Having claimed gold, silver and bronze medals in three Paralympic tournaments, Liz Johnson has swapped sports for entrepreneurship with recruitment consultancy The Ability People, which ensures its staff body includes people with disabilities
The Paralympics is arguably the ultimate showcase of skill. Indeed, Paralympians have demonstrated for decades just exactly what people living with disabilities are capable of. And former Paralympics Team GB champion Liz Johnson is among them, having swam her way to glory in the 100m breaststroke to claim a gold medal in Beijing in 2008, silver in Athens in 2004 and bronze in London 2012. She became something of a water baby when she was three, as her mother took her to a disabled swimming group to help with her cerebral palsy. Now she’s entered a new competitive sporting arena: entrepreneurship.
This hasn’t come out of the blue though. In the midst of her sporting achievements, Johnson demonstrated the ferocity of her work ethic as she secured a business management and finance degree the same year she picked up a gold medal but it wasn’t easy. “It was tough,” she admits to Elite Business. “Being caught between two very demanding schedules, I found myself balancing deadlines and tutoring with swimming practice and strength training. It was a busy time in my life and some days were tougher than others but what always got me through was my passion to succeed.”
Through sheer determination to conquer her goals in both education and sport, Johnson would be up at 4.45am for training then over to university afterwards for lectures. Describing the time as “intense” she has no regrets about putting the hours in. “The experience ultimately enabled me to be extremely goal-oriented and focused, which has positively influenced me in many other aspects of my life – most recently, my business venture with The Ability People,” she says.
With recruitment consultancy The Ability People – or TAP as it’s otherwise known – Johnson is fulfilling a target she had to be ready for life after the Paralympics. “It was inevitable that you retire from professional sport far earlier than other professions, so I’d long considered my retirement options though I had thought they’d lead me down the route of accountancy,” she says. But having nurtured an interest in business since she was a teenager, her venture into the wonderful world of business ownership isn’t that surprising. “I was intrigued by entrepreneurs and how their drive, happiness and success were linked,” Johnson explains. “I loved learning about what makes a successful business and aspired to one day put into practice what I’d learnt.” And with her time as a sporting champion, it’s clear that she’s hugely competitive, ambitious and focused which she says are all traits needed for hungry entrepreneurs.
The business is no ordinary recruitment firm though. The inspiration for TAP, which launched in September 2018, came to Johnson while she was at home watching the news. She witnessed discussions surrounding the disability employment gap which not only resonated but stunned her. “Because I’d spent the majority of my life concentrating on my career as an athlete, I’d never really considered the harsh realities of job-hunting with a disability and, as I researched the issue further, I was shocked and appalled at the realities of it,” Johnson says. “While I was thinking of what to do after retirement from professional sport, I realised something – people with disabilities who’d been through the often gruelling process of looking for a job would make excellent recruiters themselves. From here, the idea for TAP was born.” The ambition is to totally reform the employment process and what the notion of talent and abilities mean.
Johnson points to the so-called disability employment gap sitting at the 30% mark for more than a decade assuring her now was the right time to start TAP. Indeed, according to a government study from February 2019, 51.4% of people with disabilities were in employment compared to 49.8% a year earlier. However, the employment rate is 81.4% for people without disabilities.
“People with disabilities have an unemployment rate of 9.3%, compared to people without disabilities, where the unemployment rate is 3.7%,” Johnson states. “In other words, if you’re disabled, you’re nearly three times as likely to be unemployed as a non-disabled person. It shouldn’t and, more importantly, doesn’t have to be this way. With TAP, our core mission is to help increase the number of equal opportunities available to those with disabilities. We want to show employers the benefits of a diverse and inclusive working environment, changing the way they view disabled candidates.”
To that end, TAP will let its actions do the talking by ensuring the business is “staffed exclusively by people with impairments”. One of the key difficulties the business faced is by getting the concept across though. “As soon as you mention that all our consultants have a disability, people either assume we’re a charity or that we’re exclusively helping disabled individuals find work,” Johnson says. “This simply isn’t the case.” A for-profit business like any other recruitment agency, TAP’s differentiator is that it will find candidates in “an open-minded, empathetic, and inclusive way”.
With 12 members of staff already, each employee is driven, resilient and has strong people skills, all of which are key requirements that Johnson looks or when recruiting. “When it comes to hiring, aside from the essential skills typically associated with recruitment, we look for people with a passion for helping others, people that genuinely want to make a difference to people’s lives,” she says. After all, that’s our mission at TAP.”
Despite a strong start with clients including Diageo, HSBC, Transport for London, Virgin Media and KPMG, there’s a systemic issue that TAP faces as it looks to change the recruitment sector for good. “Hiring someone with a disability is often viewed as ‘complicated,’” says Johnson. “Someone with a physical disability might require step-free access to the building, disabled bathroom facilities or extra tech needs. Other disabilities might require more flexible working hours, which can be seen as an inconvenience or impractical to employers.” This generally results in employers sticking to what they know with “able-bodied options,” she adds. “It’s bred from misunderstandings and misconceptions and means employers miss out on a crucial amount of talent.”
Tackling those misconceptions will be all in a day’s work though, as the TAP team will strive to open the eyes of employers and make them more aware of the value behind adapting their recruitment approach. “We’re hoping our team at TAP will provide a positive example of what is possible when the focus is placed on enabling people to maximise their strengths whilst removing the perceived barriers of an individual,” says Johnson. “We’ve been delighted to receive such amazing support and look forward to seeing what the future brings as we grow.”
And looking ahead at the future in terms of where the business will be in a year’s time, the goal is to be seen as a serious contender in the recruitment world. “We hope to have increased in size, hiring more consultants with a diverse range of disabilities,” reveals Johnson. “We’re on a mission to change how we approach employment, how we view skills and abilities and how we put diversity and inclusion at the heart of that.”