and four do not usually affect life expectancy. It’s expected that 1 in 6,000 to 10,000 (SMA foundation) children are diagnosed with the condition.
At the age of eight, I was taking part in sports. Physical exercise is critical to prevent extreme deterioration of the muscles. Before school most mornings, I would get a 6am wake up call, “Josh, it’s time to get up now and go swimming.” Yes, that’s Nan again. 7am, I was in the pool ready to swim 8-16 25m lengths. 9am, I was in school for a full day followed by stretches in the evening. This period in my life was called the ‘Militant Nan Regime’, but at that age I just saw it as fun, because Nan made it that way. Of course, I didn’t always see it at the time, but Nan knew the long-term benefits of what I was doing.
Fast forward ten years, I had got my first electric wheelchair. I stopped walking, had spinal fusion at 14, finished school, completed college and was moving away from home to start studying IT Management and Business at University West of England, and I learnt to drive my own vehicle. By this point, I was totally reliant on carers to provide personal care, so at the age of 18, I became an employer for my own personal assistants to help at University.
During my time at University, I successfully undertook a year’s industrial placement which came with many significant challenges around accessible housing, carer support, and employment. Abode Impact found 91% of households experienced barriers to accessing the private rented sector with 62% saying the main problem was lack of accessible properties.
I faced many challenges in trying to complete my placement. Did you know, Muscular Dystrophy UK found 70% of young disabled people believe their job applications had been rejected because of how employers view their disability. It took me 13 months to secure a placement, after being rejected dozens of times, due to my disability.
Getting the placement was one hurdle, the next was finding somewhere to live. Abode Impact found 91% of wheelchair households experienced barriers to accessing the private rented sector. 62% reported the main problem was lack of accessible properties.
I can relate. Unable to find a living space suitable for my needs near my placement, my local council funded £40,000 for me to stay in a Neuro-rehabilitation centre for a year.
Fast forward to 2015. I graduated with 1st Class Honours and was offered a role in cyber security within two months of graduating. “One in seven disabled graduates (average age 26) say they have never been in paid employment.” Muscular Dystrophy UK.
A few years went by and as I have grown older and become less mobile, travel has become difficult – particularly flying. After sitting by a pool in Tenerife in 2017 reading ‘Start with the Why’ by Simon Sinek, I had a lightbulb moment I created the easyTravelseat, which helps with the transferring of wheelchair users on and off an aircraft. I went on to win the UK Disabled Entrepreneur 2018, had the Founder of easyJet Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou investing in my business with his easyGroup family of brands, and won Young Great British Entrepreneur 2019. I was later awarded an Honorary Masters in Technology by the University West of England in 2019.
Now I run my own business, changing people’s lives and improving the accessibility of aviation globally. I exercise three times a week, I am on the GB pathway programme for air-rifle, with the intention of competing at the Paris 2024 Paralympic games, a young support volunteer for SMA UK, an Ambassador for Leonard Cheshire and a Trustee for Disabled Living. So, this Disability Awareness Day, let’s all take my Nans statement of “put ‘can’t’ in your pocket and pull out ‘try”. Let’s inspire the next generation of young disabled people and help them pursue their dreams.
Acting is simple and can begin with three simple steps:
1. Push yourself to be better than you: Always push yourself to be better than you were yesterday.
2. Volunteer/Educate/Campaign: There are many ways you can help raise awareness and drive change for disability. You can volunteer for your disability charity or support a disability charity that has supported a relative or friend. Educate and go into schools, colleges and universities to discuss your experiences, get involved in many different campaigns, for example changing places toilets, getting wheelchairs onboard aircraft – all wheels up and flying disabled.
3. Inspire: There are many people out there with disabilities doing incredible things. We as a community overcome adversity everyday somewhere in the world. These stories have to be shared to inspire others to speak out and drive change on a regional, national and international scale. Check some of the cool work here.
Happy Disability Awareness Day!
“Define your own ability, do not let your disability define it!” – Josh Wintersgill