Accessibility Tools

A woman with dark and green hair smiling and sitting behind a Mashblox product display

Hi, I’m Alix O’Hara, and I’m the Founder CEO of startup company Mashblox Pty Ltd, and inventor of an independent feeding tool by the same name. Mashblox is both an assistive tech for anyone who struggles with cutlery, but also a world-first infant obesity intervention research aid, by supporting self-regulation and mindful eating of safe textures from babies’ first exposure to solid foods.

What I would like anyone to take away from this short story, is that innovation starts so simply, with a unique outlook on the world, and every unique quality has its advantages.

Disability by definition provides a unique perspective and experience and can, therefore, be empowering in itself. My recommendation to anyone who doesn’t allow their condition to define them is to look closely at the processes and life hacks they’ve worked out to ease their own lives and to recognise that they’re already innovators and that there are so many other people who would benefit from these also. This is precisely how innovation happens.

Every day, I’m empowered by this deep inner knowing that by applying my own challenges to change things for generations to follow, I can make others’ struggles easier, or prevent them from happening altogether.

That’s incredibly important and fulfilling to me.

Stepping into my Power

I had an unfortunate childhood, resulting in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and eventually leading me to two periods of homelessness in 2014 and 2016. I didn’t find out about my teenage diagnosis or what this meant for my predisposition to everything from major depression to anxiety until I was twenty-seven, and I’ve only recently come to recognise it as an “invisible disability”. Sometimes it certainly feels that way, when my noise sensitivity is so severe that the slightest auditory distraction feels like nails on a chalk-board, and social interactions can be particularly challenging, especially when under pressure with my company.

The point that I would like to emphasise here though, is just how many distinct advantages I’ve found to the unique outlook and experience that Disability (or any other form of disadvantage) provides, and I can name a number of examples besides myself who have discovered the same for themselves.

My lifetime challenges certainly set me up for what bestselling neuroscience author Steven Kotler calls, “the habit of ferocity”, where come hell or high water I was determined to reach my goals and made a habit of doing my best.

But it was my experience with teenage obesity and the realisation that my weight maintenance issues stemmed mostly from being forced to eat more than I wanted throughout childhood, that inspired Mashblox’ research. And it was the personal pain this caused me, that drove the determination to provide options and raise awareness to change this for future generations.

When I approached Canberra’s premier startup incubator Griffin Accelerator during my second homelessness in 2016, I hadn’t yet learned many coping mechanisms and was really at the mercy of my condition. There was little point trying to hide it. I was so beaten down after having just crawled out of a lifetime of twenty-seven years of abuse, neglect and direct attacks on my self-esteem, boundaries and self-care that it was obvious that I wasn’t okay.

So I used it in my pitch.

Alix presenting to a crowded room with large screen behind

"But all of my success in art, as top of my class in in my medical science studies, in my enterprise level Information Communications Technology project management role, or in anything else that I ever applied myself to."

“Was despite an average headspace that my family maintained as close as possible to suicidal for as long as I knew them. I’m away from them now, but those of you who have ever experienced depression (or been close to someone who has), will know the significance of this accomplishment.”

I must have been shaking and I couldn’t meet their eyes when I said “Thank you” at the end of my speech, but apparently the decision to invest in me was unanimous. The Griffin Accelerator programme is based in the Canberra Innovation Network, and both then became a very important step in my personal healing journey. I’d never been surrounded by decent people who wanted to see me succeed before. They even wanted to help if they could, and many of my traumatic interpersonal issues gradually melted away.  

Group of people, smiling. Alix is one. Griffin Accelerator innovators.

In later cohorts, Griffin Accelerator has since accepted other innovators taking inspiration from their disability, and I’ve continued to be open about my mental health in part because sometimes there’s no hiding it, but also because I think representation is necessary. I think for too long, people have precluded themselves from their own future success because they think their Disability or any form of disadvantage is a disqualifier. It isn’t, and may even provide unique advantages, e.g. time management, or planning skills.

Hidden advantages of Disability

I started realising strengths to other symptoms of my PTSD early in my startup journey:

By pulling myself into a mild mania, I could absolutely power through a series of unreasonably large and complex tasks for up to two days, before I’d crash into exhaustion for one and a half. I still do so regularly as needed, and coordinate activities around the crash.

This has informed my leadership style and design of supporting systems so that I’m able to maximise output from a sprint, with minimal distractions and everything available within easy reach.

My first full anxiety attack to occur during the programme revealed another strength. I was in a workshop full of innovation enthusiasts who were meant to be pitching ideas to the group. This is an activity that still gives me nerves, but that practically gave me heart palpitations on a good day back then. I pushed myself to volunteer because I knew that if I were to be successful, I wouldn’t always have the option of backing out. This was a magnificent opportunity to practice.

When I took the stage I was so dissociative that I don’t remember seeing a thing, but I do remember the congratulations afterwards for how clearly and concisely I’d presented the idea. This was only because I just wanted to be out of there as fast as possible, but nobody had even noticed that I was struggling.

Sometimes – not always – that invisibility is definitely a blessing.

My familiarity with depression, as another symptom of PTSD, has already trained my resilience through some really challenging periods. Any startup mentor will quickly remind an aspiring entrepreneur the singular certainty of challenges. I’d go far as to suggest that anyone who lives with a disability or cares for someone with a disability is already well equipped with a similar resilience and tenacity.

I’m not the only one who believes that disability has its advantages...

I’m connected to another impactful Canberran female entrepreneur in particular who’s open about her mental illness. Through her social enterprise Jasiri Australia, Caitlin Figuieredo empowers female leadership and transforms women’s experience of disadvantage into policy decisions to ease conditions for those to come. She’s also open about her bipolar disorder, to which she credits her resilience and empathy for her cause. Caitlin also says her work is directly inspired by her challenges, including a history of violence and bullying, and intimate knowledge of the disadvantage wrought on women’s and children’s lives. Perhaps without these, she wouldn’t be able to help people so well.

Social media giant Kerwin Rae has his own stories of overcoming hardship and has publicly claimed to find such powerful advantages to his anxiety, that he doesn’t think he’d be nearly so successful without it.

The founder CEO of another high profile Canberra start-up grew up with a congenital heart condition and has explained in filmed interviews how it drove him to give every day his absolute best because he didn’t know how long he had.

I now give every day my absolute best, in part because I know what a punishing place my head can be if I find a reason to criticise myself or to regret not trying.

Last but not least, I have endless admiration for born innovators and founders of Griffin company Little Products. Local Twin sisters Mel and Peta Stamell apply their experience with dwarfism to creating assistive tech and living solutions to help others cope with similar challenges to what they face every day.

The best innovators have lived the challenges they’re solving, and I cannot think of a better example. 

Find out more about Alix by watching Mashblox on Industry Leaders (6:06) or read more about Mashblox’ research case on their blog or website, or watch on YouTube: Mashblox® supporting science (2:46)

She always loves followers and engagement on her Facebook and Instagram pages.

If this story has raised any issues for you call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 924 522

© 2019 Alix O’Hara. This blog piece is licensed by copyright for non-commercial sharing with attribution.