Disabled Entrepreneurs Speak Out On The Choice To Go It Alone And Be Your Own Boss

For many individuals with disabilities of working age, pursuing traditional employment can be a daunting prospect strewn with challenges and uncertainties.

A good number of these relate to whether, in a competitive jobs market, it will even be possible to gain meaningful employment, given widespread attitudinal barriers towards employing people with disabilities held by many employers and a general lack of awareness around best-practice for workplace disability inclusion.

Even for those able to successfully navigate the recruitment process and get a foot in the door, doubts and insecurities often remain over whether colleagues will be able to understand the day-to-day impact of their disability.

Equally, given that they are entering an established corporate structure with pre-existing protocols, practices and workplace culture, employees with disabilities may rightly harbor concerns over their employer’s capacity to flex to meet their changing and often complex needs.

These issues may go some way to explaining why approximately 700,000 workers with disabilities have opted for self-employment, a rate almost twice that of their non-disabled peers, according to the latest U.S. Census.

The cream of the crop

Last month, Disability:IN, a U.S.-based global organization driving disability inclusion and equality in business, sought to highlight the value of disability-owned businesses and disability entrepreneurship through its Pitch Perfect Challenge.

The challenge, now in its tenth year, set up to coincide with National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) involved three finalists pitching their businesses “Shark Tank-style” to a panel of judges to win prizes and resources.

Pitch Perfect forms part of Disability:IN’s wider strategy of providing accreditation for disability-owned businesses (DOBE®s).

To qualify, an enterprise has to be a for-profit business that is at least 51% owned, managed and controlled by a person with a disability. In 2020, the DOBE program grew by 40% to 250 businesses.

The long-term aim is to create greater transparency in the diversity supply chain and link more minority-owned businesses with companies committed to contracting within the sector.

Corey Axelrod, one of the Pitch Perfect finalists was born Deaf. He currently runs 2axend, a strategic consulting and training firm working with organizations to support accessibility planning and promote inclusive practices for the Deaf and hard of hearing community. 

Speaking through a sign language interpreter via Zoom, Axelrod explains his journey and the thought process that led him towards self-employment and entrepreneurship.

“I remember, back when I was in college getting my MBA, I was at a real crossroads,” says Axelrod.

 “Should I include the word ‘Deaf’ on my resume? I was involved with many different organizations in college, for the deaf community specifically. And I had a conversation with my careers adviser who asked me point blank – ‘If you’re not comfortable using the word Deaf, then are you going to be happy working with a company that might be judging you based on being Deaf?’

“That was a question I had to start coming to terms with,” explains Axelrod.

Another Pitch Perfect finalist Dustin Grella, who runs Dusty Studio, a boutique animation design and production house, believes negative attitudes and low expectations of people with disabilities are not just an issue or corporate culture but permeate across society.

Grella is a C7 quadriplegic following an accident at a rock concert in 1995.

“After my accident, I went through a period of about five years where I just didn’t feel I would fit in anywhere,” says Grella.

“Sometimes, as a disabled person, if you just want to sit at home and do nothing – it feels like people are fine with that.

“Nobody will tell you what you can and can’t do because your situation is outside the boundaries of what they understand. They can’t relate to you and tell you to get off your backside and get a job because they don’t comprehend what you’re going through.

“It was a personal journey, but eventually, I got up off the sofa and ventured out into the world,” says Grella.

Valuable insights

One opportunity that entrepreneurship provides both disabled and non-disabled entrepreneurs is the chance to build something from the ground up and fully align it with their individual passions and interests.

This is something Jackson Dalton, CEO of Black Box Safety, a distributor of workplace safety equipment and PPE and winner of the Pitch Perfect Challenge, can speak to.

Dalton was forced to quit his military career in the marine corps after a serious leg injury left him requiring three leg surgeries and unable to walk for a year.

He went on to set up his business in 2017.

“I had planned on spending my entire career in the military and I didn’t have a backup plan. So, when that plan changed after I was forced out due to my medical retirement, it took me over 10 years to work through my own identity crisis,” says Dalton.

“The problem I had with traditional employment was just that it wasn’t the military. There wasn’t this big mission or vision there. I wasn’t part of a huge team with a common goal anymore,” he explains.

“The major turning point came when I realized I could start my own business and we could employ military veterans and work with government service and the VA Healthcare system.

“We get to serve those who have served and so, it became a way to honor a part of my life that I had felt sad about losing. It was no longer a black mark or something to ruminate on.

“Now, I get to tell my story to my government customers and it’s something of value to them. Through my business, I was able to turn that negative into a positive,” says Dalton.

It’s a viewpoint echoed by Axelrod too.

“I wanted to give something back to the Deaf community – individuals who have the same lived experience as me, the same challenges and journey. I can now stand on top of the mountain and declare to the world – ‘I am Deaf.’ For me, that’s empowering,” he explains.

Taking the rough with the smooth

It would, however, be naive to suggest that starting one’s own business represents the “easy” or obvious choice for people living with disabilities.

Like any employment option, there are pluses and minuses and these need to be weighed up against personal circumstances.

Dalton speaks candidly when he says, “In the past, I’ve suffered a lot of depression and anxiety secondary to that year I spent being unable to walk and then having to entirely shift my identity.”

He continues, “Being a President or CEO of a company is hard enough but especially difficult if you’re dealing with mental illness.

“You’ve got to be 100% available 24/7. We’ve got a team of six people that I manage and this requires a lot of patience, clarity and lucidity. If I’m not feeling 100% – the team suffers,” he says.

There are economic pressures that come from running your own business that can have health impacts too admits Grella.

“Being poor and starting your own business takes a lot of energy,” he says.

“There was a gap that happened in the transition to starting the business where I lost my social security benefits. At that time, I had a broken wheelchair for almost two years and wasn’t able to get a new chair. That was a very tough and difficult period.”

Despite the risks that accompany disability entrepreneurship, the upside and potential rewards are huge too.

It is, perhaps, not a journey that everyone can embark on but the good news for anyone thinking of taking the plunge is that there has probably never been a better time in history to do it.

Workplace disability inclusion awareness might be growing but still has a long way to go.

However, thanks to the likes of Disability:IN, supplier diversity programs are a well-established practice and can help join the dots.

It might just take a whole new business skill and level of strategic planning to understand how to plug into and optimize the growing level of support that’s out there.

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