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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 disabilities.

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 Disabilities Act.

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 ventures.

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

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