Volume 10; No. 1; Winter 1998
Small Business and the Disability Community
By Laurie Posner, World Institute on Disability
Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 signaled
a new era of integration for scores of Americans. After two decades of
advocacy and policy development, the ADA formally recognized that └persons
with disabilities had been Ăsubjected to a history of purposeful and unequal
treatment│ primarily due to stereotypical assumptions that society holds."
The law requires that the United States establish new programs and policies
based on the goals of respect, inclusion and equality of opportunity.
The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability. In this regard,
one of its most important sections is Title I which seeks to remove barriers
to employment and promote equal access to the workplace.
While the ADA has paved the way for significant improvements in employment
access, much remains to be done to increase job opportunities for Americans
with disabilities. Today, seven years after the ADA│s implementation,
many people with disabilities continue to be unemployed and underemployed;
many live in poverty.
Individuals with disabilities and a growing number of service providers
recognize that addressing these problems will require innovative approaches.
These approaches must also consider the 21st century workplace, where
changes in the economy and global marketplace have resulted in downsizing,
restructured worksites, and the increasing use of contingent, temporary,
and leased employees.
Why Focus on People with Disabilities?
Over 50 million Americans have a disability.
Of this population, nearly 30 million are of working age. According to
the 1990 census, over 60% (18 million people) of these working-age individuals
are unemployed. In short, people with disabilities have been denied access
to the employment market and the economic mainstream at exceptionally
Because of the high levels of unemployment and dependence on public benefits,
most individuals with disabilities exist on poverty-level income. The
Disability Statistics, Rehabilitation, Research and Training Center reports
- Within the working-age population (16-64), 30% of people with work
disabilities live below the poverty level, compared to 10.2% of those
without work disabilities. Among people with severe disabili- ties,
35.8 percent have incomes be low the poverty level.
- Within certain segments of the disability population, poverty rates
are even higher. On average, women with disabilities employed full-time
earn only 65% of the earnings of men with disabilities employed full-time.
Among disabled women who have children less than 6 years of age, 72.9%
are living in poverty.
University reports that people with disabilities who are members of
racial and ethnic minorities are consistently └at the bottom of the
Profiles of Success The high unemployment and poverty rates faced by
disabled people do not reflect their talents, energies and abilities.
People with disabilities, employed at all levels of government and private
industry, bring unique skills and abilities to the workplace. A 1995 study
conducted by Global Strategy Group, Inc. found that three quarters of
America│s top manufacturing, communications, and technology companies
are now hiring people with disabilities. A nationwide study conducted
by Louis Harris and Associates in 1995 revealed that nearly 90% of surveyed
employers were so pleased with their new workers that they supported policies
to increase the number of people with disabilities in their companies.
Studies also indicate that the vast majority of unemployed persons with
disabilities want to work, but are prevented from doing so by architectural
and attitudinal barriers. Furthermore, entrepreneurs with disabilities
show the same rates of success as their non-disabled counterparts in starting
| Historically, people with disabilities
have been denied access to the employment market and the economic
mainstream at exceptionally high rates.
Why Small Business?
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses
employ 53% of the private workforce and provide virtually all of our nation│s
new jobs. Described as the └fastest growing sector of our economy," the
number of small businesses in the U.S. has increased 49% since 1982. Between
1987 and 1992, the U.S. saw a 61% growth in women and minority-owned firms
(including sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S-corporations). According
to recent projections issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, small-firm-dominated
sectors of the economy will contribute about 60% of new jobs between 1994
Given these economic trends, the changing workplace, and the meteoric
growth of small business, people with disabilities and their advocates
are looking seriously at self-employment options. Advancements in assistive
8 and the increased
availability of personal assistance services, make the self-employment
option even more viable.
Entrepreneurs with disabilities show the same rates
of success as their non-disabled counterparts in starting new businesses.
In the last decade, the growing interest in microenterprise development
within the disability community has generated some unique public/private
partnerships. Notable examples of self-employment strategies that provide
services to people with disabilities include the Small Business Development
Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which offers business counseling, training,
resource identification and development services; the Onondaga Small Business
Development Center in Syracuse, New York; and the Business Opportunity
Success System (Project Bo$$) in Columbus, Ohio.
As government programs build greater flexibility into their guidelines,
people with disabilities can more easily explore self-employment. Along
these lines, the Social Security Administration has adopted a series of
Work Incentives that allow greater flexibility in self-employment for
its beneficiaries. Through this year│s reauthorization of the Rehabilitation
Act, language will be introduced that encourages vocational rehabilitation
providers to consider self-employment as a viable option for persons with
The President│s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities is
developing new Internet resources to support self-employment. The U.S.
Rehabilitation Services Administration, the primary funder of vocational
rehabilitation for people with disabilities, has dedicated staff to study
Still, efforts to support entrepreneurs with disabilities are in their
infancy, and a great number of resources remain untapped. Among these
resources are small business technical assistance providers that have
successfully provided skills to non-disabled entrepreneurs. Many of these
organizations are just beginning to serve the disability community.
William Malleris, a wheelchair user from Naperville,
Illinois, developed Maple Court Apartments, a 48-unit accessible
apartment building which is home to at least 20 disabled residents.
David Birnbaum, a deaf entrepreneur, founded
Silver Spring, Maryland-based Birnbaum Interpreting Services to
provide convenient and low-cost sign language interpreting services.
Heidi Can Arnem, a 30 year-old wheelchair
user, owns and operates a successful Birmingham, Alabama, travel
agency called Travel Headquarters.
James Gianulis, a quadriplegic and real estate
and tax attorney in La Jolla, California, is also CEO of Pacific
Companies, a real estate investment firm.
Fred Rehders, who has paraplegia, owns Pegasus,
a Garland, Texas-based wholesale screen printing company that he
started as an income-producing hobby in his garage.
What Role Can Banks Play?
As a starting point, financial institutions can (and must) provide bank
products and services to people with disabilities in the same manner that
they support the small- and micro-business needs of other individuals.
Further, it is important to recognize that a large percentage of people
with disabilities are low-income, and could therefore benefit from a bank│s
community reinvestment products and services. Financial institutions can
work to overcome discriminatory practices that may inhibit people with
disabilities from applying (and qualifying) for small business loans.
Banks can proactively do this by incorporating sensitivity training into
their fair lending programs.
Through their support of micro-business technical assistance providers,
banks can also work with the disability community by learning about successful
programs that support budding entrepreneurs. For example, the Federal
Reserve Bank of San Francisco has hosted meetings with representatives
from Wells Fargo Bank, Computer Technology Program, and the Rehabilitation
Services Administration to consider ways to support and finance entrepreneurs.
The group│s first effort will be to provide assistance to nonprofit, small
business technical assistance providers who will receive referrals from
California Department of Rehabilitation (CDR) vocational counselors. CDR
counselors not only assist their clients in becoming job ready, but also
in researching and paying for appropriate educational resources. CDR can
also provide limited funds to support the new business endeavors of their
Numerous studies indicate that the vast majority of non-working people
with disabilities want to work, but are prevented from doing so by architectural
and attitudinal barriers. Not only is there a demand for work, but increasingly,
there is a recognition that self-employment is a viable option. The disability
community is therefore beginning to look at the experiences of women and
other minority communities who have garnered the economic resources to
start businesses and create employment markets within their communities.
...it is important to recognize that a large percentage
of people with disabilities are low-income, and could therefore
benefit from a bank│s community reinvestment products and services.
1 West, J. Evolution of Disability
Rights in └Implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act Rights and
Responsibilities of All Americans," edited by Lawrence O. Gostin and Henry
A. Beyer, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. 1993. West quotes (42 U.S.C.
Ú12102[a]) from the Americans with Disabilities Act.
2 According to the U.S. Census
Bureau (1994-1995), approximately 54 million Americans report some level
of disability and 26 million describe their disability as severe. The
Census Bureau defines disability as difficulty in performing functional
activities (seeing, hearing, talking, walking, carrying a bag of groceries)
or activities of daily living (getting in or out of bed or a chair, bathing,
dressing, eating). A person with a severe disability is defined as one
who is completely unable to perform one of these activities or a person
who needs personal assistance.
3 LaPlante, M. P., Kennedy,
J., Kaye, S. H., & Wenger, B. L. (1996)└Disability and Employment," Disability
Studies Abstract, Number 11.
4 Bowe, F. (1992), Adults with
Disabilities: A Portrait, President│s Committee on Employment of People
with Disabilities, Washington, D.C.
5 Ibid., Source: 1995 CPS data
from unpublished tabulations provided by John M. McNeil, U.S. Bureau of
6 Asbury, C.A., Walker, S.,
Maholmes, V., Rackley, R., White, S., └Disability Prevalence and Demographic
Association Among Race/Ethnic Minority Populations in the United States:
Implications for the 21st Century," Monograph Series Number Two, The Howard
University Research and Training Center for Access to Rehabilitation and
Economic Opportunity, School of Education, Howard University, Washington,
7 Excerpted from a speech by
Tony Coelho, entitled └Employing People with Disabilities Makes Good Business
8 Technology that assists people
with disabilities in accomplishing everyday tasks. Examples include motorized
wheelchairs, computer screen readers, optical character recognition systems
and voice synthesizers.
Posner manages the Center on Economic Development and Disability at the
World Institute on Disability (WID) in Oakland, California. The Center
is a new initiative that was established in January 1997, to advance national
research and policy on employment options for persons with disabilities.
WID is a non-profit organization founded in 1983 by leaders of the Independent
Living Movement which serves as a center for public policy on disability
and independent living.
For more information on small business and self-employment opportunities
for people with disabilities, please contact Laurie Posner at the World
Institute on Disability, (510) 251-4340.