On becoming a champion for inclusion for all.
Dr Joanna Baker-Rogers on how the difficulty of changing career late in life has led to her becoming a champion for inclusion for all.
How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?
I spent 50 years in denial that I had a disABILITY. Like many people my age, I had been brought up to believe that disABILITY made you lesser and other, and this certainly wasn’t me! Parenting of a child with special needs in my thirties and forties and my subsequent studies introduced me to a whole new world, one which embraces and celebrates disABILITY, and my perspective changed to one of being proud of who I am and of my disABILITY. I believe that disABILITY is a naturally occurring phenomenon: there is no normal, there are just more people who are neurotypical and/or able-bodied.
Tell us a little about your business.
My business, Busy Life, is an e-commerce business that values diversity and inclusion, with a focus on parasport. Our mission is to empower and inspire everyone to take part in sport or just to be more active, regardless of any impairment they have. We believe everyone has ability and that’s why we write disABILITY the way we do!
Our vision is for everyone with a disABILITY to be asked, “What sport do you play?” as a matter of course. With this in mind, we have created Diversity Designs®, a range of clothing and merchandise that features empowering and inspiring images of ALL sports players, however they play their sport, including wheelchair, vision-impaired, and amputee athletes. We also have “Move, Girl, Move!” and “Move, Boy, Move!” collections, which both champion other sports and physical activities such as walking, yoga, gardening, dog walking, and martial arts. In 2020, we added a range of toys, which includes peg dolls, Inclusive Happy Families, and our first board game, UTOPIA!
We partner with a different worthy cause every month. At the end of the month, we make a donation based on a percentage of sales made. We tend to partner with small charities and worthy causes that have an inclusive ethos.
To summarise, Busy Life is about inclusion. It’s for EVERYONE regardless of ability, gender, race, faith, body size or shape. Our products are innovative, creative and are pushing the boundaries of what retail is all about. We use the strapline “Busy Life: championing inclusion and smiling for the good of us all!” and I think that says it all!
Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.
At the tender age of 50, I found myself with lots of qualifications and 30 years of work experience. I began to think about what made me tick. I have always been interested in challenging social oppression, and I believe that communities have the power to act together to facilitate positive changes in society.
I started building a website and opened my online gift shop. I also committed to giving a percentage of sales to a different charity every month. I found I really enjoyed it. My products have grown organically and are a reflection of me and my values. I love to write and to champion inclusion, kindness, smiling and giving. I’m always thinking about new ideas to add to my portfolio.
What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?
The main challenge for me is translate all the positive kudos into more sales. I would love to just continue to do what I’m doing, championing inclusion with a focus on disABILITY. I feel I have found my niche and I am always thinking of new inclusive products and designs. However, as with any small business, I need to generate the income to support this. Every sale means I can continue to do what I love.
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?
Many disABLED entrepreneurs start their own business out of necessity, because they can’t get a job! Sadly, this was my experience. DisABLED entrepreneurs don’t just need encouragement, they also need specialist support. We need to ask them what support and encouragement they need, and to provide it. DisABILITY is a different lived experience for everyone, so the support and encouragement provided needs to be tailored to the individual.
What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?
My greatest achievement in business to date was winning a DisABILITY Smart Award in October 2019. I had only been trading for six months and Diversity Designs® was only four months old! I didn’t expect to get anywhere, but I was shortlisted and invited to the ceremony at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. I met Paralympian Stef Reid, one of my heroes, and Busy Life won Highly Commended for Diversity Designs® in the Communications & Marketing Campaign Category, coming second only to Microsoft! WOW!
The award validated my belief that my business idea was a great idea, had real potential and was needed. Winning was a huge confidence boost and inspired me to keep on going with my entrepreneurial journey.
If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disABILITY what would it be and why?
I’d like to change the negative perception of disABILITY that most people have. Someone with a disABILITY is a person, and they have abilities just like everyone else has. What makes them different is that they need additional support to live the life that they want and are entitled to live. In essence, I believe that the non-disABLED majority need to live by the mantra, “Do as you would be done by.” If you were disABLED, how would you like to be treated? If your partner or child was disABLED, how would you like them to be treated? For me, the answer is with kindness, understanding, and positivity.
Who or what inspires you?
My children, who both have special needs, inspire me every day: I look at them and think about the journeys they are on, and I’m in awe of what they have achieved. Their achievements and potential are boundless. I’m also inspired by my belief that a truly inclusive society is achievable. I believe that Busy Life is helping, in some small way, to achieve this goal, and this inspires me to continue to grow my business.
Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?
I’m going to shamelessly plug my Twitter Hour and book as they have both really helped me along my journey.
Every Monday, we host the Inclusion Hour on Twitter: I choose a topic and tweet about it for an hour, and anyone can join in by using the #thinkINC (short for thinking about inclusion). In essence, it’s an hour of positivity about disABILITY. Issues we’ve covered include parasport, normalcy, ableism, Down’s syndrome, autism, housing, travel, and many others.
I’ve learned so much about disABILITY through the research I’ve done and the interaction I’ve experienced for Inclusion Hour, and at the end of last year, I published a book, Inclusion Hour 2020, which contains 21 two-minute reads about what living with a disABILITY is like and how to champion inclusion. Thinking about topics to cover in future Inclusion Hours and what to include in the Inclusion Hour 2021 book are great motivators for continuing to do what I do.