How being disabled fuelled my success

BCS Internet Specialist Group member Christopher East talks about how his disability shaped his career in the IT industry.

So, to start, some background about me...

As a young man, I was disabled in a motocross accident at the age of 14. This left me without the use of my legs for significant periods of time, and whilst I regained some of that movement, it has not been either a smooth nor an easy time.

I have adjusted to many things during this time, from working out what I was going to do for work, to trying to find work, to starting up my own business. This is a little bit of my story and what has made me into the person I am today.

And onto the main event:-

At the age of 16, whilst still recovering from the accident I had had two years previously, I was starting to look at getting back to some sense of normality. A part of this was to go to university and get a part-time job, so that I wouldn’t have to take as much out in terms of student loans.

The process when applying for part time jobs was relatively simple in most cases. You handed in a CV and waited to get called for an interview. Whilst many of my peers were doing this without any issues, I was finding that I seldom got a call to invite me in for an interview, and when I did, it was normally to a building I physically couldn’t enter, or didn’t have the right accessibility to be able to accommodate someone who used a wheelchair approximately 60 per cent of the time.

It was one afternoon, whilst talking to some friends, that they suggested that I started building websites for them; they had commented that I had already built websites for everyone around me, and they didn’t see why I couldn’t do it and be paid for it. I was highly sceptical, as I didn’t believe that my skills at that point were good enough to be able to build websites for other people. 

After much convincing, I decided to give it a go. I setup my own website (which is still there today, although it has been revised many times since), and started advertising so that people could contact me, and I would make a website for them for around £100. In 2004/2005, £100 for a website was extremely cheap, but having done no research, and not having any reference companies to talk to about what they would be charging for similar services, I settled on this figure, and first got friends to buy their websites from me, so that I could afford to live, whilst receiving some support from The Prince’s Trust.

I was mentored by three very different people, to cover different aspects of my life and of running a business in general. These three-people mentored me from around the age of 18/19, with one still mentoring me today.

The first big contract I got was a six-month contract, at the age of 18, to work on a government project in a single state within the USA. After spending a lot of time preparing and making sure I was certain I could deliver what they had asked, I accepted. This 6-month contract was for one day bi-monthly, to provide assistance and support to a group of people who were learning how to build websites for this area of the government in one of the states within the USA. It was centred around the use of a particular programming language, namely PHP, which, at that point, was in the earliest stages of development of version 4 of the language.

I had always had a passion and somehow had the ability to pick-up a new programming language rather quickly, so I learnt PHP as much as I could within the weeks before I started this contract.

Once the first contract was finished, I was invited to bid on several similar contracts, all paying around the same rate, which at my young age, felt like an incredible amount of money. However, one stepping stone I had encountered, with every person I had spoken to, was my use of the wheelchair, as it was in an ever-increasing need due to my deteriorating health at the time.

By the time I had reached the age of 24, I had decided I needed to do something to increase my profile within the IT industry. After taking some advice from a business networking organisation, I decided to join the Chartered Institute for IT (BCS).

Shortly after joining I became a committee member for the BCS Internet Specialist Group, a position I have maintained ever since.

The institute itself helped me to progress and call out the obvious discrimination which was taking place with various clients, as I was building the business up. Some clients were using my wheelchair use as an excuse to reduce the monies available to me as a consultant.

It was at around this time, that I was asked to make the move from an independent consultant to running a business with staff, due to my wheelchair use.

I had been requested to bid on a project to rebuild an internal website system for a large organisation within the UK, which would go on to reform their internal meeting management and handling of customer communications. This project had been designed to be built to take advantage of the newly introduced anti-discrimination and disability acts, and it would later go on to be sold in modified versions to nearly 100 other companies and organisations across the world. It focussed on the awareness of disabled access and access to facilities across different locations, which were individually rated based on their accessibility.

I spent a considerable amount of time throughout the development of this project going to different sites in order to explain how the different abilities which people have will require different sets of requirements in terms of meeting spaces, equipment, etc.

However, this was really when the company first took off, and it was solely to do with my being a wheelchair user. I hired several people to act as directors of different areas, and we ended up hiring some 500 people over the course of the following year.

Shortly after this, we were asked to manage and maintain a system for a nationwide health provider in the UK, followed, in quick succession, by another nationwide health provider in the USA, again seemingly because of our focus of ability within disabled individuals, as well as because of our excellent team of developers and designers, and we ended up increasing our staffing levels to nearly 2,000. 

In part two, I will cover how that growth, and the push to cover not only being disabled, but being a member of the LGBT community, resulted some very interesting things happening.

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This blog is brought to you by the members of the BCS Internet Specialist Group and allows you to harness their skills, expertise and knowledge. The internet is ubiquitous and has a major impact on our daily lives, at work, at home on the move. The associated risks and security concerns are real, but the magic and advantages of the internet are significant.

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