Life without Limits (Part 2): Ben Clifford

In the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine, Stephen White explored the inspiring tales of two entrepreneurs who refuse to be restricted by physical or mental conditions, offering a unique service to others with disabilities. In Part 2, he spoke to Ben Clifford, founder of Surfability. 

You can see Part 1, with Angus Drummond, here.

We head to the beach to meet an entrepreneur who has overcome difficulties in his own life to build a business that enables others to live life to the full.

For Ben Clifford, the office is the golden stretch of sand at picturesque Caswell bay on the Gower peninsula. But you won’t see him lounging around, conforming to the lazy surfer stereotype.

Ben is founder, co-director and head coach at Surfability UK, which gives surfing lessons to people who have additional needs, whether through illness, disability or injury.

Now in its fifth year, the community interest company (CIC) is helping countless individuals to socialise, exercise and have fun by surfing waves that they’d otherwise only be able to watch from the SurfSide cafe? overlooking the bay.

“Through surfing we can really highlight just how amazing people are. It’s an opportunity for these guys to show what they can do. It’s not about what they can’t do.” Ben says. Few could have predicted Surfability’s success, but by championing inclusivity, the organisation’s progress has been remarkable.

Lack of encouragement

This could not have happened without the vision and hard work of one individual, not that he ever dreamt he’d be a business owner. Being an entrepreneur wasn’t encouraged at Ben’s failing Bristol secondary school, where the presence of a resident police officer presented a bleak benchmark for success in life.

“There was never any thought instilled in us in terms of being our own bosses, it was a case of ‘Who are you going to work for?” Ben recalls. “My family were really supportive, though.”

With rowdier students taking the attention, introverted Ben was put in set four for English. And while classmates struggled with core texts, Ben breezed through The Lord of the Rings. Still, staff were not moved to question his situation. Exasperated, Ben rebelled with a peaceful subversion seldom seen in an environment where breaking the rules meant shouting, screaming and throwing chairs.

“I put myself in set one and refused to leave. I wasn’t rude, I just kept turning up at set one instead of set four, and they had to accept it. I don’t think they were used to people protesting in a way that was designed to better themselves. I was just so bored and I wanted to learn.”

It was a silent scream in the face of life lived with undiagnosed dyspraxia. Causing problems with balance and coordination, the condition made it hard for Ben to visualise organisation, or perform written work to any degree of neatness. Term after praise-free term, Ben processed the emotional fallout alone, learning only that he couldn’t do work correctly.

“It was a big challenge – really demoralising – going through years of having your work given back to you, work that you’ve tried really hard to do, and being told it’s wrong, when it was just messy. It’s really frustrating, not being able to do something neatly, no matter how hard you try.

“I had someone else write my exams for me, from my GCSEs onwards, but I had to sit in a room and dictate my own exams, which took a really long time as well. It took loads of energy; it’s so painful having to write for long periods of time or to keep up with notes in class.

“I really enjoyed education, I love learning things, but at the same time the environment I was in was really bad,” he remembers.

Breaking free

Studying at Swansea University, Ben discovered a pastime that would change his life for the better.

“I got really addicted to surfing, then when I finished my degree I did a course in water sports management and qualified as a surf coach and lifeguard. Shortly after, I volunteered at an event for autistic children in Bantham, north Devon.

“It was a weekend event run by an American company. They brought tandem surfboards and you could see the massive impact the experience was having on these younger people who had autism.

“It was amazing, but it was just one weekend. I knew it needed to be something regular, so I asked the boss at the surf school I was working for to see if we could do the same thing.”

Soon, the school was hosting a group of autistic children each week, and Ben continued to witness the healing power of surfing. He secured a job working with children with autism at a local school, where his learning about the condition grew.

Over the next few years, Ben acquired best practice in working with individuals with all kinds of disabilities, and thought how the skills could be combined with surf coaching to create an adapted surf school. But turning the dream into reality would be a huge challenge.

Ignoring the doubters

“It was really hard at times to convince people that surfing could be a safe thing for disabled people to do. Close friends were very supportive, but others were saying that I’d never get enough disabled people who wanted to surf to make it a viable business.

“My condition really made me doubt whether I had the organisational skills to run a company. A lot of my friends are entrepreneurs and they were saying that I should start my own surfing school. But I didn’t really have the confidence,” Ben says.

A helping hand

Salvation came in the Prince’s Trust enterprise programme, which gave Ben a crucial kick-start. Over a four-day course, he was given insight into all facets of starting a business, from personal skills, money management and marketing, to tax and HMRC.

“When Ben came to the Prince’s Trust he was struggling to find employment. We helped him to refine his ideas and put them into a viable business plan, and provided a grant for equipment,” explains Rhian Mathias, Head of Employment and Enterprise at the Prince’s Trust.

“Finally I could get my ideas and plans written down. I could show that I’d been running lessons for children with autism and that it had been successful,” Ben says.

“We had 25 children in the group surfing every week, and a waiting list. Some of the achievements were amazing; I heard youngsters saying their first ever sentences while surfing with them, and make massive gains in terms of social interaction, things like learning how to be part of a group and how to take turns. I could relay this progress to people who wanted support me.”

The Community Interest structure also played a pivotal role, enabling Ben to cover costs and find space for all the new kit, not that storage was readily available in those early days.

“At the time, I was living in a flat with two of my mates, and my job at the school had just come to an end as the funding for it had finished, so I had no cash, certainly not enough to go and buy a surf school.

“We suddenly had a surf school in our tiny flat. Squeezing past surfboards to get to the front door became a way of life. I had to share my bed with two surfboards for a couple of months, so it wasn’t easy,” he recalls.

Positive growth

Almost five years on, Surfability is firmly installed at Caswell, where Ben’s team can barely keep up with demand.

“This is going to be the best and most challenging year in terms of numbers. It’ll be tough to get enough volunteers, coaches and equipment and funds, and to get everyone down to the beaches.”

Much of the puzzle lies in correctly pricing Surfability’s services, such are the skill and energy levels required to optimise accessibility, while guaranteeing the care, expertise and personalised guidance that form the core of firm’s offering.

“For a coach and disabled surfer to use the tandem surfboard, it might take four people to take one person surfing. Full training and payment for those coaches would make the lessons prohibitively expensive.

“So, it’s finding that balance, raising the funds and getting enough support for it to be accessible for everyone really,” Ben says.

Ben has also written a training course for the Welsh Surfing Federation and Disability Sport Wales, so that accreditation for adaptive coaching can be given. The organisation’s adapted surfboard has also been given an upgrade.

As manager for the Welsh adaptive surfing team, Ben aims to develop the sport from grass roots to elite competitive level, and has coached a Welsh adaptive surfer who placed 5th and 8th in the world respectively at the last two World Adaptive Surfing Championships in California.

Life without limits

But it’s back on the sands of Swansea that Surfability is experiencing its biggest blessings, and they’re arising as steadily and miraculously as the lines of a well- groomed westerly swell.

“I’ve got a student who is visually impaired and able to paddle the board, get to his feet and ride waves unassisted. People see that on the beach and they’re blown away,” Ben says.

“This winter I’ve coached a guy who’s 50 who has one leg, and a 13-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. They want to surf every Saturday come rain or shine. It’s an honour to be able to help them.

“We have quadriplegics and people with cognitive disabilities; they can’t swim but they want to surf every week. They don’t see barriers, so why should there be any?”

You can take a look at a full, digital version of the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine here.