Alex Winstanley

Young People

Alex Winstanley: The Happy Smiles Movement

March 21, 2024

“True education goes beyond imparting knowledge; it should empower individuals to pursue their passions.

Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed the systemic marginalisation of disabled individuals, a community often denied opportunities and recognition. This injustice has been a driving force behind my current position.

Marginalised communities encompass a broad spectrum, including those with disabilities and various diverse backgrounds. These communities are often voiceless, struggling against systems deeply ingrained in privileging certain groups. 

Recent events, such as the government’s consideration to cut disability benefits, highlight the persistent challenges faced by marginalised individuals. The cycle continues as these communities, accustomed to neglect, feel unworthy of raising their voices.

The question arises: How do we change this? The key lies in placing individuals with lived experiences in positions of power. Whether in community leadership or influential roles within local authorities, having decision-makers who understand and empathise with the struggles of marginalised communities is crucial for initiating change.

I was born and raised in Wigan and I take immense pride in my roots. Wigan has a rich mining history, and this shared experience of feeling marginalised has fueled my determination to amplify the voices of those facing hardships.

My journey began in high school, where my passion for rugby transformed my life, boosting my confidence and leading me to aspire to become a PE teacher. Unexpectedly, my path veered towards supporting disabled individuals. Volunteering with a local charity, Embrace Wigan, opened my eyes to the transformative power of providing care and support for disabled individuals.

Throughout my early adulthood, I embraced opportunities, including volunteering at the 2012 Olympics and participating in sports development work. Travelling the world with my wife, whom I met through volunteering, broadened my perspective on education and career paths. I realised the pressure on young people to make lifelong decisions early on and advocate for a more passion-driven approach.

Becoming a PE teacher fulfilled a goal, but the limitations within the education system pushed me to seek greater impact. As a secondary PE teacher and assistant SENCO, I felt the constraints of the system and chose to step away to pursue a more impactful role aligned with my beliefs.

My journey with Happy Smiles began in 2019 when my wife urged me to take a leap of faith and pursue my dream. The decision to leave my job was not an easy one, especially with the financial challenges that came our way. However, the motivation behind this move was a profound realisation of the need to change the narrative surrounding disability, sparked by my close connection with Hayden, a person with cerebral palsy, and his year-long hospitalisation.

In 2018, while Hayden was in the hospital, we initiated a campaign encouraging people to send pictures of happy smiles, a gesture that unintentionally laid the foundation for Happy Smiles. The positive response and the realisation that disabled individuals often face societal challenges and stereotypes led us to create videos featuring the stories of disabled individuals. The unexpected success of these videos paved the way for more initiatives.

The turning point came when I decided to leave my teaching job in 2019. However, before fully committing, I sought advice from mentors who cautioned against hasty decisions. This period led to the conception of Happy Smiles as a community interest company, aiming to challenge societal perceptions of disability. Joining the School for Social Entrepreneurs and meeting like-minded individuals further fueled my passion and introduced me to the loneliness of running a social enterprise.

Just as Happy Smiles was gaining momentum in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing us to reassess our approach. Funding challenges emerged, but we adapted by providing community support and initiating a program where we met online every Friday, leading to significant team growth. The pandemic also gave me the time to fulfil a personal dream – writing a children’s book about dementia, inspired by my grandmother.

The success of “My Grandma Has Dementia” spurred a series of books addressing various health conditions. These books serve as conversation starters for children and families, aiming to normalize discussions about often-stigmatised topics. Winning a Dementia Hero Award and collaborating with organisations on diverse book projects showcased the impact of these initiatives.

Happy Smiles, primarily a training provider, delivers sessions led by disabled individuals on disability awareness, confidence building, and inclusive language. The emphasis is on the social model of disability, emphasising that societal barriers, not impairments, disable individuals. The training spans schools, community groups, and businesses, fostering a more inclusive environment.

Despite the challenges, my journey with Happy Smiles has been a fulfilling endeavour, blending personal experiences, social impact, and a commitment to breaking down barriers for disabled individuals. The future holds exciting possibilities as we strive to expand our reach and continue advocating for a more inclusive and understanding society.

Our mission revolves around disability awareness and inclusive training, covering a spectrum of crucial topics from language and sports to education. It’s a cause close to my heart, and I’m proud to lead a team where all training is spearheaded by individuals with lived experiences of disability, ensuring authenticity and relevance in every session.

One notable initiative we’ve undertaken is the Elephant Go In Training, a response to a heartbreaking incident where Oliver, a young soul with disabilities, passed away due to inadequate healthcare. Parliament’s mandate for this training acknowledges the need to raise awareness about learning disabilities and autism in healthcare services, emphasising the crucial aspect of delivering it by those who understand these experiences intimately.

In our training programs, we tackle various aspects, including the importance of inclusive language and navigating discussions around disability. It’s a challenge, as these topics often exist in shades of grey, and we aim to provide clarity and understanding. Our reach extends to schools, businesses, and councils, with a focus on the economic impact of excluding disabled individuals. UK businesses have lost billions due to inaccessible services, and our goal is to bridge this gap by fostering inclusivity.

Our team at Happy Smiles is a diverse and dynamic group, spanning different age groups and backgrounds. Initially, we envisioned providing paid employment opportunities for our disabled team members. However, we quickly realised that some preferred volunteering due to fears related to benefits. Regardless, we are committed to creating a fulfilling volunteer experience, where skills and experiences are leveraged to positively impact communities.

The journey of Happy Smiles has been marked by significant achievements. Recognition on the Disability Power 100 list and the opportunity to meet royalty have been humbling experiences. We’ve delivered training to over 16,000 people, underlining the growing demand for our services and the impact we’re making in raising awareness.

Looking ahead, our vision for Happy Smiles involves scalable growth. We’re exploring collaborations with other disabled-led training providers, emphasising the need for quality and consistency in every session. However, with growth comes challenges, particularly in sustaining the high standards we’ve set for ourselves. We’re navigating the complex landscape of funding, aiming to avoid heavy reliance on grants and exploring sustainable models for the future.

 The journey of Happy Smiles is about more than just training sessions; it’s a commitment to inclusivity and making a positive impact. As we forge ahead, our focus remains unwavering – to create a world where disability is not a barrier but a celebration of life.

To learn more about Happy Smiles, visit our website at You can also find us on various social media platforms, including Facebook (Happy Smiles Training CIC), Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter (@HappySmilesCIC). If you want to connect with me, I’m on LinkedIn as Alex Winstanley.

This tale was written by John Mathews based on the interview with Tales to Inspire 

More Tales
Full name*
House number and street*
£11.90 + £3 for shipping
Skip to content