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Gavin Neate, the founder of eponymous company Neatebox, believes that his accessibility tech startup can play a crucial role in empowering society to help more disabled people following Covid-19. His answer? An app designed to change the way society interacts with disabled people.
“People traditionally have looked at disabled people as those who are in need of help, which puts them in an unbalanced position and fails to empower them,” the Tech Nation Rising Stars 2.0 winner says. “Based on what happened during the pandemic, we need to realise where the weaknesses lie in our society – and how we interact with disabled people is definitely one of those weaknesses.”
The pandemic has had an adverse effect on disabled people’s ability to participate in sport. In March, the former Paralympic champion Tanni Grey-Thompson said that coronavirus had “widened the gap again” between the activity levels of disabled and non-disabled people due to the closure of gyms and leisure facilities during lockdown.
Research published by the Activity Alliance found that a fear of contracting the virus, the impact on their health, and a lack of space and support to be able to exercise safely at home had become significant barriers for disabled people during the pandemic.
For Gavin, things now need to move on. While acknowledging that society tried to help those with disabilities during the pandemic, he says that it now needs to look beyond a “charity model of giving things” to empower those with impairments through greater levels of personalised interaction.
Identifying a need to improve everyday interactions for disabled people, the Edinburgh-based tech company developed a customer service-focused app called WelcoME that alerts venues ahead of time when disabled customers are visiting so that their staff can meet them, reducing “arrival anxiety”.
WelcoME is already used by a range of companies in different sectors – from banks and optometrists to transport providers and universities – and it could have a particularly profound impact in helping disabled people improve their physical and mental well-being through sport and fitness, says Gavin.
“Nobody benefits by going to a sports centre once, but if they visit regularly then they engage, interact and enjoy the experience more,” he says. “With WelcoME, when a person with a disability walks through the doors of a sports centre, they’re met by somebody who knows who they are, what they’re there to do, and how they want to be interacted with in a way that will make them want to return.”
During the pandemic, Neatebox successfully pitched for funding to roll out WelcoME to 50 leisure and fitness centres in England. The tender came from The National Lottery and Sport England, which had published a report identifying two main barriers to disabled people getting active: finding transport to and from venues and securing the first point of contact upon arrival. WelcoME was a perfect fit, and Salford Leisure Centre became the first venue to roll out the solution to its customers in July.
In addition to improving the visitor experience, WelcoME offers a secondary benefit by continually training venues’ customer service representatives in how to interact with disabled people who may have anything from a mild hearing impairment to dyslexia or autism.
Gavin believes that this is more effective than traditional disability training that could take the form of a single induction (which can be easily forgotten) to eight months in a classroom (which lacks an interactive element). By equipping customer service staff with skills that can be carried into future roles, Gavin says that WelcoME is “evolving society”.
“The truth is, there are so many aspects of being disabled that you can’t teach a staff member in a classroom,” says Gavin. “If we can make it so that the people who are helping those who use our system understand disability more, then we have done nothing less than evolve society – and it truly excites me when I think about that.”
Looking ahead, Neatebox plans to capitalise on the added attention on disability sport that will come from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics – which begins on August 24 – by converting more venues into paying customers. Gavin aims for WelcoME, which costs businesses a flat fee of £30 per month for an unlimited number of users, to be installed in “every sports centre on the planet”.
Neatebox recently converted the solution into a native web app to help it scale, making it accessible in countries internationally without requiring it to be downloaded from a local app store. Wherever its customers are based, Gavin is confident that they will be satisfied with WelcoME’s business case and ROI.
“If a gym added just one disabled customer on a £30 per month annual subscription, it would cover the cost of providing WelcoME to all of its potential disabled customers for one year,” says Gavin. “Venues should be tripping over themselves to provide that kind of value.”
He adds: “If you dig underneath the surface, you find that the solution is built on something incredibly solid and foundational for society. I think that’s a key message that becomes lost when you sell a product, as people just think about what the product does rather than why it does it.”
As a mission-driven company aiming for societal impact following a pandemic, Neatebox is in a rare position to tap into a collective desire to provide support to those that need it most. With an innovative tech solution and forward-looking plan to execute at scale, the Scottish company has more than a sporting chance.
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