Product designer, disabled entrepreneur and Team GB T52 wheelchair racer Rob Smith is living proof that disability need not be a barrier to success in business. So, how did it all happen and what advice does he offer to others?
Name: Rob Smith
Business: The Active Hands Company, a West Midlands-based business owned by Rob and sister Mel. It designs, makes and sells aids that hold users’ hands into a gripping shape, so they can tightly hold DIY and gardening tools, kitchen utensils, domestic, sports and leisure equipment, musical instruments, etc.
Background: In 1996, Smith was a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student at Warwick University. While on holiday he fell down a cliff and suffered a high-level spinal cord injury, leaving him with partial paralysis in all four limbs. After spending nine months in a hospital spinal rehabilitation unit, Smith returned to university and later graduated. Developing his own solution to overcome poor hand strength and function was to make a dramatic difference to his life in many ways.
Please tell us about your products…
Rob Smith (RS): “For many years I’ve designed our gripping aids and they come in various sizes, so everyone from small children to adults with large hands can use them and put them on independently. They’re ideal for tetraplegics and quadriplegics [ie people with partial or total loss of the use of all of their limbs through illness or injury], as well as people with Cerebral Palsy, those who have suffered a stroke or any injury or disability that severely affects their hand function. Some of our products are suitable for those with limb difference [ie absence or malformation of limbs].”
How did your disability affect you?
RS: “Thankfully my spinal cord wasn’t completely severed after my accident in 1996, so I can stand and walk very short distances using crutches, but I need a wheelchair most of the time. Back then, coming to terms with restricted lower body movement was really hard, but very poor function and strength in my hands was much more restricting. Difficulty with gripping things meant I couldn’t do many things that were previously very easy.”
And this led to you developing your own gripping aids?
RS: “It did, I worked with my mum, using her sewing machine, to create prototypes. I tested them; tried a few things that didn’t work and found things that did. And we tried different materials until we came up with a design that we still pretty much use today. Initially, I was just using my self-made gripping aids, but lads I played wheelchair rugby with wanted some. That’s when I realised they could help many more people with hand-function disabilities, so we started the business, first selling just our general-purpose gripping aid. We developed more products, the business grew and in 2008 we registered as a limited company.”
How has the business developed?
RS: “We’re still a family business and we remain very proud of our products, which we sell directly to end users all over the world via our website and resellers in 40 countries. Each year we sell about 5,000 units of our own products, but we sell other products, too. We want to continue to grow so we can help many more people with hand-function disabilities to take part in numerous activities as independently as possible.”
Does your disability hold you back as a business owner?
RS: “No, on the contrary, it gives me a competitive advantage because I understand, mix with and have contact with our customers or people like them. I understand their needs and can empathise more easily than a person without a disability. Without my accident, I probably wouldn’t have started my own business – I’d be a mechanical engineer now.”
Is starting a business a good option for people with disabilities?
RS: “Yes, it can offer greater flexibility than you’d get working for someone else, while some working environments just aren’t suitable for some disabilities. However, there can be issues with benefits and making the transition from benefits to fully supporting yourself as a business owner can take a long time.”
What advice do you offer to others?
RS: “If you’re thinking of starting a business, do something you’re passionate about or have good knowledge of. Dip your toe in the water before fully launching, so you can see what works. If you’re considering something entirely new, first do some work experience. See what it’s like and the likely implications for your disability before you fully commit to setting up your own business. Once you start up, you must learn quickly from your successes and failures. Seek reliable advice and be prepared to alter your course if something isn’t working or another opportunity presents itself.”