Talking Travel, Business, and Possibility with Martyn Sibley

An entrepreneur who won’t let his disability define his potential

By: Muneer Huda

A peek into Martin’s crazy-cool lifestyle as a disabled social entrepreneur shows the freedom of what’s possible with a little determination and conviction

He’s flown over Stonehenge, gone scuba diving in Tenerife, sailing in Poland and crossed half the world to earn his degree in economics and marketing. And he did it all out of a wheelchair.

Martyn Sibley is a social entrepreneur, writer, educator and disability advocate. He was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy and has to use a wheelchair all waking hours of the day. But that doesn’t stop him from going where he pleases and doing what he likes.

As Martyn joins me for our scheduled interview, I can see he is tired. Having read up on some of his adventures I have no doubt he’s been up to something wild and I’m eager to hear the details. Martyn doesn’t disappoint.

He happily tells of his holiday in Poland, where he went to catch the Woodstock music festival and visit his girlfriend’s family. While there, Martyn was asked to be part of a local campaign to raise awareness about people with disabilities. Being his wonderful self, Martyn easily accepted. He joined a lady travelling2500km around Poland in her wheelchair for the last stretch of her journey. The trail took them to Kostrzyn nad Odrą, where the Woodstock music festival was held.

The apt coincidence turned to great opportunity when the Woodstock organizers asked the lady and Martyn to come up on stage and talk about their campaign. To Martyn’s surprise, he found himself in front of 500,000 music lovers, promoting a government petition to aid disabled people. As Martyn sensed the riotous crowd begin to lose interest, he quickly grabbed the mic and shouted, “Woodstock: we fucking love you!”

Martyn and I laugh at his story; he is proud of his brief stint as a rock star. I sit back and wonder two things: how does he do what he does and how can someone like me do it?

The man in the wheelchair

Martyn’s entrepreneurial spirit is apparent from before the start of his journey. Raised in the UK, he deliberately chose to go as far as possible for his education, despite knowing the challenges he would face with travel and mobility. He went to Australia to earn his masters in economics and marketing. Though Martyn didn’t necessarily want to work in the disability sector, he found himself back in London in the HR department of a charity organization, Scope, which aims to help disabled people. It was at Scope that Martyn learned about the breadth of issues faced by disabled people.

Martyn’s journey to becoming self-sufficient took off when he met AJ Leon of Misfit Inc., who helped launch his blog. Within a year Martyn had accumulated a few thousand followers. From there he began his other online projects, including Disability Webinars, Disability eCourses and Disability eConferences, all aimed at helping people with disabilities live a positive and complete life. He also co-founded Disability Horizons, a lifestyle magazine that covers topics as diverse as travelling, relationships, sports and world news. He has now been self-employed for over two years and continues to travel, make media appearances, blog, and plan bold adventures.

In his own eyes, Martyn doesn’t see himself or his achievements as anything special. I personally think his modesty is to blame for such unpretentious thinking. But I needed to know what made him tick, to learn where he drew his strengths from and how others could do the same.

Muneer: Do you ever feel your disability (Spinal Muscular Atrophy) has held you back from expressing your full potential as an entrepreneur?

Martyn: No, in a weird way it’s the inverse of that. Because now I’m more confident in my message and what I stand for, about being disabled not holding me back. That’s enabled me to live a more out there lifestyle than if I didn’t have the disability. If I wasn’t disabled, I might have found something else to blog about and live a different kind of lifestyle, but in my particular instance it’s my disability that enabled a lot of this cool shit to happen.

Muneer: Many disabled people tend to start a business in the disability sector, sometimes specifically with a product or service centered on their own disability. Why is that?

Martyn: I suppose it’s two fold. From a pure business perspective, any business idea comes from seeing a need in a market place and finding a solution for it. Generally, if you live and breathe and understand that problem, you’re more able to find that solution. Off the back of that, you’re also able to market the solution more authentically. Even though some of the people who aren’t disabled can create some of these business ideas, the community of disabled people isn’t going to buy into it if the person isn’t disabled.

The other part is that there has been so much historical oppression and discrimination against disabled people, and only in the last 20, 30 years is there government policy which funds wheelchairs and social care that disabled people are at last able to empower themselves and become entrepreneurs. In another 20, 30 years if a lot of these problems are addressed, you’ll find disabled entrepreneurs going into other markets.

Muneer: As an entrepreneur, what is the biggest challenge you’ve faced and overcome? The thing you’re most proud of?

Martyn: Leaving the day job. I had lined up a little contract, so I knew I had two months of oxygen, but bearing in mind living in London: London rent, London lifestyle. If things didn’t go according to plan, months three and four were going to be pretty tricky.

Muneer: That sounds scary?

Martyn: It was. And I still don’t quite know what pushed me into doing it, cause all of the logic and all the practicality was saying “don’t do it.”  I just went in one day and gave my notice, “I’m out of here in a month.”

Muneer: How do you feel compared to other, able-bodied entrepreneurs?

Martyn: I feel the same as any entrepreneur. I’m the same as Richard Branson. I’ve got similar drive.

Muneer:  What advice would you give to other disabled people who want to become entrepreneurs?

Martyn: There’re a few exercises to do. One thing, look at yourself and what you like, enjoy doing, strengths and weaknesses, and what kind of lifestyle you want: you only want to work for one hour a day, or not go to an office, or travel the world, whatever it might be, will be a part of how you approach the business idea.

It’s also about taking the small steps. There was a girl in Italy who picked up my work. She facebooked me and asked me ‘how can I do what you do?’ But the simple answer is she won’t ever do what I do; we’re two very different people. But what she can do is start.

Martyn’s confidence and conviction in his abilities burn like a fire inside of him, tempered only by his modest opinion of himself. He doesn’t see his achievements as an entrepreneur any more remarkable simply because of his disability.

But I disagree with Martyn. Having read his blog and some of the articles posted by other disabled people on Disability Horizons, it quickly became apparent to me how many things able bodied people take for granted in their daily lives: the ability to walk, climb, drive, shower, change clothes, travel, use the stairs, etc. The list is lengthy indeed if you take even a few minutes to sincerely think about it. And even among disabled people there are those less able than some, especially if they live in countries whose governments don’t allow for disability provisions.

Self-employment is difficult work. Many entrepreneurs go through multiple try-fail cycles before making it. When you’re disabled, your day-to-day challenges add up pretty fast. To become self sufficient with a disability is a feat worthy of distinction all on its own.

But Martyn is not unique in this regard. There are many others like him.

One of many Disabilities come in many forms and some are more severe than others. As such, it can be unfair to compare one with another. Disabilities can be visible, invisible, physical or psychological. Some people are born with disabilities and others get them through accidents. But there are many individuals who fit into one or more of these categories who have succeeded as self-starters.

Urban Miyares is a blind and multi-disabled Vietnam War veteran. He founded the Disabled Businesspersons Association (DBA) in 1985 and is now recognized as one of the leading figures in self-employment for disabled people. He has won multiple awards in entrepreneurship and founded other organizations and charities since, including Challenge America, a therapeutic sailing program for disabled people.

Eileen Parker was diagnosed with autism and Sensory Processing Disorder. During therapy for her condition, Eileen discovered weighted therapeutic blankets. These blankets help people with autism and SPD to focus their senses, relax and rest. Eileen was inspired to design and sell her own blankets and founded Cozy Calm in 2008. Cozy Calm has rapidly grown since then, selling blankets to individuals as well as hospitals, with sales forecasts tripling between 2011 and 2012.

Vanessa Heywood gave up her professional acting and singing career in 1995 when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. In 2002 she founded Tiny Mites Music, a program that provides music, movement and drama classes for pre-school children to develop their natural curiosity and imagination. In 2010 Vanessa won the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs in the UK, along with 50,000 pounds to grow her business.

These are only a few of the amazing people who didn’t let their disability – whatever it was – stop them from going where they wanted.

More adventures ahead

As our interview comes to an end, I ask Martyn what other plans and schemes are on his horizons. He tells me of his idea for a holiday booking platform for disabled people. With so much travel and blogging experience under his belt, Martyn has the insight that a lot of conventional holiday booking sites just can’t offer the disabled community. He also plans on starting an Arts and Crafts merchandise portal on Disability Horizons, a sort of classifieds for disabled people to create and sell things online.

Martyn is also looking forward to attending the Reading and Leeds Music Festivals, one of the biggest in the UK. Thanks to Disability Horizons, Martyn has backstage passes to hang out with and interview the stars of the show.

But the thing Martyn is most keen about is his journey from John O’Groats to Land’s End. The two places are famous for being on extreme ends of the UK. On September 4th, the day after Martyn turns 30, he’ll start the gruelling journey of about 1800km by wheelchair. Martyn has taken this challenge as part of Britain’s Personal Best, an idea to continue the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics legacy by pushing people to achieve their own personal best in life. Martyn will be raising money for his favourite charity, Scope.

As Martyn talks about his future plans, I recall an earlier part of our conversation. He mentioned that his condition is deteriorating with age. He’s not able to do as much as he could have 10 years ago and needs to tone down the wild lifestyle. Listening to his plans though, I can’t help but wonder: if this is him toning things down, what does he consider taking it up a notch?

Talking with Martyn made me realize that disability can be an uncomfortable topic for people without disabilities. We tiptoe around political correctness and the sensitivity of the issue so not to offend or patronize those with disabilities. In doing so we not only skirt around the subject but the heart of the matter altogether. That disabled people have the same needs and wants as anyone else: to live a meaningful life, be loved, have friends and family and be recognized for their work and efforts. They have the same drive as everyone, to achieve and accomplish, to rise above where they started and be the best they can with what potential they have.

We’re all born with different potentials, disabled or not. But Martyn Sibley doesn’t let his disability define his potential; he uses it to test it.

A list of amazing people

Do you or someone you know have a disability? Visible or invisible? Physical or psychological? Maybe you’ll find someone in the list below who faces the same challenges. See how they overcame their barriers to become their own boss.

Ruth Cheesley was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Type 3, commonly known as Hypermobility, a condition that leaves her with severe joint pain and exhaustion. She went on to start Virya Technologies, a company specializing in IT solutions and web design.

Robin Kettle became tetraplegic after a motorcycle accident. He is the founder and owner of Access All Areas, an access auditing company based in the UK. Robin’s clients include big names such as BP and Capital One.

Stacy Zoern was born with a neuromuscular condition that left her confined to a wheelchair. She is the cofounder of Kenguru, a company that makes the one-person car designed for people with wheelchairs. The Kenguru is 100% electric, is driven by the hands and conveniently lets wheelchair users roll into and out of the car.

Erasmus Habermann has Cerebral Palsy and is a wheelchair user. He founded Habermann Translation, and online business that offers translation services between English and German, and is expanding into other languages.

Victoria Maxwell was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. She is an educator, writer, speaker and actor. Victoria uses her theatre experience to deliver performances that document her journey through the diagnosis of her condition, how she dealt with it, and the recovery process. Her shows have been described as ‘educational,’ ‘inspiring,’ ‘magical’ and ‘profound.’

Michael Bortolotto was born with Cerebral Palsy, severely affecting the clarity of his speech. He now has a professional career as a motivational speaker, addressing topics like bullying in school and the workplace and creating an inclusive society. Michael has spoken in over 1900 events reaching more than 860,000 people.

Dan Bauer became paraplegic after an accident. But his love of the outdoors led him and his wife to create The Accessible Wilderness Society, a group that creates opportunities for anyone, regardless of their physical challenge, to be able to enjoy the great outdoors.

Mark Esho was diagnosed with polio as a child and struggled with bouts of chronic fatigue. He founded Easy Internet Services, one of the first web solutions businesses in the UK, back in 2000. His company nowd eals with over 50,000 customers, including UK based newspaper, The Guardian.

Evelyn Salt was diagnosed with Erythromelaglia, a rare neurovascular disorder which causes periodic inflammation and pain in the extremities of the limbs. Evelyn started making her own jewelry after being bedridden for four months. She eventually founded Inner Fyre Bespoke Jewelry, and online business that sells handmade and custom design jewelry.

Image provided by Martyn Sibley

Muneer Huda writes out of Waterloo, Ontario. He enjoys all kinds of writing, but has a special love for speculative fiction. He aspires to support himself solely through his writing one day. You can find him at http://muneerhuda.com.

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