Disability and the Entrepreneurship Movement


A Solution for Sustainable Independence and Community Inclusion

A critical buzz word is making headlines in the disability employment world– ‘entrepreneurship education’. Many believe that this ‘taking matters into your own hands’approach is the key to securing true, sustainable independence and community inclusion for those with disabilities. Entrepreneurship education seeks to provide people with the knowledge, skills and motivation to achieve entrepreneurial success in a field of their interest. The ultimate goal of entrepreneurship education is to take someone’s strong suits and passions and ‘marry’them to a lasting independent career outside the restraints of the typical workplace ball and chain.

Take the case of Jake of Johnston Creek Farms in Independence, Iowa. Jake uses a wheelchair and has spinal muscular atrophy, but that hasn’t stopped him from successfully operating a 23-acre cattle farm. Thanks to support from Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, in 2008 Jake was provided with a grant to cover business start-up expenses and accommodation support including truck modifications for his wheelchair. He’s been so successful that he was even able to hire a staff person to assist with the essential functions of operating a farm, including feeding cattle, building fences and organizing grazing patterns for livestock.

In fact, entrepreneur employment is on the rise worldwide. According to the Global Network for Entrepreneurs with Disabilities, in developing countries up to 14% of economically engaged people with disability run their own business or are self- employed. As opposed to only 8% of economically engaged non-disabled people.

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The United States Census Department states that twice as many persons with disabilities are starting their own businesses as Two men at a boardroom table reviewing papers, one man is in a wheelchairpeople who are non-disabled

Independent employment brings a myriad of advantages and challenges for anyone, and this is no different for those living with a disability. Thus, many disability advocates believe that the ‘teach you how to catch a fish’ model demonstrated by entrepreneur education is one sustainable solution for economic security within the disability community.

Barriers such as lack of start-up capital, benefit traps, and lack of business knowledge have traditionally kept those with disabilities from starting their own businesses, but now are slowly disintegrating with the help of support groups.

Deborah J Davis of PushLiving Enterprises says, “The greatest advocacy begins with supporting and sustaining independence, and that should include support for those who have begun the process of building a self-employment or business enterprise.”

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Deborah Davis, of PUSHLiving, is an advocate for business ownership by people with disabilities.

Investing in these supports pay dividends in regards to life learning experiences, risk taking and management skills, and sustained financial independence for those with disabilities. In the US this equates to practical and sustainable solutions that lower the financial and human capital burdens on our taxpayer-funded social services systems.

Luckily for the brave folks who venture down this road, entrepreneurial support systems have begun to form a web across the United States. Those who opt for the ‘startup’ life often learn as they go, but can also benefit from available entrepreneurship education programs which often act as new business consultants. Types of support range from business plan guidance to tax and financial advice.

“The more I help others to succeed, the more I succeed.” Give honest feedback and advice, share success, partner and help your fellow #disabled#entrepreneurs, individuals and organizations soar. Together, we can bring each other UP and together we can ALL succeed.”  Entreprenuers with Disabilities United Facebook Group

The Long Road to Entrepreneurship

The right to employment for all sounds obvious, but the road to community employment and entrepreneurship for people with disabilities has been anything but smooth. Justin Dart often coined the ‘Godfather of the disability rights movement’, created major waves in the disability employment rights scene during his lifetime and paved the way for exciting entrepreneurial opportunities that exist today.

A polio survivor and wheelchair user, Dart began addressing the issue of employment for those with disabilities when it was virtually unheard of in 1966. He and his wife formed an experimental greeting card venture aimed at employing those with disabilities. Although this venture failed, Dart’s grassroots efforts did not stop there and later he was appointed vice-chair of the National Council on Disability. In this role, he and his wife used their own financing to travel the states and create a network of activists working in the name of disability rights policy change.

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Justin Dart was a Business owner who also helped us get the ADA

In 1989, Bush appointed Dart as Chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and a quick year later looked on as President George H. W. Bush signed the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities at work, school, on transportation, and at all public and private places. After the passing of the law in 1990, Dart said, “…But ADA is only the beginning. It is not a solution. Rather, it is an essential foundation on which solutions will be constructed.”This statement rang true.

In the early ‘90s the U.S. Department of Education rolled out major federal grants to over 40 states to promote ‘Supported Employment’, or having real, integrated work as the first choice for people with disabilities, ideally with competitive pay and benefits. These projects were somewhat successful, but they did not last long enough and lacked true sustainability. At this time, advocacy groups started popping up around the country. One such group, APSE or the Association of People Supporting Employment First, was born twenty-five years ago and began to take on a national leadership role in the states and at the federal level.

According to their website, “For 25 years APSE has stood for: Presumption of employment, person-centered control, wages, supports, interdependence, and social connections within the community…”Employment models for people with disabilities have varied over time and to this day some states find themselves in controversial lawsuits those with disabilities completing piece work in sheltered workshops that often pay less than a living wage. Groups such as APSE lobby at the national and state policy levels for competitively-paid, community-based and entrepreneurial employment opportunities for all persons living with a disability.

To this day, many obstacles stand in the way of all persons with disabilities gaining fair employment. Mitchell J. Rappaport, a Career Development Strategist, Disability Rights Advocate and Expert Witness out of Houston says, “There are so many different elements to the problems of people with disabilities, and everyone is going in different directions. There is not one singular focus, and we need to organize like we did with the ADA.”

Hopefully with the continued work of organizations such as APSE, policy will continue to improve in favor of potential workers with disabilities.

Entrepreneurial advocacy organizations spread their success stories to build awareness and such stories inspire others with disabilities to join the rapidly growing movement. One such story is that of Betsy Wagner of Monarch Massage in Lincoln, Nebraska. She sought advice for her startup from ‘The Abilities Fund’ after realizing a massage therapy business was her ticket to employment success and personal healing.

In her bio-page on ‘The Abilities Fund’ website, Wagner discusses how an auto accident in 1988 left her with a traumatic brain injury and difficult decisions regarding future employment. After a series of ill-fitting jobs at various establishments, such as a golf course and radio station, Wagner explains the path that inspired her to open her own massage therapy business in 2006. She says, “I repeatedly found myself drawn to the healing that massage was all about.”It was entrepreneur education through The Abilities Fund that guided Wagner to develop her business plan and carry it through to success.

I’m Ready to Give Entrepreneurship a Try

A fantastic resource for exploring your own entrepreneurial ventures is The Job Accommodation Network, aka ‘JAN’. This ODEP-supported initiative provides a variety of services to prepare and guide entrepreneurship enthusiasts through the often complicated process of starting their own business.

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It’s easy to contact JAN via their website or phone and inquirers can expect to receive a customized toolkit specific to their individual goals. Expert consultants provide advice such as business planning, financing strategies, development expertise and much more. Special guidance and resources are available for a variety of subgroups, such as veterans and youth. Consider this excellent resource to create a roadmap for your entrepreneurial dreams.

So you’ve developed a relationship with a JAN consultant, and your business plan is polished. There’s just one small problem…how are you going to pay for this? Often, people with disabilities are eligible and receive technical and financial supports which mitigate the risk involved with pursuing self-employment opportunities. More information can be found on the website of the Office of Disability Employment Policy ODEP. Also, check out the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), which offers a variety of financial assistance programs for budding entrepreneurs.

Other useful resources

The Abilities Fund is the first nationwide nonprofit community developer and financial institution focused exclusively on expanding entrepreneurial opportunities, including access to capital, for people with disabilities. They provide a wide range of training and technical assistance to potential entrepreneurs.

The Global Network for Entrepreneurs with Disabilities is a up-and-coming organization working to change international policy, practice, and participation of disabled people in developing and building their own successful businesses.

Since its inception in 2005, National Disability Institute remains the first and only national nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to designing pathways to economic stability and mobility for persons with disabilities. To learn more, visit www.realeconomicimpact.org.

If you have a business, you can add a link and description to our PUSHLiving.com Resource Page so others can find out more and contact you.

Featured Image of Amada Perla for PUSHLiving Photos by Darin Back



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