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 productive members of society through the achievement of independence and meaningful employment. A person with a disability who has his own business, meets the three main characteristics of that primary goal: Gainful employment, self sufficiency, and independence. I am not talking about an enclave position, nor job opportunities within a sheltered workshop. I am referring to self-employment as a viable option that clearly addresses the competitive nature of employment. Starting your own business as set by state or county guidelines and adopted by any supported employment program is a giant leap in the right direction. The success or failure of that option is strictly based on the ability of each participant to attract customers, provide good management, good customer service, and having enough cash flow. This concept should, however, require careful consideration only after the applicant has undergone a thorough quality assessment that identifies interest and capabilities. This way, a vocational rehabilitation counselor can assist the eligible individual secure funding and identify community resources in order to make an informed decision and hence a clear choice about pursuing self-employment. There is no cookbook out there, nor an abundance of strategies that would increase the utilization of that option. Strategies and methods for increasing the use of self-employment in the rehabilitation field are rarely discussed but constantly evolving due to the changing nature of business, supported employment programs, and the overall economy. After a careful search, I found these three models with strategies that have been proven to work:
A) Resource Ownership – A person with a disability has a piece of equipment or decides to buy that equipment because there’s great demand. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s say, that equipment was purchased with money from either a social security plan meant for achieving self-support, vocational rehabilitation funding, affluent family members, and lastly, from a community-based rehabilitation agency with a history of securing funds for qualified applicants. Subsequently, a vocational rehabilitation counselor looks for established businesses that have a definite need for that particular equipment but don’t want to spend a lump sum upfront to buy it. The interested party with a disability retains ownership of the equipment but gets paid every month or as designated by a binding contract between him/her and the business for the use of that equipment.
B) Partnership – People with disabilities can become partners in existing businesses in need of new cash flow. But each of those businesses, has a business plan, marketing plan, and established methods of attracting customers. A cash investment from the United States Social Security Administration, Vocational Rehabilitation Funding and from other capital resources, allows many interested people with disabilities to jumpstart this viable employment option and participate in this process. The partners in this model get returns on their investments in the form of regular payments.
C) Sole Proprietorship – Like the two previous forms of self-employment, sole proprietorship is grounded in the competitive nature of starting a business and similar to getting a job which emphasizes the “train and place” readiness model and ‘supply and demand.’ The disabled person’s suitability for business ownership comes to play. 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 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.
Although barriers exist for people with disabilities who wish to become self-employed. But as many entrepreneurs understand, there are a number of strategies in place that will address those barriers on an individual basis provided that the interested person or applicant 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, the professionals and people with disabilities 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 that are grossly underrepresented.