Opinion: society needs to reimagine disability and that also means increasing the rate of entrepreneurial activity within this community 

It is now widely recognised that people with disabilities suffer significant discrimination regarding employment opportunities. Yet, it remains a surprise to many people that approximately 13 percent of the population of Ireland are "registered disabled" and that just 30 percent of people of working age with disabilities participate in the workforce.

A 2005 report by the National Disability Authority (2005) noted that people with disabilities have lower hourly earnings than their non-disabled peers. The report also identified a wide range of other inequalities experienced by people with disabilities, including that just over half (50.8 percent) have no formal second-level educational qualifications and that they are over-represented in part-time employment.

A low level of educational attainment is just one factor that influences the capacity of a disabled person to secure employment. Other factors affecting an individual’s ability or willingness to supply their labour are likely to include the severity of the disability, access to and within a potential workplace, beliefs about the likelihood of facing discrimination and the trade-off between employment income and benefit receipts.

It is an unfortunate fact that there are currently no tailored entrepreneurship support programs for people with disability in Ireland.

But it is not just the potential employee that might be reluctant to work for a company, as employers equally may not be open to employing a person with a disability. A 2006 report by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions found that owner-managers of SMEs identified a wide variety of reasons for not employing a person with a disability. These reasons include financial incentives which do not necessarily meet the needs of either employer or employee; employment quotas and anti-discrimination legislation with little practical effect on SME employer behaviour; health and safety and insurance regulations perceived as a barrier and recruitment and HR practices which rarely recognise the value of equal opportunity. However, the personal experiences of employers who may have a family member or friend with a disability can have a positive influence towards their willingness to offer a person with a disability a position within their firm.

To address existing employment imbalances, the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities (2015-2024) has identified multiple approaches which need to be taken if the Irish workforce is to become truly inclusive of people with disabilities. Within this strategy, entrepreneurship is one of the activities identified that requires targeted action, an ambition that follows closely on recent successful targeted supports that have been offered to women, immigrants, youth, seniors, unemployed and other under-represented groups in terms of entrepreneurial activity. However, it is an unfortunate fact that there are currently no tailored entrepreneurship support programs for people with disability in Ireland.

Robert Hensel once wrote that "there is no greater disability in society, than the inability to see a person as more". Given the new world of assistive technologies and internet-based businesses, the opportunity for people with disabilities to create their own business has never been greater. Additionally, self-employment can offer flexibility in working hours and workload, help rebuild self-esteem, accommodate the nature of one’s disability and offer autonomy from obstacles such as transportation, fatigue, inaccessible work environments and need for personal assistance.

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The author's TEDx talk on disability entrepreneurs

Unfortunately, a person with a disability will face several distinctive challenges when seeking to start their own business. These include difficulties in obtaining start-up capital, lack of own financial resources (due to low levels of pay), poor credit rating, disinterest from the banks, fear of losing regular benefit income (the "benefit trap"), unhelpful attitudes of business advisers, lack of access to appropriate training and support, and difficulties in qualifying for minority focused financial resources. These are all additional challenges on top of what any entrepreneur will endure when starting a business.

To properly address the needs of disability entrepreneurs, a series of actions should be taken by a variety of stakeholders. Single initiatives by individual organisations are valuable, but will not solve the issue on a national basis. What is required is a holistic approach that provides tailored training programmes, on-going business support, microfinance loans and disability awareness training for business advisers. Policy makers also need to identify ways of reducing work disincentives and address labour market disadvantages if people with disabilities are to be truly encouraged to start their own business.

If we begin to view disability quite differently from the traditional viewpoint, then we can also begin to envision a different future.

One of the interesting statistics from the 2011 Census is that 21,619 people who have some form of disability are self-employed. This means that role models do exist in this country, but increasing the rate of entrepreneurial activity within the community remains a significant challenge.

Society needs to reimagine disability from a medical model perspective (people needing to be fixed) to a social model perspective (everyone has a role to play), and from a dependency perspective (help get them a job) to an independent income-generating perspective (self-employment). However, opportunities for people with disability to maximise their economic and social potential in Ireland remains stubbornly low.

Entrepreneurship is not a solution for everybody and this is no different for people with disabilities. However, if we begin to view disability quite differently from the traditional viewpoint, then we can also begin to envision a different future. This is one where every person regardless of disabilities can contribute positively to society, have the opportunity to maximise their economic and social potential, and can create future wealth for themselves, their families, their employees and their communities.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ