Entrepreneur Q&A: ex-Paralympic swimmer, Liz Johnson

Former Paralympian Liz Johnson chats about her recruitment agency, The Ability People (TAP), and closing the disability employment gap.

Finding a job as a person with a disability is tough – and the stats back it up.

It inspired former Paralympic swimming champion, Liz Johnson, to start The Ability People (TAP). The recruitment agency is run by people with disabilities.

Liz talks a bit more about how she got the idea for the company and how her athletic background has helped her to succeed.

How did TAP come about?

I first thought of the idea while at home watching the news. Reporters were discussing the disability employment gap and the figures really hit home. Even though I had a degree in business management, 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.

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.

“I’d never really considered the harsh realities of job-hunting with a disability”

To turn the idea into a business, I partnered with Steve Carter, a recruitment expert with over 32 years experience in the industry. Together we found our initial batch of consultants, made up of ex-Paralmpians like myself, recent graduates and disabled people who’d long been looking for an opportunity to build a sustainable career.

Now we’re here, fully formed and ready to take on the recruitment industry.

Do you specialise in any particular sectors?

At TAP, we cover four specialist markets: technical, business, HR and the next generation.

Our techTAP specialists place candidates in technical roles within a ‘non-IT’ environment while the businessTAP team specialise in placing candidates in a variety of professional commercial roles.

Our peopleTAP consultants are HR specialists, working to place candidates in a variety of operative, people-facing roles.

Our final team, TAP ‘NextGen’ is particularly unique within our group as they’re our only team dedicated to exclusively supporting disabled or impaired candidates. When we created this team, we drew upon our consultants personal experiences of job hunting and quickly realised that the group most impacted by employer bias were those fresh from university, college or school.

Liz's team at TAP, tackling the disability employment gap
Liz’s team at TAP

As well as helping young disabled individuals find work, our NextGen team also works with employers, helping educate them on the importance of a diverse workforce and how they can ensure a truly inclusive working environment.

What are your goals as a business?

There are two primary goals we hope to achieve through TAP. Firstly, we want to challenge preconceptions about the jobs those with disabilities can do and how well they can do them. Secondly, to show that disability-led projects aren’t only viable when run as charities.

“We want to show that disability-led projects aren’t only viable when run as charities”

If we achieve these then hopefully we’ll be on the way to closing the UK’s disability employment gap.

What challenges did you face in setting up the business? What sacrifices did you have to make?

The greatest challenge we’ve faced has been helping others understand what exactly TAP is.

The concept may seem simple enough – a recruitment agency staffed solely by disabled people – but you’d be surprised by the amount of people who have difficulty understanding how the business works. For example, we’re often asked, ‘Are you a charity?’. The answer is no. TAP is proudly for-profit. We’re like any other recruitment agency, recruiting both able-bodied and disabled candidates into a variety of roles across a number of sectors.

While it’s been difficult at times, we’ve already seen through our support on social media and from the press that people are beginning to understand us and as a result, we’re looking forward to seeing what the future holds for the UK’s first disability-led recruitment consultant.

How has your background as a Paralympic athlete helped you as an entrepreneur?

My career as a Paralympic athlete has definitely helped my career as an entrepreneur. My experiences as a professional swimmer have helped me to develop an innate drive to succeed, as well as building my self-confidence and resilience.

At the beginning of my career, I was studying business management at university alongside my training – a commitment which saw me waking up at 5am to go swimming, then rush back to university for lectures and seminars. It was an intense and somewhat hectic life, but it helped me become goal-oriented and focused, which has spurred me to start up my own business with TAP.

Being a swimmer, the majority of my time was spent in a swimming costume, so my disability was always on display. This experience helped me develop great self-confidence, encouraging me to be extremely ambitious and highly competitive.

I want to empower others – both disabled and able-bodied – to take full advantage of their opportunities and realise that any obstacles life may throw at us can actually help us achieve success.

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Anna Jordan

Anna is Senior Reporter, covering topics affecting SMEs such as grant funding, managing employees and the day-to-day running of a business.