Growing up, Martyn Sibley was the only person with a disability at his primary school. Bullying was never really a problem because he made friends easily and some of them were big so no one messed with him. But there were times when the banter he enjoyed with his mates crossed the line.
It was raining and Martyn was waiting in a covered outdoor area with his classmates for his next lesson. There was a hole in the shelter above them where the water was pouring through like a torrent. A few of the guys were playing around, trying to push each other into the water. One of them turned to Martyn, turned off his wheelchair, lifted the back wheels off the ground and pushed him into the water.
”I felt there was banter, but then to turn my wheelchair off, I was defenseless.Martyn SibleyWorld Changing Blogger and Smiler
Even though the boys were his mates, he had no qualms taking the matter to the teachers.
“I’m always happy to communicate, communication is so important.”
This philosophy has fed back into how Martyn lives his life – through incidents like that he learnt that you can’t just bottle things up inside – it doesn’t no good, only generating anger and frustration.
“It’s good to talk about something and share it, to point out injustice.”
While Martyn’s disability has shaped how he lives his life, he has never let it define him. Born with a rare neuromuscular condition, spinal muscular atrophy, he has needed a power wheelchair and a care support team ever since he can remember.
But at high school, he was able to interact with a wider range of people, including others with a disability.
“This was very important, because then there were others who understood what I was going through. But having friendships beyond disability gives a broader, more inclusive view.”
He excelled in school and dreamed of going to university. When the time came, he decided, like many other young people, to move away from home. Living a few hours away from his mother and father was a rather testing experience – for the first time, Martyn was in charge of his own care, his own funding and but most of all, his own life.
”I was going through the motions at university – I had a new lease of life after leaving home. I hit the partying hard, had wild nights with many beautiful women, my studies were almost a secondary thing.Martyn SibleyWorld Changing Blogger and Smiler
It’s almost a miracle, he says, that he managed to make it out with not just a degree in economics but a masters in marketing as well. Once his studies were finished, he knew the logical thing was to try and find a job.
Eventually, after applying and being rejected for finance-type jobs in London (Martyn is still unsure whether his disability played a role in this), his dad found him a job for a disability charity.
For the first year in his new role, Martyn moved back to live with his parents, which came with its own set of challenges. But it gave him time to settle into working life, the grind of Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.
Eventually he was transferred from Cambridgeshire to London, and spent at least four years with the charity in a variety of roles from HR to fundraising.
The job with the charity was by no means his dream job, but it helped to set him up well for what was to come. It was here that he had something of an epiphany.
“I got the bug, realising so many people in the world have a disability, there’s so much education to do for society to help remove the barriers that are what disable us, attitude and policies, they are all societal constructs.”
Mind-set is an important thing for Martyn. A particularly long stint in hospital due to scoliosis saw him undergo a rather invasive surgical procedure. His lung was deflated, growth plates were removed and two titanium rods were screwed into his spine.
High as a kite on medications, Martyn lay in his hospital bed, knowing he had to be patient.
“Having the patience to know I would get better, and get back on with living life.”
But most of all he started to dream big – “to dream about adventures and careers, and love,” all the things he would do when he was better and got older.
The most important thing about these dreams were that they were genuinely his, not his parents, or those of the media.
It was this mind-set that saw him leave his job, now over 10 years ago, and start blogging. This would take him on a journey through social media, to speaking on global stages and cofounding charities.
Together with Srin Madipalli, Martyn created and developed Disability Horizons, an online digital magazine.
“It has lots of positive lifestyle content by disable people, for disabled people.”
Along this journey, Accomables was born, a version of Air BnB for disabled people, which was acquired by Air Bnb itself. Different filters mean those renting their homes have to specify whether it is accessible.
“They have to share a photo now too to prove accessibility, vendors need to understand what an accessible property means, and its not necessarily just for wheelchairs but for people who are blind, deaf, etc.”
In the UK alone, there are about 13 million people living with a variety of disabilities and its proposed that this section of the population has 250 billion pounds of spending power.
“We are consumers, and we are votes, it’s quite empowering to realise as a big group, these businesses should be starting to think about what we need and want… it’s shifting the conversation and creating a marketing agency for businesses to spread accessible and inclusive products. Mainstream businesses are turning people away by not being inclusive now and making changes.”
Most of all, Martyn has realised many businesses have a fear of doing things wrong and angering people with a disability.
While heavy activism has its place, we’ve got to allow businesses to learn by doing says Martyn. Ultimately, businesses need the confidence to work with disabled people to design buildings and services.
As he said before the barriers facing disabled people originate from the environment and society itself.
”I might have this disability, but its not me, it’s society, the problem is out there and it’s fixable. No one has gone out to create barriers and consciously discriminateMartyn SibleyWorld Changing Blogger and Smiler
When the London Underground was built for example, there were barely any wheelchairs around, so there was no need to think about lifts and ramps.
“No one was wanting to be an asshole, we just need to wake them up and educate with love to what we need, so we can be included as citizens, employees, people of the world.”
This is probably the biggest piece of advice Martyn has for others in similar situations, especially those searching for work – dream big, and dream for yourself.
“Get down into yourself and say what kind of industry, what kind of job, what does the perfect role look like?”
A lot of people with disabilities go into self-employment to balance their health issues, and avoid the discrimination present in mainstream businesses, but Martyn says you just need to be open-minded.
“There are job boards looking for diverse talent, you just need to get on the ladder, to have the right experiences to work towards your dream job. I’m now in my dream job, but I still want to change the world and I’m still aiming for bigger and better things, you have to stay hungry and have an insatiable appetite to do more.”
An “abundance” mind-set is another way to refer to it. There’s always a job, a company, an employer out there looking for what you can give them.
“When we look at it as being finite, there’s only so many jobs up in the economy, all of this competition, can I get it? That mind-set takes away the confidence needed.”
Ever since that incident back in the school yard, Martyn has been passionate about speaking out.
“It’s cathartic, blogging is a good way to open up and let your feelings out. The less people really understand your situation and how you’re feeling, you tend to bottle it up. Writing helps you work out your own feeling and perceptions of the world.”
Especially being from the UK, Martyn says the stiff upper lip stereotype is very true. People tend to smile through their problems and refuse to talk about them, but it’s good to be in touch with your emotions.
So what else is in the pipeline for Adaptdefier Martyn Sibley?
Well he still does a lot of talking and blogging, and will soon be off overseas to create some Instagram content on accessible tourism. He has his very own podcast, the Martyn Sibley Show and he continues to work as a coach for an online course for social change professionals.
Oh and he’s getting married next year.
You can keep up to date with Martyn’s antics on all of the social media accounts from Facebook, to Instagram, Twitter and Linkedin. There’s also his website which gives information on his charity as well as his book.
Martyn’s parting words are of the importance of co-production and design.
“We need a lot more listening to needs of disabled people, what does the end user experience?”
His last piece of advice?
”Go out and create your own solution - find a problem and solve it yourself with like minded people.Martyn SibleyWorld Changing Blogger and Smiler
If you’d rather listen than read…
Listen to the Podcast with Martyn Sibley now.