The Bionic Woman
Stephanie Ward tells us how she hacks her time to make it work for her, and how changing your mindset can change your view.
How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?
I have bilateral developmental dysplasia of the hips, which means my hip sockets didn’t develop properly when I was a baby. The back of my hip sockets is missing, so they move about and slip out of the sockets. The pain started when I was 15, but because I have a complex family history, the doctor assumed that I was hypochondriac who was trying to get benefits, so that really hindered getting a diagnosis. At 24, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia after seeing a different doctor who referred me to the pain management team.
By 25, I was on crutches and barely able to walk, and I had a toddler who was autistic. I went to the GP and said that I’d had enough and couldn’t carry on, that I was in agony every day and the painkillers I’d been given were doing nothing. The GP on this occasion was a locum who I hadn’t seen before. She asked if I’d ever had a pelvic x-ray, which I hadn’t. As soon as I saw my x-ray, I said that it didn’t look right at all; I was diagnosed within three months. I’ve had extensive surgery which has included a periacetabular osteotomy. This means I’ve had my pelvis completely reconstructed. They broke it in three places on both sides and then pinned back together with bolts, and I’ve also had a scan recently because one of the hips is now deteriorating further and I may need to have further surgery on it.
As an extra layer of complication, I also suffer from anxiety and depression, because being in pain for a long time makes you anxious and depressed! It’s a totally rational reaction but unfortunately if a woman goes to the doctor and says they are in pain, the doctor will often say you have anxiety and depression and treat that, rather than the cause of the pain, and more often than not it’s the pain that’s causing the mental health issues.
I’m also neurodivergent. I don’t have a formal diagnosis and have no intention of pursuing one because I don’t think at this stage it will help – I don’t need a diagnosis to feel content with who I am. I actually attract a lot of neurodivergent entrepreneurs to my business because of the way I am, so half of my client base is autistic or ADHD.
Tell us a little about your business and how it got started.
My business is me: I’m a virtual assistant. I don’t do what people usually think virtual assistants do – I think a lot of people think it’s admin and PA work. I actually do a lot of back end tech for websites, marketing and social media. I also do fundraising, HR, recruitment and various other things as well: I’m basically a one stop shop for a small business.
I’m a qualified pharmacy assistant and I used to work at a pharmacy standing up for 12 hours a day. When I left, I went into social care for a while and did a little bit of care work but it wasn’t a good fit for me due to the condition in my hips. Before I officially founded my business last year I just dabbled as a freelancer as and when I could. At that time I wasn’t officially established as self-employed but was more of a hobbyist: I couldn’t work because I was exhausted and in so much pain and my son’s autism was at the height of its complexity and we were struggling.
In August 2020, I had the last big operation on my hips. I recovered a lot quicker than I ever had before and I found myself thinking: I’m not going to be disabled anymore, I’m going to have to find something to do! A friend of mine suggested becoming a VA as I’ve done this kind of thing before, so I thought I’d give it a go. I started with just a laptop and a Facebook page, and within a week I had my first client. They only wanted three hours a week, which worked really well for me, because I was still taking morphine at the time! Since then the business has grown completely organically via word of mouth recommendations.
I love what I do. I have three types of clients: I have clients who know a lot but don’t have the time to do it themselves, clients who don’t have the knowledge who need someone to do it all for them, and my neurodivergent clients, who just need someone to nudge them in the right direction and help keeping on top of things such as managing their general life admin.
I work for three charities in Cambridgeshire which are learning disability charities, and I also work for several coaches, including a finance coach in the Netherlands and a menopause coach in France. I have a client in Massachusetts who I do a little bit of productivity coaching with: he has ADHD, so if he has several tasks he needs to do, he will either tell me or do them during the session, then I’ll keep him accountable. I also work with a food prep company in Ohio, plus a marketing executive who found me through that. I’ll take anyone as long as it fits with my values – I couldn’t work with an unethical business.
What challenges do you face at the moment? What do you see as the biggest challenges to your business’s continued operation?
When I was in the actual workplace working for somebody else, the biggest problem I had was that they weren’t able to adapt for disabilities. Things have changed massively in the last 10 years, but back then I wasn’t supported because I didn’t have a formal diagnosis.
Generally my business doesn’t have a huge amount of challenges: the biggest challenge for me is if I get sick. Until now I’ve been very much on my own, so getting sick can be problematic: the loss of income isn’t an issue for me, it was more that I needed time off and my clients also wanted the work done, so it meant long hours and long days to catch up. I’m very open with who I am and what I do, and if I’m not well I’m totally transparent about it, and that definitely helps with the challenges of running a business despite my disability. It also helps that I am reliable: it takes a lot for me not to turn up in the morning.
Due to the fibromyalgia and probably neurodivergence, I have days where I’m really focused and doing really well, and days where I’m completely knackered. I’ve been finding ways to hack my time to make it work for me. One thing I do is what I call Meeting Mondays – it’s my idea of hell, but it works really well. I hold all of my meetings with clients on a Monday, because if I’m having meetings throughout the week then I find I spend more time talking and less time producing and creating. I tend to find my energy is lower on Mondays, so having all of my meetings on that day, one after the other, just gives me a reason to keep going because I have to attend the meetings, and once I get started I don’t find it a burden because I can hyperfocus. I’ll have a 50 minute meeting then 10 minutes to fill in the CRM, then a 50 minute meeting then 10 minutes on the CRM, and I do that from 8.30 in the morning if I need to, until God knows what time at night. I used to take a little break for the school run but, now I’ve got a nanny, I don’t need to do that anymore. Sometimes it means a 14-16 hour day on Monday to get all my meetings in, but it’s worth it because it means I’ve got all of my instructions for the week, I can plan my week as I see fit, set my deadlines and plan my diary. One thing I’ve found in business is you need to set firm boundaries and have clients who adhere to those boundaries, and that’s how I get the balance between being a mother, being a business owner, and being a person who’s sick sometimes.
My priority is making my business work for me. There’s more than enough work to go around and I don’t need to take every client.
When I first started, I wasn’t charging anywhere near what I was worth, because I didn’t have a reputation and I think some of it came from being disabled – I saw myself as less of a person because society saw me as less of a person. When you have a disability, people don’t see you as a whole person, they see you as a person with something missing. It’s only since I’ve been told how magical I am and how good I am at my job that I thought, some people are charging more for this so why should I charge any less? My clients are happy to pay it because they get the quality of service. I set a financial target that I never thought I’d achieve, but I thought I should aim big and hope for the best. I hit it in my second year of business!
It’s unbelievable, I can’t believe how much it’s grown but there’s actually a demand for what I do because I don’t just do copywriting and marketing: I started with social media and editing blogs, but I can do tech, I’m good at back end systems, I can do integrations for systems. I don’t do high end development stuff, but I can do enough for a small business owner, and I can build the customer experience from starting a website to completing the payment and having it booked in.
I use accountability software which is amazing: I use FocusMate, which is a game changer. It’s basically a muted video call with a work partner. At the beginning, you tell them what you’re going to do, they tell you what they’re going to do and then you crack on with it, and at the end you hold each other accountable. A lot of people who use it are neurodivergent because it helps them to keep their brain on track. I can’t and don’t want to work in an office, but one thing I was struggling with was the isolation. I don’t want to talk to people, I just want to know that someone else is there.
I’m going to use January, February and March to do a bit of consolidation and just making sure that everything is as it should be. I’m aware I’ve grown a lot in the past few months, so now I need to pause, breathe, and figure out the next steps. I’ve got an idea for a passive income stream I want to think about, which will take a little bit of pressure off my days. A lot of people need help with productivity and I’m actually really good with it, so I can help other people be productive, so that’s something I’m looking at doing next. A lot of people can’t necessarily afford a VA when they first start a business and I’m not going to give it away for free because somebody can’t afford me, but what I can do is teach them how to do it.
What’s your greatest achievement?
I think that the proudest thing for me at the moment is knowing that I’ve never had to market or push my business. In spite of everything I thought about myself with my disability and everything else, I’m actually extremely good at what I do, and other people seeing that brings me immense pride. I’ve built this from nothing, and there’s no higher praise than knowing that all of my customers come directly from word of mouth.
If there was one thing you could change about people’s perception of disability, what would it be and why?
I think that the perception around disability is that it’s permanent and you can’t do anything because you’re disabled. You’re viewed as less of a person if you have a disability. Mindset has a huge amount to do with it: if you’ve got a good mindset, it doesn’t necessarily make your disability better, but how you view it can change. I don’t think you can ever correct society, but you can correct how you view yourself. I’ve been coached extensively by three different people, including a transformational therapist, a women’s coach and a business coach, and it’s made a huge difference for me: you can’t change your mindset on your own, but having someone else to nudge you in the right direction is incredible.
My coach, Anna, was absolutely phenomenal. She’s got a chronic illness herself so she identified with a lot of challenges I had, and she helped me realise that I’m a badass and I don’t need to be sitting there feeling sorry for myself. I was in a wheelchair a year ago. I still have disabilities, I still get PIP and I still have a blue badge, but I can do things.
You can view it as added layers of stress, or you can view it as added layers of resilience. I’m additionally resilient because I know what it’s going to take for me to do the same as everybody else. I get up at five o’clock every morning, because if I don’t I’m not awake enough to get my kid up, so I get up and have my coffee and scroll Tik Tok because I need that to regulate my brain.
Who or what inspires you?
There are probably two people that have had a profound inspirational impact on my life. One is my little boy, because he gave me a reason to keep going even on the darkest days, and the other is my orthopedic surgeon: he’s a wonderful guy and he gave me a reason to believe that everything was going to be okay again. I thought that I was going to be as disabled as I was forever and I thought I was going to be permanently in pain. I saw what people say about fibromyalgia and thought that that was what I had to look forward to. But actually, now my hips are repaired, I’m not in as much pain as I used to be, and my orthopedic surgeon gives me a reason to have a bit of hope.
I still take antidepressants. It’s not a secret and I’m quite happy to tell people that, because I think normalising it is so important. You would take a painkiller if you were in pain, so why would you not take something when you’re sad?
Do you have a book or a podcast or anything else like that it’s helped you along your journey?
My favorite book is Untamed by Glennon Doyle. A big theme of the book is not being stuck in the box you’ve put in: it’s about finding the keys to unlock the box and to unleash your power on the world. That was a big game changer for me, knowing that other people are stuck in a box as well, and also that they’re not in a box anymore. Coaching opened up a lot for me: coaching made me realise that I can do a lot and change a lot. I’ve got this little charitable thing that I do, supporting parents who have children with special needs and I’ve got my business: I can’t change the world, so the next best thing is to change the corner of the world that I live in.