by John Cranage
Like so many people with a good business proposition, Matthew Carr was rebuffed by his bank when he asked for a loan.
“Their attitude was ‘you’re a sole trader start-up – the funds aren’t there’,” he said.
“They did ask me if I wanted an overdraft, but I didn’t want to start my business in the red.”
His bank’s refusal to help was, however, just another hurdle for this 30-year-old former policeman to clear.
If the fact that he is registered blind certainly was not going to stop him pursuing his business dream, neither would an unhelpful bank.
Now, with the financial assistance of family and friends, Matthew has succeeded in setting up his company, Blind Ability, to develop and promote accessibility for both the visually impaired and those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia in education and the social and commercial sectors.
“Blind Ability is a brand spanking new start-up,” Matthew told the Birmingham Post.
“I am very much at the finding customers stage, but I am hoping to get enough work ready for a harder launch in September.”
A key element of the new company’s business plan is the promotion of the iPad as an educational tool, especially for those with disabilities.
“An iPad isn’t just a tablet, it isn’t just a toy,” said Matthew. “It is actually an exceptionally powerful tool for the education market, specifically for those people who have a learning disability.
“An iPad straight out of the box already has a number of accessibility features.
“It will talk to you and tell you exactly what’s on the screen. You can magnify it; you can change the text; you can link hearing aids up to it; you can change the hearing settings.
“And there are specific settings to allow someone who has a lack of gross motor functions to use the iPad. That is why it is such a powerful tool.”
The iPad is already becoming a major mainstream educational tool, but Matthew realised that a “massive lack” of awareness of the device’s accessibility features and training in their usage presented a commercial opportunity.
“When I started planning the business in its initial stages I was looking specifically towards the VI – visual impairment – market,” Matthew said.
“But from the research I did it became clear that a number of people who are visually impaired also have an additional disability.
“It could be dyslexia, mobility issues, hearing loss and a number of different other things.”
Matthew, who lives in Rowley Regis with his partner, Jenny O’Connor, a self-employed driving instructor, says the need for a company like Blind Ability was obvious.
“Nobody else does it,” he said. “There is nobody else offering accessibility training on the iPad and that’s where it all started from.”
His own experiences as a blind person have created a second strand to Blind Ability’s business offering – that of training companies and local authorities in the preparation of accessible information.
“I had an issue with my local doctors sending out inaccessible information, and I explained to them that I am registered blind and could not see it in the format in which they sent it out.
“They said, ‘isn’t there someone else who can fill it out for you?’”
That was not the most positive approach to someone striving to be independent, so Matthew challenged his doctors and eventually received material that was more helpful.
He encountered the same difficulties at his local library and with written material from his bank.
“The format in which they present information is very unhelpful to people with visual impairment and dyslexia – two things that often go hand in hand,” he said.
“One of my biggest products for the commercial market is accessible document training – looking at how to make documents accessible not only for disabled clients, but also for staff.”
Which is where Tolstoy’s War and Peace, one of the longest novels ever published, comes in handy.
“In the form in which I have it on my computer it consists of 15 books and about 3,000 pages in total. I challenge people to find a particular page or a particular chapter in a particular book.
“In the format I present it to them in it would take them probably the best part of a day to find it, whereas if it’s correctly formatted you can find it in a matter of seconds.
“I teach people how to turn text into audio or how to turn it into an eBook so it can be read on an iPad.”
Matthew was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition which kills the peripheral cells of the eye, causing tunnel vision and ultimately total blindness, combined with a complaint that attacks the cornea.
Having served as a uniformed and plain clothes officer with the Wiltshire and Nottinghamshire police forces, he was registered blind in 2007.
Since then he has been working towards converting his own experiences into a viable business proposition.
“One of the biggest things has been sourcing equipment,” he said. “I am almost there now, which is quite good. Friends and family have helped me to get to where I am and things are progressing.
“But there is a general lack of money to help with start-ups unless you are under 30 or over 50. For the 20 years in between there is no point in becoming self-employed unless you have got the money.”
Practical help in getting Blind Ability off the ground has come from the Black Country Chamber of Commerce.
“They have been able to assist with a little bit of coaching, looking at my business plan and my financial forecast, and kind of putting me on the straight and narrow,” said Matthew.
“The assistance I received from the Black Country Chamber was absolutely phenomenal, absolutely fantastic.
“The staff are really friendly and helped with my paperwork, and my start-up manager, Kulwant Chahal, has been phenomenally helpful.
“He went through my business plan and financial forecasts and is a really inspirational guy who has spurred me on.”
Matthew is currently pitching to prospective customers and expects Blind Ability to start making money by November this year. He has pencilled in a first-year turnover figure of about £54,000.
He also expects to be employing two people within three years of start-up.
“By November I will have paid back everything I’ve borrowed and be moving on from there.
“Customers are going to schools and local authorities in the first instance, and from there any commercial enterprise or anybody who deals with customers.
“They all have to comply with the Equality Act 2010 and need to have accessible formats.
“If they embed good practice from the very beginning, and make sure all their documents are structured in the correct way then they don’t need to make changes.
“It is actually quicker to make a structured document than it is to make a non-structured document. And if a company is producing accessible documents, any user with an iPad or assisted technology will be able to access that document correctly.”
Matthew says he is encouraged by the response from potential customers and has a number of conference dates in his diary.
“People are very interested in how they can better their services for disabled customers.
“With the current climate people are wanting to make quick, cheap changes that help them keep their customers, and this is one of them.
“A lot of the work and prospects I’m getting at the moment has come purely through networking and word of mouth.
“I’ve not done any advertising at all.
“People know who I am before I’ve even actually announced properly that I am starting.
“I have got some other ideas in my head for an additional business/social enterprise next year that will run alongside Blind Ability.”