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My journey to award-winning entrepreneur

Sarah Leadbetter, our Volunteer Campaign Coordinator in Leicester, tells us about her journey to running a successful business - and what action the government needs to take to improve the situation for disabled people in the workforce.

Sarah Leadbetter outside with her guide dog.

Facing ignorance in training and work

From the age of 16, I attended college and trained as a nursery nurse. However, I felt the staff at the college were reluctant to give the extra support I needed to finish the course.

I wasn't given alternative formats of what was shown on the overhead projector, or anything else that was given to me as part of my coursework. This meant it took me a lot longer to complete things. I also wasn't given any help in a placement setting. I was put on a placement in a terraced house which was very dark. Because I had problems doing things, my tutors thought I shouldn't really work with children, and perhaps I would be better off working with older people instead.

I kept going to my local Jobcentre, and through different schemes I did various placements in a few nurseries. Some were very helpful and understanding of the problems I faced. Others let me struggle, and the staff didn't give me much help at all. It felt like they were just waiting for me to fail. They made excuses that they thought my sight was getting worse and thought painting the walls white would help me, but that didn't help at all – it’s the worse colour for me!

Finding the right help

I went back to college to retrain as a holistic therapist and I was really supported by all the tutors. I had all my coursework changed into different formats. Nothing was too much trouble even though it took me quite a bit longer to complete everything.

Afterwards, I was given help finding work in a salon on a part- time basis, but I didn’t feel that was the right thing for me to do. I felt that I wouldn't be quick enough, or the premises would be too dark for me to work at the same pace as everyone else, so I decided to set up my own business.

Again, I had to go back to the Jobcentre. After some difficulties, I spoke to a member of staff that actually listened to what I was saying - that I would like to start up my own business and have a little therapy room at the end of my garden. I was accepted onto a course and for the first time, it felt like I was on the road to working for myself as a holistic therapist.

When I had passed the course, I had to write a business plan and had a meeting with the Princes Trust to see whether they would give me a grant and a loan. That all went through, and I was given a mentor and as much help as I needed to set up and to build my business.

Access to Work helped me start my own business

I did have help from Access to Work, but it seemed a long, drawn-out process when I applied for it, and I didn't really get much help from them to fill in all the paperwork.

The better part of the process was the person who came out to see me. He listened to what I had problems with and what I needed help with. We tried a magnifier to see if that would help me to read the labels on the massage oils that I used in my treatments and all the other products that I sold as well.

He made sure that the products that he suggested were ones that would help me the most. These included Supernova on my laptop using speech, a scanner to help read my mail, and a speech programme on my mobile phone.

For 15 years, I’ve been doing lots of different types of therapies and having clients coming in for treatments on a regular basis. I’ve met lots of nice people doing local events and doing treatments over the years that I’ve been trading as Hands, Body and Sole. I’ve been to a few local award events and have even won Entrepreneur of the Year.

What needs to change

I think there needs to be better training for Jobcentre staff. They need to understand that people with sight loss may need extra support and time to do things in a work placement or training. The only difference is that we have problems with our sight - companies need to stop making up excuses of how not to employ someone with sight loss by saying it’s not safe.