Commentary: Time to Enlist the Disabled in the Entrepreneurial Revolution
Finally, a new federal program that really goes beyond the old vocational-rehab model
This should be a great, new era of economic opportunity for Americans
with disabilities. Technology has made it far easier for them to work at
home and participate in one of the most powerful economic trends of the
last few years the entrepreneurial boom.
Yet there are still large numbers of unemployed but capable disabled
people in this country. Given the drain on the economy that represents,
why isn't more being done to harness their abilities and channel them
into this avenue to prosperity?
It may surprise some to hear there are disabled entrepreneurs. Remember
Thomas Edison? He was deaf for much of his life. Want contemporary
examples? Look at Charles Schwab and Ted Turner. Both have learning
The Labor Dept. estimates that there are between 10 million and
11 million unemployed disabled adults of working age in the U.S.
Taxpayers and private philanthropy spend several hundred billion dollars
annually to support them. Yet few government programs that serve the
disabled promote self-employment.
ILL-EQUIPPED AGENCIES. There's no lack of interest. Entrepreneurship has long appealed to
people with disabilities. Practical considerations are strong motivators
independence, a flexible schedule, and the ability to work from a
place that's equipped for their needs. The 1990 Census taken when
this entrepreneurial boom was in its infancy found that a relatively
high percentage of people with disabilities were self-employed 12.2%,
vs. 7.8% of those without disabilities.
Still, some 1997 statistics from the federal Rehabilitation Services
Administration, which served 223,668 clients that year, are revealing.
The agency, whose programs help integrate disabled people into the
workplace and community, deemed 20% to 30% of its clients rehabilitated
that year, but only 2.7% became self-employed or started a small
business. The results aren't surprising. I can say from experience that
public rehabilitation agencies are ill-equipped to help an ambitious
client launch a company.
Make no mistake starting a business is a major undertaking for
anyone, and disabled people face additional difficulties loss of
public benefits such as health insurance or housing before the business
can support them; lack of capital; and prejudice, their greatest enemy.
As a long-time entrepreneur, I know the obstacles that arise if you are
considered disabled. About 16 years ago, I went to half a dozen banks
before one gave me a $10,000 credit line, though I had contracts for
four times that amount. And I had to give the bank additional financial
guarantees for the credit line. One lender told me, "We don't give loans
to people of your nature." I knew he was referring to my stuttering.
KEY BREAKTHROUGH. Technology has certainly improved things. The Web has made tools and
information for setting up a company more accessible but by no means
to everybody. The blind or visually impaired still need a sighted person
or a talking browser to read Web pages for them. Those who can't use a
keyboard, switch, or mouse also require assistance. And people with
severely impaired hearing can't use a conventional telephone.
There has been one important breakthrough on the government front. Last
October, the President's Committee on Employment of People with
Disabilities (PCEPD), a small federal agency funded by the Labor Dept., launched
the Small Business Self Employment Service. The SBSES has three
goals: to make government-funded small-business programs and resources
accessible to the disabled, to assure that rehabilitation and employment
programs promote business ownership, and to disseminate information on
starting a business to potential entrepreneurs with disabilities.
Callers can also learn how starting a business affects Social Security
and other benefits. The response has been impressive so far. Since SBSES
was launched, it has helped hundreds of would-be entrepreneurs by
referring them to other agencies for guidance in developing business
plans and securing loans.
Unfortunately, the federal agency that's best equipped to help
entrepreneurs the Small Business Administration hasn't proved very
responsive to disabled callers, according to feedback I've heard
directly from people who've contacted the agency and comments from others
relayed via the PCEPD and its Job Accommodations Network. JAN provides
information on workplace accommodations and on the Americans with
PROBLEM OF SCALE. The main problem is that the SBA seems ill-equipped to serve people with
disabilities, though as a Federal agency, it's supposed to provide a
range of communication accommodations. For example, deaf entrepreneurs
complain that the SBA hasn't provided sign-language interpreters at
appointments. Others who are hard of hearing say there are no assistive
listening devices, which amplify sound. Richard Johnson, who is blind,
told me the SBA didn't have financial information he requested in large
print, on tape, or in Braille.
There's also a problem of scale.The SBA doesn't have any particular loan
programs for disabled entrepreneurs, and its regular loan-guarantee
programs are geared to businesses that need far more than the $10,000 to
$25,000 that disabled entrepreneurs typically want to start home-based
In fairness, the surge in interest from disabled entrepreneurs since
last October's passage of the Work Incentives Improvement Act has put
the SBA on the spot. The WIIA allows working disabled people to purchase
Medicaid health insurance and keep other benefits. Before its passage,
disabled people were discouraged from working more than a limited number
of hours because they lost crucial benefits if they did. With that
disincentive to entrepreneurship gone, the agency expects more calls in 2000
than in the past four to five years combined, a spokeswoman says.
The spokeswoman promises the agency will do better: "The SBA is
aware of the shortcomings among our staff in other parts of the country
in dealing with the communications needs of people with disabilities. Be
assured, we are correcting the situation...We expect to be dealing with
several thousand or more disabled entrepreneurs this year, and we want
to service them with the respect they deserve." The SBA also
acknowledges that it needs to adapt its lending programs and materials
to disabled entrepreneurs seeking smaller-than-usual amounts.
As the strong early response to SBSES shows, entrepreneurship serves a deep
economic and social need in the disabled community. But to realize its
potential to advance this cause SBSES will need to do several things:
Reach more of the disabled community by working with
specialized disability media and the mainstream press;
Hire more staff. Three people manage the entire program from the
PCEPD. One, Kate Cordingly, also works at JAN. SBSES originally planned
to assist 500 disabled entrepreneurs annually. At the current rate, it
will field 5,000 or more;
Play a stronger role in helping disabled entrepreneurs get financing.
It has a list of lenders that will work with disabled entrepreneurs. It
should also encourage them to create micro-loan programs;
Become a clearinghouse for information on assistive technology the
tools that allow disabled people to fully participate in our society and
tap the high-tech entrepreneurial boom;
Raise money from private, philanthropic groups so it can meet the
demand for business information and become a long-term success.
If SBSES meets those goals, it can become Command Central for people
with disabilities who want to enlist in the entrepreneurial revolution. Onward!
For information on SBSES, contact Kim Cordingly at 800 526-7234
(KCording@wvu.edu ) or Jennifer Kaplan, PCEPD public information
officer at 202 376-6200 (Jennifer_Kaplan@PCEPD.GOV). There is no cost to
the caller for the service or materials.
By John M. Williams in Washington
Williams writes a weekly column for Business Week Online on assistive technology. His column
can be found at: www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/astecharc.htm.
For information on assistive technology write to him at: JMMAW@AOL.COM