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Entrepreneurs with Disability: Reframing Our View of Disability Employment

By Carolann Murphy, PA

As the nation continues to grapple with the effects of the ongoing pandemic, intense pressures are transforming every aspect of society, including education, government, health care, business, and employment. For all Americans, the world of work is changing rapidly, requiring workers to consider all the options for staying in the labor force. Starting one’s own business is an option that gains traction during periods of recession, according to Kate Caldwell, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Disability & Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Innovation is a necessity for people with disabilities, who are accustomed to finding ways to overcome challenges in daily life. Self-employment and entrepreneurship offer a pathway for individuals to apply their ingenuity in the workforce and strive for financial self-sufficiency on their own terms. The impact of self-employment and entrepreneurship extend beyond the direct economic benefits for individuals with disabilities. Creating new businesses often means providing new products and services and developing solutions to challenges faced by people with and without disabilities.

Policies and programs that support disability-owned businesses are critical to maximizing the potential for job growth in this area. When entrepreneurs with disabilities succeed, they create jobs for people with disabilities. One example is Mozzeria, a restaurant business founded in San Francisco in 2011 by a pair of deaf entrepreneurs. Mozzeria, which recently opened a second location in Washington, DC, is deaf-owned, managed, and staffed. This successful startup, funded through the CSD Social Venture Fund, is expanding opportunities for jobseekers with disabilities, while promoting awareness of the unique culture of the deaf community.   

Dr. Caldwell sees entrepreneurship as way to reframe how we view disability employment, from transitioning individuals to jobs in the public and private sectors, to supporting self-sustaining disability-owned enterprises that prioritize hiring from within their community.  Dr. Caldwell serves on the project team for The Chicagoland Entrepreneurship Education for People with Disabilities (CEED) Project, which offers an evidence-based, comprehensive entrepreneurship education and training program for people with disabilities and service providers working in disability community agencies and small business development centers in Illinois. Using a person-centered approach, the program targets the specific needs and barriers experienced by people with disabilities looking to start or grow a business.

The CEED Project projects the potential for entrepreneurship to create U.S. jobs. Based on data showing 10% self-employment among workers with disabilities, there are an estimated 850,000 entrepreneurs. If 65% of their businesses survived, and they were able to hire one person, more than 550,000 jobs would be created for people with disabilities. Sustainable businesses would continue to add workers each year, and build capacity to fuel community development and support social missions, helping address the poverty that underlies social inequities.

Given the evolving economic conditions, programs such as The CEED Project are critical to keeping options open for workers with disabilities. “There are many uncertainties about the future of work,” notes Dr. Caldwell, “Acquiring the skills to start and grow a business is an important way for people with disabilities to prepare for that future.”

For self-employment and entrepreneurship to become viable pathways to the workforce for people with disabilities, the greater community needs to support disability-owned businesses. Identifying businesses as disability owned helps business to expand their supply chains and consumers to their spending. Certifications such as Disability-Owned Business Enterprises (DOBE®), offered by Disability: IN, identify for-profit businesses that are majority owned by people with disabilities, including veterans.

“Certification raises awareness and fosters connections across the country,” says Elaine E. Katz, MS, CCC-SLP, senior vice president of Grants and Communications at Kessler Foundation. “The networking and collaboration that result will help disability-owned businesses to grow and increase the availability of competitive jobs in different sectors of our economy.”     

This blog is based on Dr. Caldwell’s Lunch & Learn webinar presentation for the September 4, 2020 episode of National Trends in Disability Employment (nTIDE), a custom report issued by experts at Kessler Foundation and the University of New Hampshire. Register for upcoming webinars at:



Submitted by nmiller on Wed, 09/16/2020 - 15:04