Is Self-Employment Right for You?

When we as a society think about employment for people with disabilities, we rarely think about self-employment. In fact, in can be difficult for anyone’s family and friends to imagine their family member or friend as an entrepreneur. Yet self-employment can be a wonderful opportunity for people with disabilities.

How do you know if self-employment is the right option for someone with a disability? How does anyone make the decision to become an entrepreneur or self-employed? Perhaps they want a flexible schedule or more control over their work. Maybe they like to take charge or maybe they have a driving passion for their work. During the discovery process, where a person explores their interests, skills, preferred environments, and ideal working conditions, certain factors may become evident to suggest that a person will benefit most from self-employment. Other times, the person will just fall into an opportunity that highlights their strongest skills.

Successful entrepreneurs are often people who like to be in control and like to schedule their own hours. They also have a passion for their particular business. And of course, they need to have good people skills to promote their business and network. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that few business owners, regardless of ability, do everything for their business. They typically delegate some responsibilities, whether it’s hiring an accountant or an employee. It’s important for the person’s circle of support to know that starting a business does not mean the person needs to do everything.

When we’re talking about self-employment, however, we’re talking about a person with a disability owning their own business in the community. We are not talking about a business run by a group of people with disabilities. There seems to be a trend in the media to highlight these types of group-run businesses. However, the problem is that businesses run by groups of people with disabilities still congregate people with disabilities in one spot rather than truly integrating them into the community among their non-disabled peers. In terms of the workforce, they are not part of the community. The ultimate goal is to create an integrated workforce, not a segregated one.

Keystone Human Services has supported several people to open their own small business. Because these entrepreneurs love what they are doing, they often develop new skills. For example, when they first open their business, they may only dress in business casual, but after a while, they may begin dressing as a business professional. For people who may have struggled to get out of bed in the morning, owning their own business provides the motivation to get up and go to work. They have a passion and something they love doing. And their businesses have grown.

Below are some resources for parents, providers, and people with disabilities who are interested in more information about starting a small business.



Making Self-Employment Work for People with Disabilities, Second Edition by Cary Griffin, David Hammis, Beth Keeton, Molly Sullivan

Developing Vision

Post by Rebecca Longa, Supported Employment Coordinator with Keystone Human Services Intellectual Disabilities Services

Vision is one of the guiding forces in what we do in customized employment. Vision is necessary to see a future and plan how to get there. It means seeing creative and innovative employment processes and options for individuals with disabilities when typical processes and options would prevent an individual from finding employment.

The customized employment process starts by keeping vision broad and focusing on themes instead of jobs. For example, by following the customized employment process, you would focus on the theme of fashion and beauty rather than specific jobs like hair stylist, nail technician, clothing retailer, tailor, etc.

As the process continues, employment specialists think outside the box for employment opportunities. They look for ways to benefit businesses by restructuring jobs or creating a position to fill a need the business has.

Having vision is important as an employment specialist, but how do you inspire vision in others?

I was recently reminded about the importance of helping the individuals we support and their families to have vision. One gentleman recently completed a seasonal position, and we were discussing which direction he wanted to take his employment search. He explained that he would like a steady job so he could save for commercial driver’s license (CDL) training. He further explained that he would like to gain experience and become an independent contractor.

He proceeded to research schooling options not only for CDL training, but also for business training. I was impressed by his foresight and planning for the future. He had a vision, an idea of where he wanted his job experience to take him, and it made me aware of assisting other individuals to develop a similar vision.

In addition, it’s important to help family and members of the support team to have a vision for an individual, too. They need to see beyond the stereotypical positions for individuals with disabilities, such as cleaning, collecting carts, filling condiment stations, etc. Individuals truly have a chance for future growth when everyone in their support circle can envision a fully inclusive, productive future.

Employment specialists also work with employers and help them develop vision for both the individual and their business. Businesses can greatly benefit from employing people with disabilities. Sometimes it’s just a matter of discovering what needs the business has and how that individual can meet them. Sometimes existing jobs can be restructured to include a person with a disability, allowing both the person with the disability and other employees to maximize their best skills.

Vision and the creativity to think outside the box are essential for developing a more inclusive workforce and a more inclusive community. After all, vision is about working with a clear sight for the future.

Let’s Get to Work

Picture your typical high school student. When they graduate, they may go off to college, spend some time traveling, or find a job. Undoubtedly, their parents have big dreams for them and have pushed and prodded them along the way to gather the skills they’ll need to build a career.

The future for a high school senior with disabilities looks very different. Upon graduation, their options are to stay at home or enter a day program or sheltered workshop. Competitive employment is rarely an option. In fact, students with disabilities may never even have been asked the common question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Their parents and supporters may actually find it difficult to dream about the future.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities has been 79% for the past two decades. That percentage includes all people with disabilities, including physical disabilities, mental illness, and intellectual disabilities. If we just look at the unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities, the number jumps to 97%.

True, many people with intellectual disabilities attend sheltered workshops or some type of group employment where they’re segregated at a business and receive their paycheck from the facility that has the contract to do the job. But while people may get paid for the work they’re doing, it’s not actually considered work by the Department of Labor and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Work is a job held in a typical workplace setting where the majority of people employed are not persons with disabilities. People earn at least minimum wage and are paid directly by their employer.

Sheltered workshops were primarily established as a place for people with disabilities to develop skills to transition into the competitive labor market. However, in reality, that’s not how sheltered workshops ended up functioning. Many people are continuing to attend workshops with little hope of gaining competitive employment in the community.

On average, people working in traditional jobs earn $456 per week. People with disabilities working in sheltered workshops average $175 per month. Why do they earn so much less in the sheltered workshops? Part of the reason stems from the sub-minimum wage. But people with disabilities are only paid for the work they complete, and the workshops don’t always have work for everyone. (Although everyone is expected to show up every day, regardless of whether there’s work for them.)

But people with disabilities don’t have to work in sheltered workshops. Even people who may struggle to be productive at the sheltered workshop can make valuable contributions to businesses with the right type of support, by focusing on a person’s interests, skills, and when and where they do their best work.

Through customized employment, people with disabilities can and are participating in the workforce. They are earning a paycheck, building relationships with their coworkers, building their confidence, and contributing to the economic stability of their community.

The future for high school seniors with disabilities doesn’t have to look so very different from their peers’ futures. Inclusive employment can be part of it. And with parents, family members, and support staff asking “What do you want to be?”, dreams can grow and the future can hold many possibilities.

Everyone Benefits through Customized Employment

People with disabilities, even significant disabilities, can and do make valuable contributions to the workforce. According to a 2013 Manpower Group Survey, 35% of employers are unable to fill jobs because of a talent shortage, and yet persons with disabilities are often excluded from the talent pool.

Erica Kishpaugh, the co-chair of our Employment Committee, recently participated in a conference call through the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) on inclusive employment and diversifying the workforce. Keystone Human Services has made a Commitment to Action through CGI on “Disabilities: Social and Financial Inclusion for Women and Girls.” As part of this Commitment, Keystone is supporting the rights of women with disabilities to access employment, education, vocation training opportunities.

Through customized employment, persons with disabilities who may be viewed as “unemployable” can make valuable contributions to businesses. “Employment is the great equalizer,” said Michael McAllister, who was the co-founder and executive director of Networks for Training and Development and a powerful advocate for inclusive employment. “When people are employed, earning money, working side-by-side with others, many of the issues that separate people simply go away.”

Fundamental to a customized approach is the understanding that each person is unique. Each person has skills they can bring to the table and give value to a business, even if they may not be able to speak or physically complete a time sheet.

Through the customized employment process, we work with each person and business to highlight those skills and attributes. The important things to remember, though, is that finding a job for someone with  disability is the same as finding a job for someone without a disability. Just like with anyone else, it’s important to learn what skills and tasks a person does well, and in what conditions they are most productive. We also learn about the person’s interests, because just like anyone else, they will be more engaged in their work if they like what they’re doing.

When it’s time to reach out to businesses, it’s all about who you know. We network. Think about how you got your first job. Most likely, you knew someone who knew someone who knew of a job opening—and that’s how you got the job. It’s no different for a person with a disability.

We look for businesses that will be a good match, where the tasks of the job align with the person’s skills and personal attributes to make a valuable contribution to the company. Sometimes, the company will analyze the various tasks performed by their current employees and reconfigure a selection of these tasks into a new customized job. In fact, the company may actually save money and become more productive by hiring a person with a disability. Both the person and the company benefit.

Everyone has something of value to contribute to a business. Customized employment is one way to discover those skills and turn them into actions to the benefit of both the person and the business.