Having a disability doesn’t mean your work life is limited to becoming someone else’s employee. Just because a person has a disability they can still fulfill the dream to become an entrepreneur.
In fact, says Lorraine Allen, regional director for the Small Business Development Center at the College of New Jersey, now may be the best time for a person with disabilities to open their own business. As technology improves, so do the opportunities for more people to become business owners — no matter what their abilities.
That’s why her office is sponsoring “Abilities Matter: Entrepreneurs with Disabilities,” a half-day program of panel discussions, success stories from entrepreneurs with disabilities, networking, and a showcase of resources for entrepreneurs, would-be entrepreneurs, and service providers. Some of the groups sponsoring the event include the Mercer County Office for the Disabled, Progressive Center for Independent Living, Allies Inc., and the American Disabilities Corporation. The program begins on Thursday, October 2, at 9:45 a.m. in Paul Loser Hall on the TCNJ campus. Cost: $15. To register call 609-771-2947.
Allen has long had an interest in working with entrepreneurs with disabilities. Originally an art major, she received her degree from Millersville University in the 1970s and opened an art studio, where she taught lessons for several years.
“Two of my students had a disability,” she says. “One of them was visually impaired. He sat with his eye almost right up against the paper but he had a passion for drawing and he did beautiful work on trains, fire engines, and architecture.”
A second student was a young man who had been paralyzed in an auto accident. He had started a small business making greeting cards. “He wasn’t making a lot of money, but his business did help to make him more independent,” says Allen.
Prior to becoming regional director of the SBDC, Allen spent several years as a procurement specialist with the stateCommerce and Economic Growth Commission and as assistant director of the NJ Small Business Development Center. She currently serves on several boards and committees that provide help and assistance for the business community, including the Regional Business Assistance Corporation, Trenton Small Business Week, the Mercer Chamber Business Institute and Technical Assistance Center, and the Trenton Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training Advisory Board.
As she became steadily more involved in her work with entrepreneurs over the years, Allen’s two former students “stuck in her mind” and she wondered why she didn’t hear more about programs designed to help people with disabilities become entrepreneurs. “It seemed that every seminar or presentation I went to for people with disabilities focused on becoming an employee, not a business owner,” she says.
While her office has never turned away a disabled person who was interested in starting a business, there were also no special programs to help people with disabilities overcome the specific obstacles they face. This spring her office developed an advisory board to come up with a program for entrepreneurs with disabilities. She also approached several agencies, including the Association of the Blind and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, for their input. Her office has already worked with 12 clients from the blind association this year.
Doing the same things differently. There are certain steps that anyone who wants to start a business must take, no matter if they have a disability or not, explains Allen. It is important that they “do all of the homework and research” to develop a viable business plan, register their business, and obtain financing. “The difference is, it often may take a person with a disability more time to do the same things,” she says.
Transportation problems. Transportation is often a problem for a person who is visually impaired or has other physical disabilities. “They need to look at their personal support network,” Allen says. “Do they have a family member or a friend who can drive them? Or do they need to rely on public transportation or some of the transportation services provided by the various agencies?”
Special equipment. As technology improves, more and more special equipment is available to help people with disabilities perform routine tasks. Computers are a necessity for any business these days, and special hardware and software is available to help with a variety of computer tasks, from large screen formats for the visually impaired, to mouse devices to help people with limited mobility. While some of this equipment is inexpensive, other items are not, and must be budgeted for in a business plan.
Networking. Every business owner needs to network to find new prospects and develop client relationships. The type of business and the person’s abilities can determine what form networking takes.
For a person whose business is Internet-based, networking may mean getting listed on as many online directories as possible, while a different type of business model may need a more hands-on approach to networking. Meeting people through chambers of commerce can help a lot. “Anyone can do these things, but for a person with a disability it may take more time and planning,” says Allen.
Special Services. Grants or other funding may be available to help a person with disabilities start a business, Allen says. She suggests that would-be entrepreneurs research options offered by various local and national organizations. Grants may be available for special training, or the help may come in the form of services, also. “The type of help available isn’t limited to dollars,” says Allen.
The October workshop is only the first in a series of classes and seminars that will be offered by the SBDC, says Allen. “We are rolling out the programs slowly, and we need to make sure that we have the services and gear the programs to people with a variety of disabilities. If we offer a program for the hearing impaired, obviously we must have an interpreter available. Each disability offers new challenges for our office as well.”
The most important thing to learn is that, if you have a burning desire to offer a service or fill a need as an entrepreneur, you can. What matters, she says, is not your abilities or disabilities, but rather a desire to succeed.