The premise is simple but revolutionary: the user opens the app, selects the business or organisation they want to visit and enters the time when they will arrive. The business instantly receives notification of the intended visit, along with information about the user’s specific needs and more general information about their disability. When the user arrives at the premises, staff are notified so that they can greet them and give them whatever assistance they need.
The app is currently available in the UK and Ireland, and is poised to launch internationally – a step made easier by its recent recognition as the Global Champion for Inclusion & Empowerment at the World Summit Awards (WSAs), which identify companies providing digital solutions that address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
“This recognition is like a door into another room: it says we’re a company that has got through the looking glass, and is doing something internationally,” Neate says. “The Sustainable Development Goals are wide reaching and, as a world, we have to have achieved them by 2030 if we’re going to be sustainable. The goals are about how we remove some of the greatest barriers to the world’s evolution.”
For Neate, it was important that users would not have to pay for the app; it makes its money from the fees paid by participating businesses and organisations. However, he did not want it to be a charity. Instead, it’s designed to be a working example of social capitalism.
“The word ‘disability’ in the UK and in the western world is connected to charity,” he says. “Nobody associates it with high income, or high growth. But we’re trying to change that. I want to prove it’s possible to have a socially good company that is sustainable.”
Revolutionising staff training
Neate is determined to transform the way in which disability is perceived, putting the power firmly in the hands of disabled people.
“Charity, by definition, is the provision of service and financial support to those in need,” he says. “Disabled people aren’t ‘needy’; they’re in need of the breaking down of barriers. There are so many other people out there who are disabled who are leaders in their fields.
“Beyond anything else in my life, I believe in equality. I saw society looking at disabled people as disabled first and human second. This company empowers the disabled person to dictate the level of service they get. When you are given information by a disabled person, and that information is useful to you, it changes the relationship.”
The ‘purple pound’ – the collective spending power of disabled people – is estimated to be worth £249bn to the UK economy. Making it easier for people with disabilities to visit places such as shops, cinemas and theatres makes solid business sense – yet at present, many destinations get it wrong. A 2015 survey by the Extra Costs Commission found that 75% of disabled people and their families had left a shop due to poor customer service – meaning that UK businesses could be missing out on sales worth £420m a week.
It’s clear that traditional efforts to train staff how to serve disabled people are not always working. Neate believes this is because that training is delivered (often at great expense) once every few years and then gets forgotten, or staff move on to other jobs. With WelcoMe, every staff member has instant access to the training they need – not only for a specific disability, but for each specific individual.
Keeping up with the pace of change
It’s not Neate’s first work in this field. Originally a Royal Air Force police officer, he left the RAF and started volunteering at a guide dog school in 1996. He went on to train as a Guide Dogs mobility instructor, a role he continued in for 18 years, during which time he invented the world’s first smartphone-operated pedestrian crossing system. The demands of developing this system, and building a solutions-led business around it, forced him to reluctantly leave the Guide Dogs, but also led to the creation of WelcoMe.