Miranda McCarthy

Miranda McCarthy of Adaptive Yoga LIVE tells us how lockdown in the UK inspired her to start a business that supports the Disabled community and why recognition from the Prime Minister turned her into a disability rights activist.

How do you identify as disabled, and what does it mean to you?

I have had a mobility impairment since the age of two which means that I am an ambulatory wheelchair user (someone who can walk but uses a wheelchair part time) and I use a walking stick. Being Disabled has meant that I had to take the road less travelled, and, as the Robert Frost poem goes, that has made all the difference. My disability has allowed me to free myself from the conformity of others, and there’s liberation in that. My disability has given me a sense of inner freedom most people won’t get to experience.

Tell us a little about your business.

Adaptive Yoga LIVE was founded in April 2020, at the start of lockdown, when the UK Government told Disabled people to self-isolate indefinitely. Our online platform provides accessible and inclusive yoga classes that cater to any mobility level, empowering everyBODY to experience the benefits of yoga.

Why did you start the business? Share your story so far.

At the beginning of the pandemic, millions of Disabled people lost access to care overnight. It was a terrifyingly time for Disabled people, as disproportionate numbers of people with disabilities were dying every day. I knew I had to do something to support the wellbeing of the Disabled community during lockdown.

With the help of four volunteer teachers, we live streamed free online adaptive yoga classes for 18 months. The response was incredible: we had thousands of people signing up in just a few months and even won an award from the Prime Minister for our volunteer work during COVID-19.

We have since worked with charities such as SCOPE and WhizzKids, schools, councils, government bodies, and corporates such as AirBnB, Deutsch Bank and 3PlayMedia. We received funding from Yoga Alliance and Sport England and continue to offer free classes via our website.

What do you see as the main challenges facing your business and its continued operation or growth?

Our main challenge is building awareness that yoga is accessible to people with disabilities.

At the moment, 99% of the images you see representing yoga are of hypermobile women contorting themselves into impossible shapes.

The majority of people who could potentially benefit from a regular yoga practice don’t fit this very narrow idea of a yogi and, therefore, assume yoga is not for them. Different body types and abilities are not represented in mainstream yoga studios, publications, or advertising.

What might be the biggest misconception is that yoga is a purely physical practice when, in fact, yoga is actually a form of meditation. Even if you are just being aware of the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe, you are practising yoga. This sets it apart from any other form of exercise because it’s not a physical workout: it’s a mind-body practice that produces a change in calm and relaxation on a neurobiological level through mindfulness.

A regular adaptive yoga practice can provide a number of psychological benefits, such as reduced stress, improved mood and self-esteem, increased relaxation and mindfulness, increased resilience to life’s challenges, improved body image and acceptance of one’s limitations.

Yoga’s global popularity, as well as its proven benefits in terms of physical, mental, and social development, makes it a perfect tool for promoting the inclusion and well-being of people with disabilities.

We need to focus on several things to achieve this:

  • Instructor training: It is crucial to have instructors who are knowledgeable about working with individuals with disabilities. Providing ongoing training and professional development opportunities for your instructors to enhance their skills in adaptive yoga and inclusive teaching is essential.
  • Financial stability: Developing a sustainable financial model through a combination of class fees, grants, partnerships, and community support will be crucial for the long-term success of my business.
  • Addressing diverse needs: The Disabled community is diverse, with individuals having different types of disabilities and varying levels of ability. Designing and implementing yoga classes that cater to a wide range of needs, such as those with physical disabilities, sensory impairments, or cognitive challenges, can be complex. It requires careful planning, adaptive approaches, and flexibility in accommodating individual needs.
  • Outreach and marketing: One of the challenges you may face is reaching and engaging with the Disabled community. Effective outreach and marketing strategies that highlight your commitment to accessibility and inclusivity will be essential.
  • Public perception and stigma: Overcoming societal stereotypes and misconceptions about disability is an ongoing challenge. Some people may not understand the benefits and possibilities of yoga for individuals with disabilities. Educating the public about the importance and potential of accessible yoga can help dispel myths and reduce stigma, but it may require consistent advocacy efforts.

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?

Unfortunately for Disabled entrepreneurs, the challenges to starting your own business are daunting:

Risk of losing benefits: One of the major concerns for Disabled individuals in the UK is the potential risk of losing their benefits when starting a business. Many government benefits are means-tested, meaning they are based on the individual’s income and financial resources. If the business becomes successful and generates income above the allowable limits, it may lead to a reduction or termination of certain benefits.

Uncertainty of income: Starting a business involves financial risks, and it may take time before the business becomes profitable. This uncertainty of income can make disabled individuals hesitant to start their own venture, as they rely on benefits for their day-to-day living expenses. If the business does not succeed, they may face financial difficulties without the safety net of benefits.

Limited financial resources: Disabled individuals may face challenges in accessing financial resources to start their business. Traditional lending institutions may be hesitant to provide loans to individuals who are perceived to be higher risk due to their disability or reliance on benefits. Limited access to capital can impede the growth and development of their business ideas.

Lack of specialised support: Disabled individuals may require specific support, accommodations, or assistive technologies to overcome the challenges they face in running a business. The availability and affordability of such resources can vary, and it may be difficult to find suitable assistance tailored to their specific needs.

Higher business costs: Depending on the nature of their disability, some individuals may require additional adaptations or modifications to their workplace or business premises to ensure accessibility and inclusivity. These modifications can increase the initial setup and ongoing operational costs of the business, posing a financial burden.

Perceived stigma and discrimination: Disabled individuals may face societal attitudes, misconceptions, and prejudices that can affect their confidence in starting a business. Negative stereotypes and discrimination can create additional barriers, making it harder to gain customers, secure partnerships, or access business opportunities.

I believe there needs to be greater support in all of these areas for Disabled entrepreneurs to succeed. We must have financial buffers for starting a business whilst on benefits, start-up loans for people with disabilities, more incubators and accelerators for the Disabled community, and a network of people to help support us on our start-up journey!

Miranda McCarthy Headshot

What do you consider your greatest achievement or the proudest moment in your life so far?

I think being recognised by the Prime Minister for supporting the Disabled community during the pandemic was the highlight of my life. My team of teachers and I worked non-stop for nearly two years and winning the Points of Light award really lifted us all up! I realised at that moment that this work felt like my destiny and that everything I had done before had led me to this point. I would say that’s the moment when I truly became a disability rights advocate and wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to helping Disabled people.

If there was one thing you could change about peoples’ perception of disability, what would it be and why?

I wish people understood that disability is the power of human variability.

It isn’t a tragic circumstance, something to be pitied or feared, and that it isn’t a weakness – but a strength.

Diplomacy, grace, resilience, empathy, respect, patience, endurance, ingenuity, creativity, compassion, kindness, vulnerability, these are all strengths that I have learned from living with my disability.

As a society, we must continue to work towards creating a world that recognises and accommodates the unique abilities and perspectives of people with disabilities, and provide us with the support and opportunities we need to thrive.

Who or what inspires you?

My fellow adaptive yogis are my biggest inspiration. Practicing yoga with people who have all different kinds of impairments and limitations has taught me how valuable it is to have a support network of people with the same lived experience.

I had never had the opportunity to join a group exercise class or socialise with other Disabled people before. For the first time in my life, I have a space where I feel free to be Disabled, without judgement and with the empathy and understanding that could only come through first-hand experience.

After 44 years I started referring to myself as Disabled and became a disability rights advocate. Finding my tribe changed everything.

Do you have a recommendation for a book or a podcast which has helped you along your journey?

Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence: Matthew Sanford’s inspirational story about the car accident that left him paralysed from the chest down is a superbly written memoir of healing and journey, from near death to triumphant life. Matthew is one of the pioneers of the adaptive yoga movement and I was lucky enough to train with him in person in Minneapolis. Incredible story and world-renowned yoga teacher.

Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People by Frances Ryan: Dr Ryan’s book shows the stark reality of living as a disabled person in Austerity Britain. This book made me want to change the world for Disabled people. I would say it was the jumping off point for my own advocacy journey, incredibly powerful and well written.