Entrepreneurs with disabilities speak out about choosing to go it alone and be your own boss
For many people with disabilities of working age, pursuing traditional employment can be a daunting prospect fraught with challenges and uncertainties.
Many of these concern the question of whether, in a competitive labor market, it will even be possible to obtain meaningful employment, given the generalized behavioral barriers to hiring people with disabilities held by many employers. and a general lack of awareness of best practices for the workplace. inclusion of disability.
Even for those who manage to navigate the recruitment process and get their foot in the door, doubts and insecurities often remain about whether coworkers will be able to understand the daily impact of their disability.
Likewise, given that they enter into an established corporate structure with pre-existing work protocols, practices and culture, employees with disabilities may rightly worry about their employer’s ability to adapt to their changing and often complex needs.
These problems may partly explain why about 700,000 disabled workers have opted for self-employment, a rate almost twice that of their non-disabled peers, according to the latest US census.
Last month, Disability: IN, a US-based global organization that promotes inclusion and equality of people with disabilities in businesses, sought to highlight the value of businesses owned by people with disabilities and the entrepreneurship of people with disabilities through its Pitch Perfect Challenge.
The challenge, now in its tenth year, set up to coincide with National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) involved three finalists presenting their businesses ‘shark-tank style’ to a panel. of judges to win prizes and resources.
Pitch Perfect is part of Disability: IN’s broader strategy of providing accreditation to businesses owned by people with disabilities (DOBE®).
To be eligible, a business must be a for-profit business owned, managed and controlled at least 51% by a person with a disability. In 2020, the DOBE program increased by 40% to reach 250 companies.
The long-term goal is to create greater transparency in the diversity supply chain and to link more minority-owned businesses with companies committed to contracting in the sector.
Corey Axelrod, one of the finalists for Pitch Perfect, was born deaf. He currently runs 2axend, a strategic consulting and training company that works with organizations to support accessibility planning and promote inclusive practices for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Speaking through a sign language interpreter via Zoom, Axelrod explains his journey and the thinking that led him towards self-employment and entrepreneurship.
“I remember, when I was in college to get my MBA, I was at a real crossroads,” says Axelrod.
“Do I include the word ‘Deaf’ on my CV? I was involved in many different organizations in college, for the deaf community in particular. And I had a conversation with my guidance counselor who asked me bluntly, “If you’re not comfortable using the word Deaf, then are you going to be happy to work with a company?” who could judge you on the basis of being Deaf? ”
“It was a question I had to start coming to terms with,” says Axelrod.
Another Pitch Perfect finalist, Dustin Grella, who runs Dusty Studio, an animation design and production boutique, believes that negative attitudes and low expectations of people with disabilities are not just an issue or corporate culture. , but permeate society.
Grella is a C7 quadriplegic following an accident at a rock concert in 1995.
“After my accident, I went through a period of about five years where I just didn’t feel like I would fit in anywhere,” Grella says.
“Sometimes, as a person with a disability, if you just want to stay home and do nothing, you feel like people are fine with that.
“No one will tell you what you can and cannot do because your situation is beyond the limits of what they understand. They can’t relate to you and tell you to get up and get a job because they don’t understand what you are going through.
“It was a personal journey, but eventually I got up from the couch and ventured out into the world,” says Grella.
One opportunity that entrepreneurship offers to entrepreneurs with and without disabilities is the chance to build something from scratch and fully align it with their individual passions and interests.
This is something Jackson Dalton, CEO of Black Box Safety, a distributor of workplace safety equipment and PPE and winner of the Pitch Perfect Challenge, can talk about.
Dalton was forced to give up his military career in the Marine Corps after a serious leg injury forced him to undergo three leg surgeries and prevent him from walking for a year.
He then created his company in 2017.
“I had planned to spend my entire career in the military and had no back-up plan. So when that plan changed after I was forced to leave due to my medical retirement, it took me over 10 years to overcome my own identity crisis, ”says Dalton.
“The problem I had with the traditional job was just that it wasn’t the military. There wasn’t that great mission or vision there. I was no longer part of a large team with a common goal, ”he explains.
“The big turning point came when I realized I could start my own business and we could employ military veterans and work with government departments and the VA health system.
“We can serve those who served and so it became a way to honor a part of my life that I felt sad to lose. It was no longer a black mark or something to mull over.
“Now I can tell my story to my government clients and it is valuable to them. Thanks to my business, I was able to turn that negative into a positive, ”says Dalton.
This is a point of view taken up by Axelrod as well.
“I wanted to give something back to the deaf community – people who have the same lived experience as me, the same challenges and the same journey. I can now stand on top of the mountain and declare to the world, “I am deaf. For me, it’s stimulating, ”he explains.
Take the rough with the smooth
However, it would be naïve to suggest that starting your own business is the “easy” or obvious choice for people with disabilities.
Like any employment option, there are pros and cons and these must be weighed against personal circumstances.
Dalton speaks candidly when he says, “In the past I have suffered from a lot of depression and anxiety secondary to this year when I was unable to walk and then had to change my identity completely.
He continues, “Being the president or CEO of a company is difficult enough, but especially difficult if you are struggling with a mental illness.
“You have to be 100% available 24/7. We have a team of six people that I lead and it requires a lot of patience, clarity and lucidity. If I don’t feel 100%, the team suffers, ”he said.
There are economic pressures associated with running your own business that can also have health impacts, Grella admits.
“Being poor and starting your own business takes a lot of energy,” he says.
“There was a gap that occurred in the transition to starting the business where I lost my Social Security benefits. At that time, I had a broken wheelchair for almost two years and couldn’t get a new chair. It was a very hard and difficult time. “
Despite the risks that come with entrepreneurship in the field of disability, the potential rewards and rewards are enormous as well.
It might not be a trip that everyone can take, but the good news for anyone considering taking the plunge is that there has probably never been a better time in history to do so.
Awareness of disability inclusion in the workplace may be growing, but there is still a long way to go.
However, thanks to Disability: IN, Supplier Diversity Programs are a well-established practice and can help make ends meet.
It may take a whole new business skill and a whole new level of strategic planning to understand how to connect and leverage the growing level of support available.