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July 15, 2020

I’m a business owner. I’m disabled. So what?

Written by Jack Lewis

Having a disability shouldn’t stand in your way if you want to become a freelancer or run your own business, says Dave Howell. 

According to research from IPSE (Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed), over 600,000 people with a disability now work for themselves. Self-employment among the disabled has expanded by 30% over the last decade. The most common reason given for starting their own businesses was to improve their working conditions. 

Jonathan Lima-Matthews, Head of Public Affairs at IPSE, commented on their findings: “Working for themselves is an overwhelmingly positive choice for disabled people. They can enjoy the freedom to work when, where and, crucially, how they want – something many told us they couldn’t do in permanent employment. The government says it wants to help people get into work, but ministers are letting disabled people down by failing to support them to be their own boss. It’s time for it to turn this around and give disabled people striking out for themselves the support they need.” 

Indeed, the OECD concurs with the findings from IPSE stating: “People can be attracted to self-employment for any number of reasons: While some enter self-employment out of necessity, many seek to take advantage of an opportunity, gain independence and autonomy, improve their work-life balance, increase their satisfaction for work activities and attempt to increase their income and other material benefits.” 

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Disability in 2016 that looked closely at employment issue for the disabled also concluded that this group of workers are often ‘pushed’ into self-employment because opportunities for employment are limited or, working conditions are less than adequate to support someone with a disability.  

The landscape for work when disabled people is considered has evolved but still has a long way to go to meet ideal standards. Self-employment is a valid alternative to traditional employment that many in the disabled community will continue to turn to. 

Inside knowledge

Dinghy spoke with Sebastian Shaw, Co-Founder of The Brains [] and began by asking what level of support he experienced as a disabled business owner? 

“I would say indirect support for commuting is the only real area of support I received,” said Seb. “Motability scheme, congestion charge exemption, TfL’s (Transport for London) freedom pass, parking rules in many London boroughs and the London borough taxi scheme (which I don’t use but should do) as well as office managers occasionally here and there helping with parking arrangements.” 

How would you improve the support for disabled business owners? 

“I don’t think disabled people generally want anything for free that isn’t directly related to their health. Most understand the complexities of the issues facing them, the safety nets in society and are proud taxpayers contributing to these safety nets. Generally, what is good for an able-bodied person is good for the disabled person. Hence, I tend to think if we have a focus on delivering practical outcomes for society as a whole, disabled people will be best served fairly and sustainably. 

“One thing in particular that has got in the way for me as a business owner is access on London’s Tube system and the capacity to spontaneously meet clients or potential clients without research and planning or showing up sweating and completely exhausted. 

“I think going out and managing your own business is incredibly liberating – much more so than being an employee. For instance, I don’t hesitate to put my health first if I am going to annual check-ups, for instance, and need to work remotely or have time off. Beforehand I would have felt guilty about weighing up the urgency for hospital visits against work that were not immediately addressing urgent health issues. Thus, I believe I take my health, including my mental health more seriously since taking this step.” 

Do you think your disability gives you a different perspective on the small business landscape? 

“Every individual has a different capacity for different types of risk based on their life experience. I don’t consciously think of my disability having an impact on this, but overall, I would say I am quite conservative thinking in my capacity to take risks in business. In hindsight, this can be useful at times but unambitious as other times. I’m thankful that my employees and co-founders have a lot of diversity in this kind of thinking. Generally, we can debate it out to come to the right conclusion.” 

How has your disability hindered your business? 

“As well as the mentioned transport issues. Not so much now, but in the early days when you are adapting and innovating in your new role it is one more thing to think about how clients perceive your visible disability, partners and colleagues – so naturally for jobs where high levels of confidence are required this is a hindrance.” 

Are many of the tools you use across your business not suitable or at least don’t take into consideration users with disabilities? 

“My disability being a spinal cord injury affects me from the waist down, so I am lucky to be in the digital marketing and web development industry so my work is very accessible online and I am not at a disadvantage. My business has offices in other countries, and I find the airline industry generally to be beneficial at making transport easier for me.” 

What does the future look like for disabled business owners? 

“As an optimist, I generally think of the future positively. As more jobs and services move online, remote working becomes more normal, new healthcare technologies come onto the market, and new investments are made in transport infrastructure, things can only get better…right?” 

What is your key advice to anyone thinking of going freelance or starting their own small business who also has a disability? 

“Make sure you have some savings to lean back on for an excellent runway to get yourself going. Make what preparations you can in your spare time before you leave your previous job so that you are in a unique position to start trading as soon as possible as a freelancer or small business owner. 

“This could be having a brand in place, website, client pipeline or even a first few clients. Depending on how innovative your business idea is, try to test as many of the assumptions in your business plan that you can before starting. Do what research you can to get an understanding of the size of your market and where your time and money is best spent offering your services.” 

Seb concluded: “Focus on empathising with your clients’ needs and develop a culture of over-delivering. Do what research and learning you need to express your understanding and capacity to deliver clearly and effectively but equally as long as your well-intentioned with a high standard if you are developing your proposition don’t be shy to take on work and upskill yourself on the job.” 

Help and support 

Self-employment can become empowering for many disabled people. The support now available to help new small businesses is expanding. Established support from organisations like The Prince’s Trust [], BBACT [] (Blind Business Association Charitable Trust), UnLtd [] and Capital Enterprise [] if you live in London, are now joined by a new initiative from The Treasury. 

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, The Treasury has announced a new fund to support start-up businesses. Worth £1.25 billion, the scheme is designed to support those businesses not eligible for other small business support. Chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “This new, world-leading fund will mean they can access the capital they need at this difficult time, ensuring dynamic, fast-growing firms across all sectors will be able to continue to create new ideas and spread prosperity.” 

Commenting, Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates said: “Despite trailing behind some of our European counterparts, the Future Fund is a vital lifeline that will give UK start-ups a sense of certainty in a turbulent economic period. The conversion of debt into equity will ensure that early-stage businesses are not too debt-laden and match funding with private investors is also an essential ingredient. 

“With the funds in place, this now becomes a process issue. We are losing start-ups every day, and the British Business Bank has an opportunity to step up, address the question marks around its handling of CBILS and deliver urgently needed funding. The BBB must ensure that it is equipped to handle what is a crucial period for UK start-ups.” 

For disabled business owners looking at the entire funding, landscape should reveal funding and support options available to them. IPSE concluded: “The disabled self-employed are part of an already diverse and thriving sector, and their varied perspectives and lived experiences do much to enrich the professions they work within. In return, while many of the disabled people we spoke to said employment had done little to support them, self-employment had allowed them to work more flexibly around their conditions and impairments.” 

There are clearly some obstacles that disabled freelancers, small business owners and entrepreneurs will need to overcome. What is clear, though, is the determination to succeed is alive and well in this innovative group. If you do have a disability but also a burning ambition to start your own business. What are you waiting for? 

About Jack Lewis

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