Self-Employment – The Key to Career Success for Those with Disabilities

by Tonia Boterf

Having a job is important for many reasons; money, social contact, routine, self-esteem, benefits, enjoying what you do, making a difference, using your mind and body and more.

Now imagine that in one split second or over time, you’ve lost a major physical or mental ability. Not only will you be out of work for an extended period of time but you may not be able to ever go back to doing your previous job.

Jump forward several years and envision trying to get healthy enough to have a quality life while living on disability income, trying to re-enter the job market and/or trying to do different jobs but failing. This not only affects a person financially but most importantly, their self-esteem and relationships. If you can’t contribute to society or your family or take care of things at home or yourself, where do you find success?

Self-employment is the key for many people with disabilities to get back to working, find financial security and believe in themselves–and usually to help others believe in them too. Self-employment offers people a means to work around their challenges and/or disabilities. This is especially true for those who can’t work the fixed hours in the "typical" job market.

So why are so many employment programs against self-employment? Many agencies think that people with disabilities can’t handle the stress or complexities of being self-employed—–this is determined by people who usually have no business background themselves. Self-employment does a high rate of failure, but I can find no research finding that it's any higher for people with disabilities.

Success in self-employment is a matter of smart planning, along with possessing the right qualities and mindset–and that is true of anyone, with or without a disability.

I spent years working as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, helping people with severe disabilities to re-enter the employment field or to become self-employed. To be successful in either endeavor, it all comes down to knowing each person's unique skills and determining how they can best be used. Accommodations and adaptations are crucial for success but not as much as the art of planning and finding the RIGHT employment spot for someone's particular physical and/or mental challenges and/or disabilities.

Aside from doing this work, I also have the personal experience of having multiple disabilities, as well as a daughter with challenges and disabilities and a mother who had physical disabilities. This journey is hard but not impossible. Here are some key elements to success for people who have disabilities and want to be self-employed:

  1. Know yourself WELL—what you can and cannot do. For example, you may learn through trial and error that your work stamina is about 20 hours in a 7-day week but you can only do four consecutive hours at any one time.
  2. Evaluate if you really are able to handle self-employment or if there is a better alternative such as working as a sub-contractor.
  3. Determine your marketable skill or what/where/how you will learn one.
  4. Complete business and marketing plans. You never spend a dime in starting a business until you know it could succeed.
  5. Figure out the accommodations and adaptations you will need to relieve stress, do tasks you cannot do, and make your time the most financially productive. The Job Accommodation Network ( is a tremendous resource for equipment ideas.
  6. Take a volunteer position to increase your stamina, get your brain working, learn new skills, get into a routine and hone your social skills.
  7. Be prepared for highs/lows in every area—financial, emotional, self-esteem, relationships, stamina and business growth. Set your goals, work and think smart, believe in yourself, and set your sights on the long term.
  8. Have a support system in place, including a business coach. Someone who understands you, your needs and self-employment is a must-have, too. Build in the cost for this professional support–this investment will help you significantly towards attaining success.

Work is important to everyone in many ways but for those who have disabilities, it means even more. Self-employment requires smart planning and creative thinking, and this is even truer for people with disabilities.

Self-employment for those with challenges and/or disabilities is often a great opportunity to work again and it should be encouraged and supported by others, as well as by Federal and State agencies*. Working people are happier people and they contribute more to society. People with challenges and/or disabilities just want a chance and if you give it to them, you’ll see amazing things accomplished.

* Note that each State’s Department of Labor houses the Office of Rehabilitation, which offers free services to people who are visually impaired, hearing impaired and those who have severe physical and/or mental disabilities. They will assist in gaining new skills, education, getting a job or becoming self-employed. Instead of relying on your State’s Vocational Rehabilitation regulations or guidelines, go by the Federal law as they supersede the usually more limited State requirements. If you press it with the Federal Law, you’re more likely to get the full benefits and services you are entitled to. You also have free access to advocates, to help with any disputes with the Office of Rehabilitation.

This article was written by Tonia Boterf of The Practical Expert®. Tonia coaches boomers on caring for aging parents and starting a business. With over 25 years of experience, Tonia can offer customized solutions for your particular situation. Let's get started making a difference in your life!

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