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10 tips to help small business owners with disabilities thrive

10 tips to help small business owners with disabilities thrive

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Note: Members of the disability community are increasingly embracing identity-first language instead of person-first language (e.g, “autistic” versus “a person with autism'”), understanding disability as integral to identity, as the Center for American Progress points out. Some still prefer person-first language, though. This post uses both interchangeably, while referring to the experts interviewed based on their preference.

Over 1.8 million people with disabilities are running their own businesses in the US, according to the National Disability Institute (NDI). While these businesses span a diverse array of industries—from food to financial services, and everything in between—each is incredible and worth celebrating. 

Many entrepreneurs with disabilities start their own businesses to transform a long-simmering idea into a reality, to pursue their passion, and/or to give back to their communities.

In fact, working-age people with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to be self- employed. One possible reason is necessity, according to Tinu Abayomi-Paul, an entrepreneur, disability advocate, and founder of the organization Everywhere Accessible, which crowdsources accessibility solutions.

“A lot of the people I knew who ran businesses weren’t running them by choice,” says Abayomi-Paul, who has autism, PTSD, fibromyalgia, and other disabilities. “They were running them because they had no other way to make a living.”

To learn more about how small business owners with disabilities are thriving and serving their customers, we caught up with a few experts in the field. 

Business ownership helps to accommodate unique needs

For many disabled folks, a 9-to-5 office job isn’t an option. Their disabilities might prevent them from sitting or standing all day, Abayomi-Paul says, or sticking to rigid schedules. She points out that she doesn’t know whether she’ll feel well enough to work until she wakes up in the morning. “Even then, how I feel might change during the day,” she explains. Business ownership, on the other hand, can empower those with disabilities to pursue careers that fit their unique needs.

Challenges disabled business owners face

Starting your own business is tough enough. But disabled small business owners face challenges that their non-disabled counterparts typically don’t. These challenges—which limit their access to the business support they need to thrive—can include: 

  • Less access to capital
  • Less access to business resources
  • Less access to growth opportunities. 

Less access to capital

The Century Foundation’s analysis of Census data found that people with disabilities are twice as likely to experience poverty as those without disabilities. Reduced earnings, additional expenses, and other factors can contribute to their financial hardship, which, in turn, can limit their access to capital for startup costs.

Less access to business resources

Wendy Brehm cites a lack of resources as another barrier business owners with disabilities face. Brehm, who is Deaf, and her husband, Trevon Williams, run Purple Rose Wellness, which sells luxury handcrafted self-care goods and offers inclusive, accessible wellness content. Both are winners of Grow, our program to award $200,000 to minority-owned small businesses.

While non-disabled business owners could easily look up how to, say, take out a loan on the Small Business Administration (SBA) website, “not all of the information is accessible for people with disabilities,” Brehm points out. For example, “you can’t just call someone at SBA and have a conversation in ASL (American Sign Language).”

Less access to growth opportunities

Pop-up events and other growth opportunities typically aren’t accessible, either. Brehm loves talking about Purple Rose Wellness but often needs to rely on Williams to interact with customers at pop-ups amid all the background noise and COVID masks, which prevent her from reading lips. “I just feel very trapped in those situations,” she notes. Belonging to another historically marginalized group—as a Black Deaf person, for example—can further widen these disparities.

10 tips business owners with disabilities can use to thrive  

Disabled business owners are delivering innovative products and services, as well as making a huge impact on their communities through creating employment opportunities, promoting inclusivity, and much more. In short, they’re resourceful, resilient—and thriving. Here are 10 expert tips on how to thrive as a small business owner with a disability.

1. Cash in on your expertise

“Because we have the extra time in which we’re trying to heal, or distract ourselves from pain, we do research on ourselves, on our illnesses, and on our favorite topics,” Abayomi-Paul remarks. If you're a disabled business owner, consider whether you could monetize your expertise through ebooks, newsletters, membership-based websites, or public speaking engagements. “There are big companies that will actually hire you to do virtual public speaking,” which has really taken off during the pandemic, Abayomi-Paul adds.

An easy way to give your business a publicity boost?  Sign up for RadioGuestList.com’s free email list, which advertises podcasts and radio shows seeking to interview experts, Abayomi-Paul suggests. You can then pitch yourself as a guest to the hosts and producers.

2. Focus on passive income streams

Avoid fast-paced industries that hinge largely on your output, Abayomi-Paul says. Instead, focus on small ventures that can give you passive and/or recurring income, like a paid newsletter subscription on Substack (which doesn’t depend on how often you publish), or a membership-based website. These sorts of income streams can allow you more flexibility for when you feel mentally or physically drained, for example, or need to recover from medical procedures.

3. Hire a virtual assistant early on

Abayomi-Paul advises hiring a virtual assistant to help with day-to-day admin before you start feeling overwhelmed. (Hiring a disabled virtual assistant can be a great way to support the disability community.) Search freelancer marketplaces like Upwork, FlexJobs, and Wing Assistant.

4. Find your people

“I think putting yourself in valuable shared spaces with other disabled entrepreneurs, whether it’s networking events, whether it’s joining a group—that will give you the confidence boost to let you know you’re not alone,” Brehm says.

Ideally, all events for small businesses would be accessible, but in the meantime, she suggests leaning into those created for the disability community. Deafopia organizes trade shows and other events for Deaf and hard of hearing entrepreneurs, for example. Meanwhile, the Tech Disability Project and 2Gether International both host virtual events for disabled business owners. 

Hashtags like #DeafOwnedBusiness or #DisabledOwned can help you connect with other disabled small business owners. You can also find them on virtual communities, like the Federation of Small Business’s free online hub for disabled entrepreneurs, Business Without Barriers, or the Disabled Entrepreneurs Business Networking Group on Facebook.

Brehm also recommends getting Disability-Owned Business Enterprise (DOBE) certification, which can open doors to networking, mentorship, funding, and other opportunities. If you’re a veteran, look into Veteran DOBE and Service-Disabled Veteran DOBE certifications.

5. Choose collaboration over competition

“I think one of the hardest aspects of being a business owner is trying not to compete too much with people who are like you,” Brehm says. As someone from a historically marginalized group, you might’ve been instilled with the belief that there’s limited space for people from your community–but this scarcity mindset can prevent you from learning from other entrepreneurs with disabilities. “You would be surprised at how many people are doing similar things that really want to chat,” Brehm remarks. “They’ll be like, ‘What’s working for you? What’s not?’”

She suggests searching hashtags that might help you find small business owners with disabilities in your niche–and DMing them. That’s how one fellow Black- and Deaf-owned candle business, Petite Lit, reached out to Purple Rose Wellness. “They’re like, ‘Hey, can we do [an Instagram] Live together and talk about our experiences?’” Brehm recalls. Several people tuned in and reported learning more about applying for an LLC and other aspects of entrepreneurship.

“That was a really empowering experience,” Brehm notes. “I really lean into, ok, who’s out there like me? What are their struggles? How are they getting support?”

6. Expand your definition of “mentor”

Like other historically marginalized community members, you might struggle to find mentors who also have disabilities. That’s not to say you should abandon your search. Instead, cast a wider net, and look beyond established entrepreneurs in your industry.

“Don’t give up trying to find a mentor, whether it’s someone doing something similar to what you’re doing, or maybe not. Maybe it’s someone who shares that disability with you,” Williams suggests. “You can see how they navigate certain situations and see if you can learn from that.”

7. Take advantage of funding opportunities

You might qualify for business grants and loans created specifically for disabled entrepreneurs, offered by the federal government, nonprofits, and other entities—and if so, apply, apply, apply. Here’s a far from exhaustive list:

8. Be your own advocate

Entrepreneurs with disabilities shouldn’t constantly have to advocate for themselves. But if you find that a networking or other event you’re scheduled to attend isn’t accessible, don’t hesitate to request ASL translation or any other accommodations you need from the event organizers, Brehm suggests. Contacting elected officials about the need for accommodations at such events, meanwhile, can effect widespread change that could benefit the larger disability community.

“I’ve grown a lot in the last year in my ability to say, ‘I don’t know what's going on. I need this and this to be able to participate,’” Brehm says. “I think being a disabled entrepreneur also means you have to be confident in yourself and in being able to advocate for yourself.”

9. Combine passion and profit with tiered pricing

Yes, you can grow your business while still serving your disability community. “There are so many ways you can slice up the way you price things in order to reach your passion market as well as the bread and butter market,” Abayomi-Paul points out. Consider offering discounted pricing for people with disabilities, like she does with her ebooks. Disabled people who need them for their personal lives pay what they can—usually a few dollars—while researchers pay around $50. The honor-based system has worked well for her so far since she’s usually sold enough copies at launch to afford to offer a pay-what-you-can option.

10. To grow your network, prioritize connection

Clarify your motivations when growing your community. Sometimes, focusing primarily on how someone can benefit you “screws up the dynamics of your conversation,” Abayomi-Paul remarks. They might be less likely to let their guard down and speak sincerely. But if you prioritize genuine connection, trust that they’ll somehow reciprocate–even if it may not be how you anticipate.

Abayomi-Paul, for instance, contacted disability advocate Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman simply because she admired her work. And then one day, Opoku-Agyeman invited Abayomi-Paul to write a chapter in the book, The Black Agenda, alongside Tressie McMillan Cottom, Cliff Albright, and other Black luminaries.

“You just never know where something or someone is going to take you, if you give to them first,” Abayomi-Paul states. “Maybe nothing will happen except to help them. But that’s still a great thing.”

BILL celebrates customers with disabilities 

Want to support small businesses run by people with disabilities in your community? Search directories like those on the Intentionalist’s online guide to diverse small businesses or the United States Disability Chamber of Commerce’s website

At BILL, we’re here to champion all small business owners, regardless of ability, and empower them to succeed. Spend less time on manual work and more time growing your business, cultivating your customer relationships, or whatever success looks like to you—automate your financial operations with BILL today.  

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