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Entrepreneurship can be a necessity for people with disabilities

This article just showed up in my Facebook feed. While I do not know this family’s backstory, I strongly suspect that the father’s decision to launch an ice-cream truck business is driven (no pun intended) by more than his family’s love for frozen desserts or by his own childhood nostalgia for Bomb Pops™ (not to be confused with the punk rock band of the same name) and Drumsticks™. It is noteworthy that the family, who currently owns the truck, bought it from another family that also had at least one member with a disability. This is a “heartwarming” story, yes, but for those of us who live in this world, it also points to the extraordinary challenges that people with disabilities face, when they want to work. Here are some of those as encountered by my friends and clients:

  • People with disabilities get “typecast” when it comes to seeking employment. I have nothing but respect for grocery and drugstore chains such as Jewel-Osco® (in my neck of the woods), also Kroger®, Trader Joe’s® and Walgreens®. The fact that they readily hire people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is good not only for those that they hire, but also for their coworkers and the stores’ customers to whom they are now providing them essential services. With that said though, not everyone with an intellectual or developmental disability wants to work in a grocery or drug store, or even in retail at all. In a similar manner, not all people on the autism spectrum are cut out for technology-related jobs.

  • These days, applying for almost any job requires the applicant to first submit an online application. People with disabilities may face additional challenges in researching, applying for, or following up on job opportunities electronically. Some types of disabilities, including intellectual, processing, visual, auditory and a wide range of physical disabilities may make it more challenging to use a computer. If you do not have a job and are on limited income, it may be difficult to purchase a computer or expensive adaptive technology, in the first place. Library computers may have limited availability and are unlikely to have any special adaptive features. People with disabilities may also—because it is a self-reinforcing cycle—have had more challenges, building their resume and thus look less impressive than other applicants “on paper”. They may benefit disproportionately from an opportunity to present themselves and their skills in person.

  • People with disabilities may require “reasonable accommodations” and the Americans with Disabilities Act (explained here) requires that employers may make these accommodations as long as they pose no undue hardship for the business. In practice, though, it can be intimidating for a person with a disability to request accommodations. If the accommodations requires the person with a disability to obtain something, such as a piece of assistive technology, there is also the challenge of locating and then paying for the item, particularly if one, who needs this item, is not yet or only recently employed.

  • People with disabilities may require employment supports such as a job coach, who can assist them to learn and master the requirements of their position. Typically, this requires the person with a disability to apply for and secure funding for these coaching services, which might be prohibitively expensive to private pay, and also to find an agency to provide them that is a good fit. As with other dimensions of the direct support/personal assistance field, there is a shortage of job coaches, and the turnover rate is high.

  • People with disabilities may not drive and may find it more challenging to use traditional public transportation. Disability-specific options, such as the “door-to-door” or “dial-a-ride” that are offered in many locales, may require daily scheduling, have a waitlist for subscription, or be challenging to use if one’s work schedule varies. Moreover, the rider has no control over the rides’ timeliness, and that feature often varies more than typical public transportation that is on a fixed route.

  • People with disabilities may rely on certain government programs. In most states, most of the supports that are available to adults with disabilities are funded through Medicaid waivers. The person relying on the services must continue to meet the asset and income limitations required to maintain Medicaid eligibility. Some people may be unable to earn through work enough to fully offset the loss of Social Security cash benefits and therefore literally cannot afford to work at a level where the cease to qualify for those payments. As a result, an employee might be limited in the number of hours that s/he can work in a week. Alternatively, or additionally, an employee might require the employer to document and quantify the reasonable accommodations the person requires in order to adjust how their earned income is calculated for eligibility purposes.

  • Social Security (as well as the waiver programs run by most states) do have exceptional eligibility categories that allow people with disabilities to work and earn incomes that exceed these program’s basic eligibility thresholds while still maintaining the supports and safety nets they need. However, the person with a disability first needs to educate her/himself on these opportunities. This often requires hours of research and hours spent on telephone hold to understand which category is applicable, how to get her/himself assigned to that category, and what documentation is required to support ongoing inclusion in a special category.

  • For most people these days, changing jobs is a regular feature of developing one’s career. Changing jobs often requires the person with a disability to reconstruct, reapply for, or re-substantiate the whole range of supports and accommodations they had in the previous job.

Some families chose to create a family business to include the family member with a disability because it makes it easier to address the above challenges. Some do it for the same reason that other entrepreneurs launch a business—because they see a need that has not been met or because someone has a talent that needs a non-traditional situation in order to be fully actualized. Self-employment/family businesses that are highly interactive and visible, like driving an ice-cream truck and selling ice cream to customers on the neighborhood streets, also brings people with disabilities further into the community. Whether your family members’ goal is traditional employment or to launch her/his own venture, we can help.

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