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Self-Employment For People With Disabilities Part 1/2: What Does It Take?

Self-employment and entrepreneurship are important employment options for people with disabilities.  Those seeking the vocational goal of self-employment often benefit from the following:

  • The customization of daily business operations

  • The customization of the physical space of the business

  • The flexibility of location, including working from home, renting/owning offices, etc.

  • The diversity of the types of businesses one could start

  • The sense of greater autonomy in decision making

  • The financial advantages in earnings potential

For many, beginning a self-employment journey is a viable path for a meaningful and financially stable life.  With the supports offered through Vocational Rehabilitation agencies, guidance from the Small Business Administration, and mentorship from groups like SCORE and Small Business Development Centers, those with disabilities now have a more equitable chance of success through self-employment than ever before (Griffin and Hammis, 2003; SCORE, 2019).

Even so, starting a business is not easy.  There are challenges which need to be discussed with any person seeking the role of entrepreneur.

What it Takes to be an Entrepreneur?

The traditional guidance is that, to be a successful entrepreneur, a person needs to have the ‘entrepreneurial spirit.’  Key to this are terms such as ‘self-starter,’ ‘strong work-ethic,’ and ‘optimist.’  In reviewing toolkits and business plan writing guides from organizations such as SCORE, Small Business Administration, and others, they often start with a list of characteristics that the budding entrepreneur should possess.

  • Are you self-motivated?

  • Are you a problem-solver?

  • Are you willing to work more than 40 hours per week?

  • Are you able to work without supervision?

  • Are you willing to fail?

As helpful as many of the characteristics may be, they do not guarantee success. The problem with this and other lists of attributes is that they do not consider the interdependent nature of self-employment in today’s interconnected and complex world. Entrepreneurship no longer means someone who can ‘do it all on her own,’ but, as Griffin and Hammis (2003) have pointed out, nearly all small businesses depend on a diverse network of support, some paid professionals ( and some unpaid help (family/friends).  This is an important distinction that takes on even further meaning within the disability world.

Inclusive Self-Employment

If nearly all people who are self-employed have a network of support (Doyel, 2000), we need to re-think the role of accommodations in business development for people with disabilities.  Conversations within a typical business context are no longer valid, as the impetus for small business ownership is different for someone with a disability than someone without.  Within a normal business setting, revenue generation is the primary objective.  For many people with disabilities, while earnings are a factor, they are rarely the most important.  The Office of Disability Employment Policy (2019) states that people with disabilities seek self-employment primarily due to the flexibility it brings, ‘allowing people to make a living while maintaining a lot of latitude in choices such as work hours, nature of tasks, and income.’  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019) cites ‘autonomy’ as the first reason why someone with a disability may pursue self-employment.

As such, Gary Shaheen from the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University has coined the term ‘Inclusive Entrepreneurship’ as a means to re-think the role of self-employment for those with disabilities.

‘By focusing on developing a viable business idea, and putting a supportive planning process in place, this ensures a person with a disability will have the opportunity to develop the necessary skills (when needed), build confidence through an individualized support process, integrate accommodations into their business model, employ knowledgeable mentors who understand both business and disability issues, and thereby construct a path to success.’ (The Job Accommodation Network, 2019)

As self-employment continues to be a viable economic goal for all American’s, an inclusive mindset for those who support people with disabilities in the pursuit of entrepreneurship is imperative to an equitable system.

Click HEREfor Part Two of this series.

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