Fitting the pieces together - Patching the talent gap
The ongoing pandemic has shown us that remote working works. People with disabilities and chronic illnesses have long been best placed to be highly productive in this kind of work, but for too long they have been excluded from employment by barriers in conventional practices. Now, as we enter the ‘new normal’, Beth Kume-Holland is looking to change this.
Patchwork Hub is an employment platform which connects employers with skilled professionals looking for work opportunities outside the conventional, 9 to 5 office-based role. The tech startup and social enterprise is run by Beth Kume-Holland who founded the business in early 2019 while at Harvard Graduate school. Now the platform is enabling a hidden talent pool, from people with disabilities through to carers and parents, to find employment and thrive in work.
The story so far
Beth first started Patchwork Hub in 2019 because of her own experience trying to find work with her disability and chronic health conditions, as well as her experiences in her disability advocacy work, where she realised how many millions were missing from employment because they couldn’t work 9 to 5 in an office.
Just because an individual is removed from the physical workplace, they do not lose their skillset, determination or ability to work or make money. Yet Beth noticed that efforts were focused around trying to ‘fit’ people back into the workplace rather than creating a workspace that fits these individuals. “I wanted to create a place which did just that, fit the work around the person and centralise things for them,” says Beth.
Patchwork Hub’s new online platform (patchworkhub.org) is not only connecting employers with a previously hidden pool of talent, it is also a certified social enterprise that is building a growing community through its training and support to lead a culture change in work and accessibility. “Patchworktogether is our hub of community and impact where we’re centralising stories to raise awareness, run training programmes and provide other resources to help our growing community of Patchworkers access employment and support”.
Patchwork Hub’s new website only launched in June and businesses of all sizes are signing up to improve their inclusion and support the enterprise’s social mission. And there’s more to come. While the new website allows individuals to search and apply for job vacancies, work is already underway for Patchwork Hub’s remote working platform and marketplace which will allow freelancers to complete tasks and projects on the site itself. “Skills-based work is the future and with the takeover of free agent workers and ‘task-based’ work, I feel strongly that disabled people should be integrated into the future model of work, front and centre of the change, rather than a separate category added on at the end” Beth says. “The disability employment gap in the UK is growing, despite the fact that the skillset of the disabled self-employed is specialised in the three most highly-skilled occupational categories.”
And because of the pandemic, the landscape has completely transformed since she embarked on building a solution for remote-based talent a couple of years ago. Before the pandemic, Beth would meet with employers to pitch her idea and stress the importance of bringing in the ‘hidden talent pool’ into the labour market. While most loved the concept, they said they just didn’t have any jobs that they felt could be done mostly from home.
“Although it was incredibly frustrating to see, within weeks, the world make the adjustments that disabled people have spent their lives fighting for, it has also validated our place in the labour market.” Employers can now see how productively a person can work when they’re based at home.
The pandemic has shown us that remote working works. People with disabilities and chronic illnesses are best placed to be productive at this kind of work and for too long have been excluded from work by barriers in conventional employment practices.
How it began:
We asked Beth what her proudest moment was. “On the same day in March 2018, I received two life-altering pieces of news. I had just got back from a hospital appointment where I’d been given a formal diagnosis of a life-altering health condition when I received the phone call from the Kennedy Trust saying that I had been awarded a full Kennedy Scholarship for postgraduate study at Harvard. The resulting year at Harvard was the hardest and most transformative of my life and getting through all the challenges it presented is what I consider to be my greatest achievement.”
Outwardly, Beth’s experience was a success. Beth was a Kennedy Scholar, building expertise and experience working in the Harvard Innovation Lab and enrolling in a wide range of courses. Beth was affiliated with Harvard’s Department of African American Studies’ Social Engagement Initiative and produced a film subsequently screened in a Boston cinema.
However, it is Beth’s personal experience, which few people know about, that she sees her greatest achievement. “While at Harvard, I faced a number of difficulties as a disabled student, despite following every correct procedure to try to remove these barriers. For example, despite registering my physical disability, my room in graduate dorms was allocated up 8 flights of stairs with no lift. When I fell ill in December, after coming back from hospital, for a while I did not have the physical capability to climb the stairs and so was completely confined to my floor and dependent upon my peers for food. There were a range of further issues while I was at Harvard, and I actually find it quite difficult to talk about – I have such great anxiety associated with what I went through and how hard I had to self-advocate to have a diagnosed condition taken seriously, just because it was invisible.”
“However, something good came out of this awful experience. It was the experience at Harvard that fuelled me to be more confident and open about my disability and to work to change policy for people like me. I became an advocate, working hard through volunteering for state-run organisations and even flying to Washington DC to represent Massachusetts in congressional meetings with Senators and other congressional representatives to negotiate increased funding for myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and fibromyalgia. I met such incredible and inspirational patients and friends from all over the continent through this work, having the opportunity to tell my own and their stories to the likes of the Senator Warren’s office and Congressman Kennedy. It was actually during one of my advocacy meetings in Congress, sitting around the table hearing stories of highly-skilled individuals who had been forced to stop work because of their illness, that solidified my idea and vision for Patchwork Hub.
“So, it was not graduating from Harvard that was my greatest achievement,” Beth says, “it was doing so with a newly diagnosed disability, with no support at an institution that was not set up to cater for people like me. The achievement arose from overcoming barriers, from changing institutional policy and from using the experience to fuel the work that I have done since around accessible work.”
We spoke further with Beth to find out more about her views on entrepreneurship and disability:
How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?
“I’m a very strong proponent of the social model of disability. This is a way of viewing the world which says people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. A barrier could be something physical, like being in a wheelchair and unable to get up the stairs because there is no lift, or it could be barriers caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming there are certain lives disabled people cannot lead or things they cannot achieve.
“While for me, my disability is caused by chronic illness and there are important steps I have to take myself in terms of treatment and managing my symptoms, in terms of how we should be thinking about disability, particularly in policymaking and as a society, the social model of disability is crucial. There are so many barriers disabled people face that could be mitigated by an accessible-centric society.”
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? What has been your experience?
“I actually think there are a lot of disabled entrepreneurs that want to start a business. The issue isn’t around people wanting to do it – it’s the barriers they face which prevent their success. I think a big thing holding people back is the lack of financial capacity. We can’t work a full-time job and a side hustle as is often the case for lots of non-disabled people. Particularly if you have a chronic illness, it’s often just not possible to do both.
“So then if you do take the leap and try to start a business, you’re doing so without any sort of financial support or backup, against so many additional barriers, and when you’re on your own it can have a crushing impact on your mental health. The start-up scene can be incredibly inaccessible and it can get quite exhausting to keep being that ‘difficult’ person speaking up when the barriers are so high you don’t even know where to start. It’s sad that the onus is always on the disabled person to speak up. It’s the same with trying to raise serious investment, it’s just hard.
“But then if you don’t have the financial stability to do this, and most don’t, it’s incredibly difficult. I think it’s also crucial to recognise that, because of barriers previously faced, disabled self-employed people often earn less. According to the Papworth Trust, disabled self-employed people who work full-time earn 23% less than non-disabled self-employed people. So disabled people may be more likely to lack financial stability, especially when you add on the disability price tag, or the additional costs that can come with having a disability, which Scope found to be on average £583 a month.
“So, I guess something we can all do to help change the inaccessibility is acknowledging the unintentional yet very real barriers that exist for disabled entrepreneurs. People who are aware and acknowledge this can then be a part of the solution rather than the problem by providing better support specifically to disabled people.”
“It can so often feel like an uphill battle as a disabled entrepreneur. It often feels like it’s only people working in the disability space that are taking interest in improving disability inclusion. Making caring about inclusion mainstream and part of everyday considerations and thinking would make such a difference and is part of what drives me forward with the work that Patchwork Hub does.”
If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability what would it be and why?
“I think if I could change one thing about people’s perception of disability, I would tell people that disability needs to be more integrated into everyday life rather than ‘othered’. We need to reset the way we look at disability.
“It happens all the time in the UK that the only accessible solutions out there are disability-specific and whilst those spaces are incredibly important for the disabled community, it means that change isn’t systemic or holistic. That’s one of the reasons Patchwork Hub is not disability specific. It’s time there was an accessible solution open to everyone where disabled people are integrated into its core, leading a culture change around work and accessibility. It’s also about recognising that there are a lot of people living with long-term health conditions who may not yet be diagnosed or identify as disabled but may experience the same barriers. Making your workplace or recruitment process more accessible doesn’t just benefit disabled people, it benefits everyone.
“I also think it’s time to normalise disabled people being industry leaders in sectors that are not solely disability-related. I don’t mind being described as a disabled entrepreneur but that is only one part of my identity and expertise.”
Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?
“Why are you pretending to be normal? by Phil Friend and Dave Rees. I read it after having to stop my job because of my health and I was feeling very frustrated that the world didn’t understand my needs. The book really helped me manage my disability in a more positive way.”