Self-employment in the rehabilitation field should undoubtedly meet the primary goal of any vocational rehabilitation program – i.e., to help people with disabilities become fully, productive members of society through the achievement of independence and meaningful employment. A person with a disability who has his/her own business, meets the main characteristics of the primary goal just stated – e.g., gainful employment, self sufficiency, and independence. I am not talking about an enclave here, nor job opportunities in a sheltered workshop. But self-employment as a viable employment option that clearly addresses the competitive requirement of employment or starting your own business as set by state or county guidelines and adopted by any supported employment program. The success or failure of that enterprise is strictly based on the “supply and demand” premise, good management, good customer service, and having enough cash flow. It requires, however, careful consideration following a quality assessment that identifies interest and capabilities. This way, a vocational rehabilitation counselor can assist the eligible individual secure funding and identify other community resources before he/she makes an informed choice whether to pursue self-employment as an employment option. There is no cookbook for strategies that would increase the utilization of this service. Strategies and methods for increasing the use of self-employment in the rehabilitation field are constantly evolving due to the changing nature of business, supported employment programs, and the overall economy. Here are three models with strategies that have been proven to work:
A) Resource Ownership – A person with a disability has or buys a specific piece of equipment that’s in great demand. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s say this equipment was purchased with money from a Social Security Plan for achieving self-support, Vocational Rehabilitation Funding, family members, and/or from a community-based rehabilitation agency. Subsequently, a vocational rehabilitation counselor looks for established businesses that have a definite need for that specific equipment but don’t want to spend a lump sum upfront to buy it. The interested person with a disability retains ownership of the equipment but gets paid every month or as designated by a binding contract between him or her and the business for the use of that equipment.
B) Partnerships – People with disabilities can become partners in existing businesses with established cash flows, business plans, markets, and customers. A cash investment from the United States Social Security Administration, Vocational Rehabilitation Funding and from other capital resources, allows any interested individuals to participate and jumpstart this process. The partners in this model get returns on their investments in the form of regular income.
C) Sole Proprietorship – Like the two previous forms of self-employment, sole proprietorship is grounded in the competitive employment approach, which emphasizes the “train and place” readiness model or in this case, the interested person’s suitability for business ownership. This approach remains person-centered but can be quite challenging given the lack of both natural and rehabilitative supports in the current business climate. In this model, no ideas for a start-up company should be considered too ludicrous for a business plan. For instance, starting a baby-sitting company, a staffing agency for parking attendants, grounds keeper for less, and a thrift store run by people with mental impairment disabilities are some of the ideas suggested to me by people with disabilities for starting a new business.
Although barriers exist for people with disabilities who wish to become self-employed as entrepreneurs, there are a number of strategies that will address those barriers on an individual basis provided that the interested person with a disability has the right support system in place. Implementing any of those strategies requires the mediation of a motivated rehabilitation worker and/or employment specialist. We, professionals and people with disabilities alike, must continue to advocate to the government and the business community for the implementation of policies and practices that encourage rather than deter the self-employment efforts of people with disabilities.