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The rise of the #disabilitypreneur

For people with disabilities, employment is not a human right that has been fully realised in Australia.

In 2016, the Australian Human Rights Commission provided the Willing to Work Inquiry report (‘AHRC Report’) which confirmed that the labour force participation rates for people with disabilities are low. Unemployment rates at the time of the AHRC Report were 53.4% for people with disabilities compared to 83.2% for people without disabilities. Recent data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare continued to show this trend and confirmed the doubled unemployment rate for people with disabilities (at 10% compared to 5% of people without disabilities). The AHRC Report identified the most significant barrier to employment for people with disabilities is discrimination and stereotypes. A quote from the report said:

Discrimination in the workplace actively drives people out of the workforce and into despair. There is a huge need for education programs in workplaces, from CEO level through to base level to appreciate what disability is and how to bust the stereotypes.

The AHRC Report also found (although I am sure you do not need a report to tell you this) that not having equal opportunity in employment has negative flow-on effects for a person’s health and their social and economic security. And if you don’t care much about people’s individual experiences, having more of the population in employment boosts Australia’s economic capacity. That is good for everyone.

You may be thinking at this point that this is a blog for better training for industry and organisations or greater discrimination provisions in the law to protect people when things go bad. Nope. All of those things are true. Readers who are employers, organisations, members of the workforce should treat people equally and with respect. You should not have low expectations of people with disabilities, and you need to come to realise (quickly) that people with disabilities are every bit as human, equal and deserving as you are. But that isn’t what this is about. I want to dig into how the current trend of startups, entrepreneurs and small business is the most ingenious way for people with disabilities to take matters into their own hands and creating their own meaningful employment!

In the last blog about employment rights, I spoke about the current options available to people with disabilities. You may remember, but a quick recap:

  1. Open employment (can be good but littered with discrimination and horrific stereotyping)

  2. Australian Disability Enterprises (not good, paid a pittance for menial work)

  3. Start a business

The first and second option is not unique to people with disabilities. They are options available to everyone. But when we know that open employment is infested with negative attitudes, discrimination and stereotypes you can see why people with disabilities may be cautious about attempting for the first time or going down that road if they have had a bad time before.

The third option though is very trendy right now. The rise of startups in Australia is a legitimate trend. In 2019, Australia ranked fifth in the world as an attractive place to launch and run a startup. Here in South Australia, we even have a Chief Entrepreneur appointed by the South Australian Government. I don’t know if it is just the bubble I live in, but I see more examples of everyday people creating, inventing and branching out on their own more than ever. It is all over social media; people are writing books about it and streaming podcasts on their endeavours. Here are some cool examples, but there are so many more! A recent study found that young people (aged 18-39) are leading the charge with a new focus of startups that “give back” and socially conscious.

Starting your own business or being an entrepreneur is not for everyone but for some people it can provide them with a space to create, innovate and be themselves, earn a living and surround themselves with other people who share the same values. When I write that, it feels like I am writing the anti-venom to discrimination in the workplace. All workplaces should foster those ideals in employment.

In the disability space, this concept seems to be taking a few different forms. Some people are consulting on their area of expertise (and getting paid for it), some are disability-led organisations like Equality Lawyers, Flluske and Bioptic Drivers Australia and others identify as “micro-enterprises”. Micro-enterprises are a vehicle for people with disabilities to have their own business with a funded support worker to help them do the work in their business. Micro-enterprises offer goods or services for a fee which, like all small businesses, becomes the income for that person. Consistent with all entrepreneurs and startups, some people with disability are starting micro-enterprises to create their own employment and/or want to create a new good or service that isn’t available on the market.

But this is not a new-2019-themed-revelation, it has been bubbling along for some time. Back in 2011, before Australia was a high ranking hot spot for startups, the Community Living Project in South Australia ran a Micro-Enterprise Project which trialled the idea of people with significant disabilities starting their own business as an alternative to a day options program. It was started by a mother whose son wanted to run a lawn mowing business when he left school.

In 2013, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that people with disabilities were more likely to run a business than those without a disability. And since then, the NDIS has swung into “full Scheme”, and people are matching their goals to get the funded supports they need to start and run a business. There has also been grants and projects that have sprung up to support and delve into this concept of people with disabilities being entrepreneurs to overcome employment barriers.

Whether you are a consultant, starting up a disability-led organisation or micro-enterprise, there is a common thread - you! It gives the power back to people with disabilities to decide how we work, why we work, and what we do. It is not about people with disabilities, creating an alternative workforce to the exclusion of open employment opportunities with other businesses. Remember, those businesses need to pull up their socks and start employing people with disabilities! But it is about, people with disabilities making the call just like every other startup! Most startups have a beginning story of wanting to go it alone because what they have to offer is especially unique to what is already available or their personal circumstances better suit a person-driven employment model (hello mumpreneurs!). This is the same version of that.

Welcome to the age of #disabilitypreneurs, we are officially on-trend in the employment market!

P.S. As a follow up from this post, I would love to interview a person with a disability (or many people) who is an entrepreneur, startup business etc. etc. for another blog post. Email me at hello@equalitylawyers.com.au or get in touch via any of the socials (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn).

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