Study of entrepreneurs with disability smashes stereotypes
For some people with disability, self-employment and entrepreneurship isn’t an option, it’s a necessity, a new report has found.
Although many people dream of starting their own business, few attempt it, let alone succeed. But for some with disability, self-employment and entrepreneurship isn’t an option, it’s a necessity, a new UTS Business School report has found.
The stats speak for themselves.
In 2015 almost one in five Australians has a disability, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but only about half of those of working age were employed.
And the barriers aren’t just physical—last year 43 per cent of discrimination complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission came from this group, reflecting negative attitudes to people with disability in the wider community.
“While there’s been little research on self-employment and entrepreneurship done in Australia, there is rising awareness that people with disability’s aspirations and needs simply aren’t being met, particularly in terms of traditional employment models,” explains report co-author, and Professor of Management at UTS Business School, Simon Darcy.
“A lot of people feel disgruntled—they face blocks to getting a job that they want, they face blocks to progressing their career, and, given the discriminatory stereotypes and attitudes towards disability out there, they also often face serious blocks getting a job in the first place,” Professor Darcy says.
The spectrum of employment supports for people with disability needs to expand to enable the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation this ground-breaking research reveals.
Kerrie Langford, National Disability Services
The Entrepreneurs with Disability report—the first study of its kind in Australia—is aimed at tackling these issues head-on.
“The UTS research illustrates how entrepreneurs, when provided with the right support and education, can overcome barriers and be set on a path towards meaningful self-employment and, importantly, the security and stability that comes with it,” says UTS alumna and Settlement Services International CEO Violet Roumeliotis.
“Programs designed to facilitate business creation, such as SSI’s Ignite® and IgniteAbility® Small Business Start-ups, play a significant role in helping people achieve independence and a sense of inclusion.
“Further investment in longitudinal research, as well as measuring the social impact created by such evidence-based programs, is of paramount importance if we are serious about moving the needle and deepening the value of Australian innovation,” she says.
Head of Employment and Workforce Innovation at National Disability Services Kerrie Langford says: “The spectrum of employment supports for people with disability needs to expand to enable the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation this ground-breaking research reveals.
“If we are to shift consistently poor employment outcomes for people with disability in Australia, then options such as inclusive start up support, business incubators tailored to the specific needs of people with disability, and evidenced based programs for school leavers should all be priorities for investment,” she says.
Hitting a 'brick wall'
Many people with disability interviewed by Professor Darcy and report co-authors, UTS Professor Jock Collins and Dr Megan Stronach, found it made sense to work for themselves rather than to hit their heads against a ‘brick wall’ of negative misconceptions.
“What else do I have? Belief in myself. Pig headedness. I'm not willing to let the bastards get me down,” said Taylor, an interviewee with an acquired brain injury who runs a business that helps others to get their lives back on track after experiencing similar injuries.
Others explained that they had set up their own business because disability can make it impractical to work standard hours in a standard office setup. Professor Darcy relates—as a person with a high-level spinal cord injury, he understands how hard it can be for people who are unable to drive or who do not have access to accessible public transport routes.
“Our research found transport and commuting are significant structural and economic barriers, particularly where reliance on taxi or wheelchair accessible taxis are needed,” he says.
“On the flip side, people were passionate about their business ideas and were attracted by the opportunity to play out their vision, be their own boss and do work that was flexible to their needs. Many we talked with also wanted to give back in some way, whether that be by employing others or acting as a mentor and giving others a hand up.”
Whatever the motivation, self-employment or entrepreneurship was a popular work choice— the study’s analysis of ABS data found people with disability are, on average, more than 40 per cent more likely to be self-employed than their non-disabled counterparts.
This has serious implications for how employment services are provided to this group by the private sector, not-for-profit and government agencies. In particular, the study found there were complications in incorporating educational opportunities for self-employment or supports required under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
It also has repercussions for how Australia’s system of new business accelerators and incubators deliver their services in a way that is inclusive to the group—whether that be providing education, funding, mentorship or networking opportunities. Without a big rethink on how these services can be more inclusive, many could miss out.
“We’re working hard to plug people in, to get our findings out there in front of decision-makers and to make sure government, employers, Chambers of Commerce and the mainstream Australian startup community understand people with disability need support from their programs,” Professor Darcy says. “You really need to make them inclusive.”
As one visually impaired participant remarked to researchers, “It’s a lot harder to just get out and market and to network. If I’m not networking with someone, I just stand in a corner because I can’t see people, engage them, read name tags.”
Raising awareness within government that entrepreneurship is a viable option is also a big driver. And it’s starting to pay dividends—as a result of advocacy from their industry partners arising from the study, the National Disability Insurance Agency has recognised self-employment as a valued new area of engagement within the NDIS.
The Entrepreneurs with Disability report and other awareness-raising resources was launched on 29 May 2020 by Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Ben Gauntlett.
Most businesses don’t cater well for employees with disability—self-employment could offer an alternative, but the current system is short on inclusive programs, mentors, tailored networks and educational opportunities. Government agencies and current models of disability employment services are also less likely to consider self-employment a viable option for clients with disability.
The Entrepreneurs with Disability project team analysed data from online surveys and interviews, and followed participants in a training program that supports people with disability set up their own businesses. So far, they’ve used their findings to push for policy reform, and raise awareness of the issue in both government and not-for-profit disability service organisations.
What helped accomplish this?
The project was assisted by our industry partners National Disability Services, the peak body for disability service, BreakThru People Solutions, and Settlement Services International, which adapted a training program originally designed for migrants and refugees to better meet the needs of those with disability keen to set up their own business.