Unlocking the secrets to inclusive design
We caught up with Tracey Proudlock, founder of Proudlock Associates, which advises a range of clients on inclusive design, to find out why she thinks it’s important for disabled people to get the best education that they can, how her business has evolved, and why a supportive business network is her secret weapon.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your business, and how you identify as disabled.
I was born with my disability at a time when lots of people with my condition weren’t expected to live, and consequently the outlook for me was poor and expectations were low: it was quite a shock that I survived and grew up and needed a school! My family assumed that I would just go to the same school as my brothers and sisters, but the council thought I should go to a different, separate school, which my parents opposed. There were always a lot of heated discussions with people in authority in my early years: I remember being in my wheelchair aged four or five and my mum taking me to the council office and telling them that this school already had my three siblings and was going to have me too! When most people look back to their childhoods, they probably remember birthday parties or playing with their toys, but mine is mostly memories of my mum turning up at meetings and having a big row with the council, advocating for my right to a mainstream education.
She fought for me for years. I did go to the same mainstream school as my siblings, and I believe that was the best thing for me – if I’d been sent away to a different school, that would have been the start of a separate, not equal life.
I still hear lots of parents having the same arguments today and I think it’s wrong that there’s been so little progress and people are still having the same arguments that my mum had to have fifty years ago. No one today should be having to battle like she had.
Going to mainstream school was significant for me. I know some people who went to a “special needs” school and thrived, but they are in a minority. I did have to have a lot of time off and long periods in Hospital School – a teacher came to my bedside for about half an hour a day. There are lots of things I’m good at, like puzzles and spelling, because of Hospital School, but there are things I didn’t get access to, like languages, sciences lab or the other sciences.
I went on to University of Leeds, studying politics and social policy. Going to university was a hugely positive experience for me. Two months after I graduated and came home, my mum died. I believe that is why it’s so important that disabled people get the best education that they can – they need to be equipped as best as possible to fight for themselves.
I’ve always worked in HR and eventually I set up my own business to offer training around equality, diversity and inclusion. Over time, more and more of our clients were asking for advice about how to make their workplace more physically accessible, as well as helping to develop a more inclusive workplace through the provision of training. At first the business offered mostly training and just a small amount of buildings advice, but over a period of time I could see a definite switch. Fast forward to today and training is only a small part of our offering, the majority of our work being in inclusive design: helping to ensure that buildings are accessible to disabled people and others at the same time through a single provision. We look at buildings when people are refurbishing, analyse architectural drawings, and help with drafting documentation for planning applications. If someone is creating a completely new building then we’ll talk with the architect about design and give them feedback on how it could be improved, and as a building goes up, we’ll go onto site and check that they’re doing what they said they would.
What can we do to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses? What is holding them back and what can we all do to help change that?
Upping our visibility instead of hiding our light: rather than being shy about ourselves, we need to get together more in a group and help one another; perhaps offering opportunities to shadow and learn from eachother. We can’t just say, “Be inspired and get on with it”. Sometimes people need support.
Sometimes when you’re building a business and finding a team to support you, it can be difficult to find the right people, but, accessible premises are another challenge altogether.
For example, lots of offices are up flights of stairs and out of the way. Things are changing now and a lot of things are virtual, but if you have people who are supporting your business or helping you to grow your business then it can be good to meet them face to face. I remember once when I had to meet with a lawyer to sign a business lease, I couldn’t get upstairs to see him so he met me in a coffee shop. We had no privacy and he wasn’t at all embarrassed about his office having no access and didn’t even acknowledge that it might not feel appropriate given the legal nature of our conversation or even thank me for coming to meet him in the coffee shop.
It is difficult when business support services do not understand the challenges of disability.
Resilience and bouncing back after a disappointment is incredibly important, let me explain. Five years ago, we were pitching for a major new client. I’d let them know that I was a wheelchair user and what my needs were, but when we arrived – before our meeting was scheduled to start, I was told I wasn’t allowed access to the site because wheelchair access hadn’t been risk assessed: I’d let the people inside know what I needed, but that hadn’t been communicated to the health and safety colleagues. Eventually I was told that I would have to go around three sides of this estate to a side door, which had been risk assessed for wheels – things like tractors and trailers. We had to walk considerably further to get to the side door, in the rain, and by this time we were about 40 minutes late for our meeting.
Even though we were late, I said that I wasn’t going to go in straight away, I wanted to freshen up and have some time to calm down. We were the last pitch of the day, and by the time the meeting started the clients’ senior team had been waiting for me for almost an hour.
It was probably one of the best pitches we’ve ever done, and we won the job. So many things can go wrong and you just have to keep working at it, maintain your dignity and not get mad. Today, we still have that client.
And it’s vital in business that we open the door for other people who are just starting out: if you know someone who can help somebody else then you should introduce them to each other, don’t just keep your successful network to yourself. It’s important to share and be collaborative rather than divisive. Share things that help people on a practical level.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?
My greatest achievement is my two boys, Billy and Tom, raising them to be decent humans who are independent and fair-minded.
In terms of my business, it’s been tremendous to see Proudlock Associates grow from being a sole trader to a partnership and now a limited company. It’s rewarding seeing the influence that we have and how people position us and our work. People come to us because they know we’re leaders and give first class advice, and when our customers win awards, that’s brilliant.
Who or what inspires you?
I have a network of likeminded disabled people, we have shared values and look out for eachother. You can see them on Linkedin,
I have a few people on speed dial Michael Liebreich, he’s my secret weapon, I’ll ring him.
Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?
It’s important to have work life balance and I play competitive wheelchair tennis and recently I read Winning Ugly by Brad Gilbert.