THERE’S no such word as “can’t” according to Gemma Blagbrough.
The award-winning Dalton businesswoman has spent much of her life demonstrating that disability is no obstacle to achieving success.
That success was recognised last month when Gemma was named winner of the category for Start-Up Business Woman of the Year in the Forward Ladies Women in Business Awards.
The award was one of several won by Huddersfield businesswomen in the competition run by the Yorkshire-based networking group.
Now Gemma is set to embark on the next phase of her career at the helm of Jigsaw Enterprise Training, a social enterprise offering personal development and training opportunities to young people and adults.
The focus is on people with physical or learning disabilities and those who would benefit from a more interactive approach – and the aim is to make training a fun and interactive learning experience.
Gemma, who was born with cerebral palsy and has mobility problems, set up Jigsaw Enterprise Training in January last year to address the kind of employment and learning barriers that she faced in her formative years – and help other people who may face such barriers.
The training includes short taster workshops and fully accredited courses, where participants can gain a qualification through a recognised awarding body.
Training can be given to groups or one-to-one at venues such as the Chestnut Centre at Deighton or learners’ own homes.
The company can help with bidding for external funding for courses and can also provide associates to work alongside any regular or long-term training suppliers already in place.
Gemma says: “The company was incorporated in January, 2011, but it had been in my mind for two years.
“I had always struggled with learning and employment and that’s why I set it tup to enable people to help people enjoy learning and gain a sense of achievement.”
Despite her disability – and thanks to her mother Janet’s determination – Gemma attended mainstream schools.
She was a pupil at Rawthorpe Infant and Junior School before going to Newsome High School and then on to Dewsbury College to train as a nursery nurse.
She also gained qualifications in youth and community studies at Huddersfield University. The barriers she faced only made her more determined to succeed.
“At college, we were always on the top floor and sometimes the lift would break down,” says Gemma. “I was often learning on my own as a result. So with Jigsaw I wanted to make learning fully inclusive.”
Gemma recalls the initial resistance she met when she said she wanted to become a nursery nurse.
“No one with a disability had done childcare before,” she says. “But it never entered my head NOT to do it because I had wanted to do it since I was six. Nursery nursing was my first love and I worked as a nursery nurse in a number of nurseries linked to schools for several years.
“Later, I was employed by the Careers Service as a Connexions worker, which involved working evenings and weekends and that became really difficult. It was then that I began thinking about having my own business and how that would give me more control and flexibility. I found a part-time job I really liked and began to set up Jigsaw. I still have the part-time job to help bring in funds, although Jigsaw is starting to make some money, too.”
Gemma says: “Jigsaw is all about personal development, work preparation and disability awareness. It’s about confidence building, assertiveness, managing emotions, work preparation, CV writing, interview skills and goal setting.
“There are also disability awareness classes for non-disabled people.”
She says: “In the beginning, I thought it would be an extension of my youth work, but I have been working with a lot of adults who are low in confidence or have been made redundant or want to change career. You need a certain set of skills working with young people and I work interactively, which took some of the adult learners by surprise. They were used to boring seminars where you fall asleep at the back of the room!”
Gemma is also considering extending into one-to-one coaching online and coaching by email and telephone.
And she is keen to promote the cause of disabled people in mainstream jobs, saying: “Many employers will do what they have to do ‘legally’ but do not always understand the value of having a disabled employee.
“Running disability awareness courses for employers is something I plan to expand in the new year. My ambition is to get together a group of like-minded employers who are able to see past the disability.
“Employers are often worried about the extra cost of employing someone with a disability, but that is a bit of a myth because there are schemes out there to help. They are also concerned about sickness and absence, but disabled people are very unlikely to be off sick.
“Disabled employees are also very loyal and while they may not be able to do 10% of things, it doesn’t mean they can’t do the other 90%.”
Gemma recalls: “When I wanted to do childcare, three colleges would not have me. They came up with the ‘health and safety’ excuse.
“I want to be responsible for changing attitudes as much as possible. I can’t change the world, but I hope I can be a role model.”
Gemma recalls: “My first real job was in a nursery as part of my work experience.
“I went on to work at a school in Dewsbury, where the headteacher was in a wheelchair and she was my inspiration.
“I worked for three different primary schools as a classroom assistant before moving into youth work.”
But she says: “My family have been my biggest supporters.
“We didn’t get pocket money when we were kids unless we earned it.
“My father, who has a pub in Halifax, helped me set up my first ‘business’ when I was 12. I went around his customers – using my sister as the cute one – and sold stationery.
“Eventually, my father stopped me because it was turning into a real business and he was afraid the taxman would be after me!
“My mother was instrumental in ensuring I had mainstream schooling. She felt very strongly that with support I could manage.
“And there’s nothing like kids in the playground for toughening you up!”
Gemma’s certainly “toughened up” in her role at Jigsaw, where she works with co-director Ruth Sharp.
“Running your own business gives you autonomy – and I am quite ambitious,” she says.
“Every decision is yours, which is scary, but it is exciting as well. When I get to the stage where I’m managing my own staff – now that will be frightening!”