A YEAR AGO,
Ren Monllor, a single father in Lakeland, Fla., was supporting his family solely with his $1,000-a-month disability payment. “We couldn’t buy hot dogs,” says 54-year-old Monllor, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. As his finances deteriorated, Monllor decided he’d try to turn his hobby of handcrafting bamboo fly-fishing rods into a business.
Like any entrepreneur, Monllor was concerned about turning profits and winning customers. But unlike most other small-business owners, he had something else to worry about: Would his self-employment income wipe out his government benefits, including health insurance? And would the stress of running a business further hamper his mental health?
People with disabilities or chronic conditions face unique challenges when they embark on the path to entrepreneurship. The good news is that a growing number of resources are now opening doors once previously closed to this group. Technology, too, has made it possible for many disabled entrepreneurs to work from home or even a medical center should the need arise.
While it’s unclear how many disabled entrepreneurs currently run small businesses, government data suggests that the group has a higher rate of self-employment than people without disabilities. The Labor Department’s
Office of Disability Employment Policy
reports that people with disabilities often want to work for themselves because their conditions — whether physical, emotional or developmental — can make it difficult to work for other people.
As a result, there’s chronic underemployment among people with disabilities. Only about one in three people with disabilities are employed, compared to eight out of 10 without disabilities, according to Cornell Univerity’s 2007 Disability Status report.
“People want to work — it’s the number one thing that people with disabilities ask for,” says Cary Griffin, co-founder of
, a Florence, Mont., consulting firm that focuses on disability and employment. Yet, it’s difficult to secure jobs. Potential employers may be reluctant to hire a person with physical or mental limitations. And a person with disabilities may lack skills and confidence. As a result, self-employment is often the best option, he says, as it offers flexibility and independence.
Here are some common hurdles people with disabilities often face while starting their own business:
Hanging onto Government Aid
In the past decade, a number of legislative changes (such as the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998) have made it possible for people with disabilities to essentially try out self-employment without losing public aid, such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. (Typically, disability payments are contingent upon a person being unemployed). Under current federal and state laws, people with disabilities typically lose those benefits if their assets exceed $2,000. An exception, however, exists for those who want to become self-employed. The Labor Department’s
Small Business Self Employment Service
provides information on how a disabled individual can add to their income while staying within public-aid program requirements.
The potential loss of Medicaid is probably the biggest fear disabled entrepreneurs have, says Griffin. “I know a lot of people who would die if they lost their health insurance — and there is no insurer (obtained privately) that will cover their condition,” he says.