Innovative idea from Disability Civility takes home Tyk Side Project Fund prize

Great ideas come out of all sorts of situations. Sometimes, all they need is a little encouragement and they can bloom into something superb. Disability Civility is one of those ideas, which is why project lead Jessica Russell is one of the 2020 Tyk Side Project Fund winners!

Tyk itself was a side project not that long ago. Our CEO Martin spent his spare time building the API management platform that he needed, after he couldn’t find what he was looking for. That side project snowballed into an international commercial success. As such, creative side projects are something that the Tyk team holds dear. Now, through the Side Project Fund, we’re working with talented change makers from around the globe in order to help them create and build.

Disability Civility’s Jessica Russell is one such change maker. Her online course is supporting learners to become disability allies with confidence. Let’s find out how.

Tyk: Please can you tell us what your project, Disability Civility, is all about?

Jessica: Disability Civility promotes civil, rewarding interactions between the disabled and able-bodied communities.

Tyk: What led you to start this side project in the first place? What’s your background?

Jessica: My professional background is as an educator in the adult learning field. I’ve also worked quite a bit in the mental health and citizens’ advocacy sector.

I was diagnosed with bipolar in my late 20s/early 30s. I’d lost ten years to it by then and had become used to not being my full self around people, holding back for fear of what people might think.

Then I met Nina through work. She has spina bifida, which has caused her mobility to get worse over the years – her invisible disability gradually turned into a visible disability. She noticed that having a visible disability prompted questions from random strangers, the most common of which was,

“What happened to you?”

I get to choose if and when I want to share my mental health diagnosis. Somebody with a visible disability doesn’t get that choice. When Nina’s son began to experience the same kind of questioning at quite a young age, we decided that something needed to be done to provide the world with a more positive experience of having a visible disability.

We reached out to the disabled community. Our research found that many disabled people’s experiences echoed this intrusive questioning by strangers. Some able-bodied people, meanwhile, almost feel it’s rude not to ask about a disability because doing so implies they are ignoring it. Many able-bodied people have spoken to us about this during our research.

In the learning content, we talk about ableism. We use the terms racism, sexism and ageism a lot, but talk about ableism less often. Society positions disability as ‘less than’ or as something bad. Disability Civility exists to help people change the way they think about disability – we’re here to change the world!

Tyk: What are the values that drive you personally?

Jessica: When you’re an educator, you’re around people who are learning and thus changing all the time. Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I want a better world. There are ‘isms’ everywhere – racism, sexism, ageism, ableism. I don’t want to live in a world with ‘isms.’ I want to live in a world where we are all of equal value, no matter what our differences are. I think that differences are a beautiful thing and find it painful that disabled people are locked out of spaces and places because of their disability. I want to see a more accessible world for everybody.

Tyk: How has Disability Civility developed as a business so far?

Jessica: We had a pilot where we co-produced some content and delivered a face-to-face, half-day workshop. It was meant to be more than one workshop but COVID-19 struck. However, the intention was always to put it online.

We’ve put it on a free platform that I was already familiar with, but it’s not yet the neat, online learning package that it will be. It’s not accessible enough at the moment and we won’t be able to charge for workforce development yet.

One of the pieces of feedback that we got from a chief executive who attended the first workshop was that the training was really good. Her observation was that, while everyone does equality and diversity training, this really got to the heart of the matter; it was more transformative.

Our vision was that anyone could access the training, but where there was more of a corporate aspect to it, that could be potentially chargeable. We’re a social enterprise, so any profit that we make can go to supporting related initiatives. Right now, for example, we’re working to support the disabled community who have been impacted by COVID-19, as there’s been some damage done there and it’s affected people’s mental health.

Tyk: What are the challenges that you face when working fulltime and having a side project?

Jessica: My challenge is that I spread myself too thin. I like to learn and because I can do a lot of things, I feel like I should do a lot of things, whereas sometimes it might be better just to focus on one thing.

If you’re a creative person and have lots of ideas, it can be a challenge to pursue just one of them and keep that focus, as you’ll still have other ideas. Personally, I have a neuroatypical brain – I’m always attracted to chasing the next shiny thing, so I can lose time from distractions like the six other side projects that I have on the go!

Something like the Tyk funding really helps to focus the mind. Keeping that focus can be tricky when you’re working on a boring part of the side project or you have to go to work or you’re stressed and just want to have a beer. That’s probably the main challenge.

If you do a business plan, you usually have a clear focus, but a lot of side projects don’t have a business plan. Disability Civility doesn’t; it’s never really needed one. I’ve got a degree in business and management and I’m comfortable with project management but when something’s a side hustle you don’t necessarily apply those same planning structures. You just let it grow organically, without that really driven business-planning process and that can impact where you put your focus.

Tyk: How will the Tyk Side Project Fund support Disability Civility to grow?

Jessica: The Tyk Side Project Fund money means that we’ll be able to put a professional package together on a professional platform, where it can be free or on a sliding scale of charges. Then we can see how that goes over the course of the first year.

If we hadn’t had the Tyk money, I don’t think we would have been able to do that – it would still have been sitting on the less-than-ideal platform that it’s currently on in six months’ time. The support and attention from Tyk will really push it to the next level. We’ll have a more professional package for corporate customers, which can still be free to individuals looking to access it. We want to reach as many people as possible with it.

Tyk: What tips would you give to someone looking to start a side project?

Jessica: I’m a social entrepreneur (through my side project anyway!) and I think it’s key to believe in what you’re doing, just like Tyk’s founder Martin did. I’m always inspired by the QuickBooks founder Scott Cook, who saw his wife struggling to balance her chequebook and wanted to make it easier for consumers to do that.

It doesn’t have to have a social impact, but you need to believe in your idea with more passion than simply a desire to make money. You’ll need that belief when it comes to giving up your free time, when you have to juggle your paid job and your relationship, when you have conflicting demands that seem impossible to manage. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you might as well forget about it. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my advice!

I think that belief is also essential when it comes to getting others to believe in your idea. People will see your passion and support you to progress your idea, even when you’re feeling worn down by juggling everything.

Believe in it yourself, then find others along the way to believe in it too!  

Tyk: Thank you Jessica – and best of luck with Disability Civility! 

For more details on Disability Civility, click here. You can also find out more about the Tyk Side Project Fund here