This Program Wants to Help People With Disabilities Become Entrepreneurs

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When professors Maija Renko and Sarah Parker Harris met eight years ago at a work function for the University of Illinois at Chicago, they discovered they were interested in one another’s work. They began sharing some research and soon looked to find a way to collaborate on a project. Now, Renko, an associate professor of entrepreneurship, has teamed up with Parker Harris, an associate professor of disability and human development, to create a program that helps people with disabilities find careers as entrepreneurs.

CEED, or the Chicagoland Entrepreneurship Education for People with Disabilities, has an initial goal of creating an Illinois-based training program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as service providers and small-business development centers. Although the Coleman Foundation awarded the program a $300,000 grant in November 2014, the work began when the money came through, in January 2015.

Since then, Renko and Parker Harris have been focusing on planning, conducting training and connecting with the community. They expect the program to kick off next spring.

“We know about women, minorities and immigrant entrepreneurs, but nobody’s really talking about people with disabilities being entrepreneurs,” says Parker Harris. “Not only is there a need for more research on this topic, there’s a need to help the people interested.”

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She also points out that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities has held steadily at approximately double the rate of unemployment for their able-bodied counterparts. “Often, their background has been working in sheltered workshops or working in jobs that just get a paycheck — not a career or anything they’re interested in.”

In addition to the training program — which teaches entrepreneurial fundamentals along with issues that are specific to the disabled community like benefits counseling or handling attitudes and discrimination — the program is also developing a community resource guide to help with resources on funding, finances, and education. In the future, the hope is to establish a business planning competition for entrepreneurs with disabilities.

Equally important to the women in charge of creating the program is that the resource guide showcases success stories of other entrepreneurs with impairments. “People with disabilities don’t have mentors or examples of other successful disabled business owners, and people often say that they want access to shadow them and talk to them,” she says.

According to Renko, businesses with a significant social component tend to appeal most to disabled entrepreneurs. Renko specifically remembers someone who started a service to distribute gently used wheelchairs to those who needed them — usually the recipients were immigrants who didn’t have health care that would pay for the equipment. Moreover, since access to funding is a large barrier to starting a business for many with health issues — smaller networks and low incomes are common among this population — part of what made this wheelchair donation business successful was that it didn’t require a big upfront investment.

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While there are established business that are disability-friendly in various industries, Renko explains that the inclusive attitude is likely the result of a direct connection to the disabled community. “Oftentimes, the industries that get recognized as good places to work with, the CEOs will have a personal experience that makes it more likely.”

Though the program will start by keeping the focus purely on Illinois, the hope is that it can — and will — be replicated nationally. Currently, the program has space for up to 40 individuals and up to 30 service providers.

The response from people in the disabled community has been positive. “It’s become really, really engaging,” Parker Harris says. She says business and individuals in the area have reached out to her directly and asked to participate in the program. “It’s so exciting to so many people because of all the doors that were closed before.”

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