Study of entrepreneurs with disability smashes stereotypes

Header photo caption: Research team of Simon Darcy, Jock Collins and Megan Stronach presenting study results and briefing co-design workshop.

Although many people dream of starting their own business, few attempt it, let alone succeed. But for some with disability, self-employment and entrepreneurship isn’t an option, it’s a necessity, a recent UTS Business School report has found.

The stats speak for themselves.

In 2015 almost one in five Australians had a disability, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but only about half of those of working age were employed. And the barriers aren’t just physical—last year 40 per cent of discrimination complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission came from this group, reflecting negative attitudes to people with disability in the wider community.

“While there’s been little research on self-employment and entrepreneurship done in Australia, there is rising awareness that people with disability’s aspirations and needs simply aren’t being met, particularly in terms of traditional employment models,” explains report co-author, and Professor of Management at UTS’s Business School, Simon Darcy.

“A lot of people feel disgruntled—they face blocks to getting a job that they want, they face blocks to progressing their career, and, given the discriminatory stereotypes and attitudes towards disability out there, they also often face serious blocks getting a job in the first place,” he says.

The Entrepreneurs with Disability report—the first study of its kind in Australia—is aimed at tackling these issues head-on.

Many people with disability interviewed by Simon and report co-authors, Jock Collins and Megan Stronach, found it made sense to work for themselves rather than to hit their heads against a ‘brick wall’ of negative misconceptions.

“What else do I have? Belief in myself. Pig headedness. I’m not willing to let the bastards get me down,” said Taylor, an interviewee with an acquired brain injury who runs a business that helps others to get their lives back on track after experiencing similar injuries.

Others explained that they had set up their own business because disability can make it impractical to work standard hours in a standard office setup. Simon relates—as a person with a high-level spinal cord injury, he understands how hard it can be for people who are unable to drive or who do not have access to accessible public transport routes. “Our research found transport and commuting are significant structural and economic barriers, particularly where reliance on taxi or wheelchair accessible taxis are needed,” he says.

“On the flip side, people were passionate about their business ideas and were attracted by the opportunity to play out their vision, be their own boss and do work that was flexible to their needs. Many we talked with also wanted to give back in some way, whether that be by employing others or acting as a mentor and giving others a hand up.”

Whatever the motivation, self-employment or entrepreneurship was a popular work choice— the study’s analysis of ABS data found people with disability are, on average, more than 40 per cent more likely to be self-employed than their non-disabled counterparts.

This has serious implications for how employment services are provided to this group by the private sector, not-for-profit and government agencies. In particular, the study found there were complications in incorporating educational opportunities for self-employment or supports required under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). It also has repercussions for how Australia’s system of new business accelerators and incubators deliver their services in a way that is inclusive to the group—whether that be providing education, funding, mentorship or networking opportunities.

Without a big rethink on how these services can be more inclusive, many could miss out.

“We’re working hard to plug people in, to get our findings out there in front of decision-makers and to make sure government, employers, Chambers of Commerce and the mainstream Australian startup community understand people with disability need support from their programs,” he says. “You really need to make them inclusive.”

As one visually impaired participant remarked to researchers, “It’s a lot harder to just get out and market and to network. If I’m not networking with someone, I just stand in a corner because I can’t see people, engage them, read name tags.”

Raising awareness within government that entrepreneurship is a viable option is also a big driver. And it’s starting to pay dividends—as a result of advocacy from their industry partners arising from the study, the National Disability Insurance Agency has recognised self-employment as a valued new area of engagement within the NDIS.

The Entrepreneurs with Disability report and other awareness-raising resources will be launched via Zoom on May 29 by Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Ben Gauntlett.

The Problem

Most businesses don’t cater well for employees with disability—self-employment could offer an alternative, but the current system is short on inclusive programs, mentors, tailored networks and educational opportunities. Government agencies and current models of disability employment services are also less likely to consider self-employment a viable option for clients with disability.

The Response

The Entrepreneurs with Disability project team analysed data from online surveys and interviews, and followed participants in a training program that supports people with disability set up their own businesses. So far, they’ve used their findings to push for policy reform, and raise awareness of the issue in both government and not-for-profit disability service organisations.

What helped accomplish this?

The project was assisted by Settlement Services International, which adapted a training program originally designed for migrants and refugees to better meet the needs of those with disability keen to set up their own business. The team was also able to leverage connections with National Disability Services, the peak body for disability service providers; Breakthru disability employment service; and Startup Muster® an annual survey of the Australian entrepreneurial ecosystem supported by UTS, Atlassian and Google.

What has changed as a result?

As a result of this research and the advocacy of the team’s industry partners, the National Disability Insurance Agency has recognised self-employment as a valued new area of engagement within their employment scheme. The Entrepreneurs with Disability report and other resources will be made available online.
Download full case study