Fiona Jarvis talks to Disability Horizons about Blue Badge Style, a guide for stylish, less-physically-able people wanting to enjoy the finer things in life, cool bars and restaurants accessibly.
I first developed MS in the early 1990s, only realising when I started repeatedly falling off my high heels and not being able to handle cocktails anymore! I have become progressively disabled over the last twenty years, moving from using a stick to gliding through life in a wheelchair. I now find it impossible to walk and I have uncomfortable spasms. So still being able to get out and have a drink helps!
I had previously worked for financial software companies, but finding stylish places to take clients for drinks and dinner became difficult. I wanted somewhere stylish, but where I could still get into the venue and to the loo easily. As information about such accessible places wasn’t readily available, I kept my own list of smart places.
I was out so much during this period in my life that I was often asked by able-bodied family and friends for recommendations on the latest cool venue or boutique hotel. I realised this could be valuable information for the less-able community, as being disabled and maintaining a sense of style can be difficult and ultimately excludes many people from mainstream society.
There are plenty of guides to cool restaurants, but it is never clear from the guide, or the restaurant’s website, whether they cater for people with mobility issues or other disabilities. There are also many websites out there with information on disabled access and facilities, but none concentrate on style as well. Plus, access information is often out-of-date or not audited by someone with a disability. So, in 2007, I decided it was time to bring this information together on one website, Blue Badge Style (BBS). The website pulls together reviews, information, news and video, plus our Michelin-like rating system, BBS ticks.
Having initially launched Blue Badge Style as a website this autumn, we have now launched the app too. It was after an arduous appointment at hospital that I realised we needed an app. I wanted to find an accessible and stylish lunch venue, close by, but had no way of doing so.
The app gives you access to the website’s reviews when you’re out an about, along with directions. It searches for cool venues near you and lets you know what the reviewer thinks of the style, accessibility and facilities.
The main issues I faced in establishing BBS were money and technology. Being disabled means I often have to convince people I’m up to the job physically. This usually means I work harder than ever. Through dogged determination and with the help of friends and angel investors, I have been able to establish the site and build the app.
Getting a significant investment was my biggest business achievement ever. This took a few years and several false starts whilst the idea developed, but I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved so far. Amongst the work, knowing that the Paralympic Games were coming to London was a real spur to get the idea into action. I couldn’t miss that opportunity!
My other triumph was to go to a UCL Mobile Academy course where I met the UCL Advances and Stuxbot teams. They jointly developed the app and have recently added a magnifying option and text-to-speech version for the blind.
My aim for Blue Badge Style is to grow and grow, so that it employs (not exclusively) less able people, is profitable and provides a return for my brilliant investors who were prepared to take a risk on me. I also want to build a community of like-minded people for whom style and disability are not mutually exclusive.
Importantly, this isn’t just a guide for the less-physically-able, but for their friends too. There are an estimated 10.5 million people with disabilities and 5 million carers in the UK, which does not include those temporarily less-able, or families, friends, and unregistered carers. It is still not certain if they include people with MS!
I want to encourage this wide community to rate their favourite restaurants, bars, shops, cafes, theatres so that no-one has to be surprised, or embarrassed, by a lack of accessibility or facilities at a stylish venue.
The real success for me is when other people in wheelchairs and able-bodied users say what a useful service they think Blue Badge Style is. I hope that what started out as a way of me finding somewhere for lunch, will develop into something everyone can use.
After all, being able is only a temporary condition, at some point in everyone’s life there may be a period of disability even if it’s just a broken limb. The UK population is aging. By 2033, 23% of us will be over 65. So, the likelihood is that we will all suffer from some mobility issue at some point in life, but we can still have fun in style!
By Fiona Jarvis