Being an entrepreneur with a disability: Benefits and Barriers

I started my own business because I couldn’t find a job anywhere else. I write and publish books and work as a freelance writer, specializing in health, disability and advocacy topics. I did this mostly because it’s my dream job. But I got here because no one would hire me. This despite being a pretty qualified person. A pretty qualified person with a disability, that is.

The unemployment rate among people with disabilities is the highest of any group. This has a lot to do with barriers in the job market — a lack of physical accessibility, attitudinal barriers (employers see you as someone who can’t), rather than someone who can, transportation barriers, and so on. So why not start your own business?

Well, not so fast. Just as there are barriers in the job market, people with disabilities encounter barriers when setting out to become entrepreneurs.

Earlier this week I attended an iPolitics panel discussion on breaking barriers so that people with disabilities can become entrepreneurs.

It was a really interesting event that both motivated and discouraged me. And that had a lot to do with the benefits and the barriers to running your own business as a disabled person.

Benefits to being an entrepreneur when you have a disability
One of the biggest and most obvious benefits to going out on your own when you have a disability is that it is the ultimate in flexible hours. If you have a hard time getting started in the morning, nobody cares if you don’t show up until noon. Likewise, if you have an appointment with your doctor or any other of the multiple health and other professionals that want to see you when you live with disability or chronic illness, you can do you work around that appointment. You can get up early and work, you can stay up late and work.

Every day, I commute from my living room to my office/bedroom. Getting to work takes me approximately 10 seconds. Also, the dress code is supremely relaxed and I have an office cat to help me destress.

The fact that I couldn’t find a job was an incredible gift. It gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream of being an author and expanded that dream to include publishing and everything else that I do. I love my work, even on days when I feel like an overwhelmed stress bunny. There is nothing I would rather do.

Barriers to being an entrepreneur when you have a disability
I dream of being able to give my business everything I have. And by my business, I don’t mean the part where I work for other people, regardless of how much I love those jobs (which I do). I mean being able to spend all of my time and energy on writing books, expanding my publishing company, creating courses, developing a speaking career, and the list goes on.

I don't give that part of my business my all, because I have bills to pay. And that brings me to the largest barrier getting in the way of me as a person with a disability, being an entrepreneur: I can’t afford it. The costs of disability are too high.

Anyone who decides to go out on their own takes a financial risk. But when you have a disability, there’s more to it than that. Not only do you have the regular personal and business expenses, but also medication, equipment repair (e.g., wheelchairs), supplies needed because of your condition, to name but a few. That’s really expensive. A lot of disabled people who are unemployed receive assistance from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP is similar to the American SSD). You can only make a few hundred dollars extra a month before ODSP start clawing back, thus making sure you don’t make any money. And if you go off ODSP, you are no longer covered for supplies, equipment repair, medications and so on.

The panel at the iPolitics emphasized the importance of making connections and networking to build your business. That can be really difficult in real life when you have a disability. The problems of interacting with people at a standing-only events, rooms that are not set up for accessibility, having to rely on parallel transportation and I could go on.

Many people who start their own business also rely on special programs. One of the panel members mentioned that there are entrepreneurship programs supporting youth, women, newcomers, and other groups who want to go out on their own. But there are none supporting people with disabilities. Another mentioned that there is no central website office that collects all the resources that may be available (there’s a business idea. Oh, if I only had more time/energy…)

Another barrier is that when you work for yourself, you’re always at work. That can be good, because you can work when you have the energy. It can also be bad because you can work at any time you want and often do. It means setting some pretty strict boundaries for when you work. Boundaries you will inevitably wade right through as you sit at your desk yet again at 11 PM.

There are a lot of benefits to working for yourself bed and despite the challenges, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And some day, I hope to have the opportunity (and back-up funds) to give my business my all.


Rick said…
Gosh, I am so glad I have other resources other than my work. I would not last I am afraid. I think it depends on the things any new business depends. Do you have a product to sell? Do you have the ability to produce it? And can you advertise it? clearly, you have all three of those, so I think you will (and already have had) plenty of success.
Kaz said…
Fabulous post, Lene, and so important!

One other thing I would add on the 'barriers' side, perhaps, is the unpredictability of the disease itself - referring specifically to RA, of course. Inevitably, with any business, whether it's your own or someone else's, there are deadlines. And plan as we might - and most of us do - strategies to meet those deadlines, a flare that poleaxes us can wreck that in one fell swoop. Or a reaction to a new medication, or any number of other things that come with RA. So that's an additional challenge that I think very few outside people understand.

I'm freelancing too - thankfully, my editor at the company I'm contracted to is also a friend, and she knows that she'll rarely have to do too much to my pieces, so she's willing to give me some wiggle room when I'm feeling really crap and struggling to finish a batch of articles by their due date. However, that's not always the case. And when it's your own business, a missed deadline can be deadly!

Right now, I'm in the midst of doing some serious planning to relaunch my art work, but given that I'm facing more, and significant, physical challenges at the moment that I can't seem to get past, I'm having to think long and hard about exactly which parts of that practice I can reasonably expect to keep up with should the best happen and the work takes off! It feels as if I need to have so much more contingency planning in my planning!

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