Long workdays, nights filled with ceiling-gazing, scary financial risks: Entrepreneurs with disabilities experience the same challenges anyone does when launching a startup. Yet people with disabilities are almost twice as likely to be self-employed than people without a disability, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Getting around: ask those who know
Today, startups can tap into markets that have been long underserved, according to Jason DaSilva, creator of AXS Map, which details how accessible venues are to people with mobility disabilities. DaSilva’s launch was borne of his own experience: inadequate information about how to get around with a mobility disability.
DaSilva, who uses a wheelchair, sees a huge, untapped market for services like his. “People with disabilities are 20% of the world’s population,” DaSilva said. “There are many underserved populations. It’s an up-and-coming market.”
That doesn’t mean the journey is easy, though. “I face barriers every day,” he said. “My biggest challenge [now] is scaling up and finding the correct number of people to work with.” His advice for people with disabilities who dream bigger than a routine job? “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” he said. “Staying on target is the biggest thing. Make sure you remain focused on your idea.”
Social good and profit together
“Mistakes don't scare me anymore. We just get back up and try a new way,” says Elise Sampson, owner of Reason to Bake, a gluten-free bakery that also aims to train and employ special needs employees. Sampson’s daughter, Carolyn, who has Down syndrome, is a team member who bakes and will help with training in this family-owned business. “We are a for-profit business with a social agenda,” said Sampson, who says she hopes to encourage other businesses to follow their lead.
Like many entrepreneurs, the Sampson family started with just their own resources, but people have stepped up to help along the way. Clemson University’s Packaging Science students redesigned their packaging and did nutritional and shelf-life testing as a senior project. “A local coffee shop let us use their kitchen after hours for free and they were our first customer. It has been shoestring all the way. But we have had a lot of people come alongside us, because they believed in our vision, to help with photography, graphics, bookkeeping…,” Sampson explained. Reason to Bake’s cookies are now in fourteen stores, and they bake in a commercial kitchen two days a week.
Sampson’s advice to other startup hopefuls? “Go after your dream! Look for a need that you can fill. You carry something inside of you that the world around you needs. Start small…be willing to learn…work hard. Don't give up,” Sampson urged.
“We started our business because our daughter had a dream to be a baker. But more importantly, she wanted to be recognized as an adult. She didn't want people to discount her and not expect anything of her...she wanted to be taken seriously. I can understand that because we all have that need to be valued for who we are. Young people like Carolyn give me hope. If they are willing to try, then so am I. Together we can change the world.”
Help is available
Resources are available to help entrepreneurs, some geared toward people with disabilities. Reason to Bake began by self-funding, and they’re launching their crowdfunding on September 14, 2016. Da Silva received funding from Google Earth Outreach, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the Canada Media Fund. Entrepreneurs with disabilities can also contact the Washington State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, the Job Accommodation Network, or the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability.
JoAnne Dyer is a freelance editor, write, and our reporter covering tribal issues. Her editing clients include indie publishers, nonprofits, small businesses, and authors.