Disabled Entrepreneurs Can Reap Benefits from Online Networking


While we all may have felt isolated during the pandemic, disabled entrepreneurs can feel particularly isolated, regardless of COVID-19. For disabled entrepreneurs, there are few people in our local communities that understand our challenges. Disabled entrepreneurs may find that they are the only person with a disability – visible or otherwise – in their local chamber of commerce or Elks Club or other networking group. The challenges of connecting with others when disabled are great. See Sarah Drakopoulou-Dodd, Disabled Entrepreneurs: Rewarding Work, Challenging Barriers, Building Support, at 5-6, Policy Brief, University of Strathclyde International Public Policy Institute (2015) (Link). Attending business networking events is an awkward challenge for someone who is simply introverted. Attending business networking events for a person with a disability can be impossible if the event is at a non-accessible facility or is conducted in such a way as to expose and exacerbate psychological disabilities.

For example: I remember attending a business networking event with a friend who had a stutter, where the host went around the room, asking guests to take 10 seconds each to introduce their business. My friend with the stutter became anxious, trying to introduce his business to a room with roughly 100 people in it. At this same event, the host unexpectedly popped balloons to get people’s attention. (If it wasn’t already clear, the host of this networking event was an asshole.) As a combat veteran with PTSD, I broke out into a cold sweat and nearly took cover beneath a table. However, even something as minor as having three steps leading into a room used for a networking event or having the door to a restroom be less than 36 inches in width can be obstacles for someone whose disability means they need to use a wheelchair. We typically do networking in a way that involves a group of entrepreneurs in a loud, crowded room (at least before COVID-19), meaning that hearing-impaired individuals are excluded.

No Business Can Survive Without Relationships

“I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it extremely comforting that we’re so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture, that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection… I am bound, you are bound, to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.” - John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation

Networking and building relationships is critically important to entrepreneurs. As an entrepreneur, it is important to be aware of your network and cultivate relationships with people who can help you grow your business. When I first started my business in Tacoma, Washington, for example, I had the benefit of having a local graphic designer mentor me and help me prosper and grow (Rhonda Negard, of Fat Dog Creatives, who is now gracing San Antonio, TX with her business). Entrepreneurs need to build relationships not just with potential clients or customers, but also with potential mentors or peers that can act as support networks.

A successful business requires strong networking and building relationships to remain afloat in what is, these days, a constantly shifting landscape. To be successful, entrepreneurs must not only have a viable product or service, but also must be able to forge partnerships with other businesses so that they are aligned with people that can help them generate new products and services. Building and maintaining relationships is crucial for entrepreneurs to stay ahead of the competition and ensure long-term success. See Maija Renko, Sarah Parker Harris, and Kate Caldwell, Entrepreneurial Entry by People with Disabilities, at 6, International Small Business Journal (2015) (link behind paywall).

Despite the Difficulties Present, Entrepreneurship is an Important Avenue for the Disabled

“See Bill? Here’s where it says you’re actually supposed to do some work.” Image by rawpixel.com

Entrepreneurship or self-employment is a popular option for individuals with disabilities. See Renko et al., at 1. “Those with disabilities in the United States are almost twice as likely to be self-employed… while European research also reports high self-employment rates by people with disabilities.” Ibid. The benefits to entrepreneurship for individuals with disabilities are many: self-scheduling, setting one’s own pace, minimization of commuting, and elimination of the need to get corporate approval for adaptive devices are among these benefits. See id., at 3. Nonetheless, there is very little information regarding networking for entrepreneurs with disabilities in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. See Drakopoulou-Dodd, at 3; Renko, et al., at 6; and Alex Maritz and Richard LaFerriere, Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment for People with Disabilities, at 5, Australian Journal of Career Development (July 2016) (Link).

De Facto Barriers to Disabled Participation in Business Networking Should Not Exist

President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans With Disabilities Act into law (July 26, 1990), courtesy National Park Service.

Disability was never supposed to be a barrier to entrepreneurship in the US. Since 1990, when President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law – or even before then, such as in 1974, when President Nixon signed the Rehabilitation Act into law – the US government has clarified that disability should not be a basis for intentional or unintentional discrimination in business, education, and other public services. The preamble of the Americans with Disabilities Act states that discrimination against individuals with disabilities can be “unjust, inappropriate and unfair.” And yet, despite that official stance, discriminatory exclusionary practices still exist.

At the same time that barriers exist to traditional networking scenarios with abled (and possibly ableist) entrepreneurs, we as disabled entrepreneurs may overlook the value of connecting with one another. No one understands the frustrations of being a disabled entrepreneur coming up against exclusionary practices (intentional or otherwise) better than another disabled entrepreneur. In the frustrations of doing business with a disability, disabled entrepreneurs often develop more empathy to the challenges of others. Disabled entrepreneurs have often had to find creative and unique solutions to challenges in their own careers, so they are more likely to see feasible solutions to challenges in the careers of others that non-disabled entrepreneurs would not consider.

I believe that, by joining an online community specifically for disabled entrepreneurs, individuals can gain access to a wealth of resources and support that would normally not be available to them in the traditional, crowded, loud, in-person networking setting. First, disabled entrepreneurs may not be in a local community that contains other disabled entrepreneurs. Online networking communities can bring people together with the same or similar disabilities across thousands of miles.

What Resources Currently Exist for Disabled Entrepreneurs?

The Disability Startup Network

2Gether-International uses its Disability Startup Network to provide disabled entrepreneurs with information and help in starting up a business that “recognizes disability as a competitive advantage rather than a weakness, ultimately turning disabled people into active drivers of change rather than passive recipients of services.” 2Gether uses peer-to-peer meetups to solve business problems, to provide coaching, and to provide a supportive network for disabled entrepreneurs.

The Disability Entrepreneurship Institute

The Disability Entrepreneurship Institute at the Viscardi Center, part of the National Center for Disability Entrepreneurship, provides disabled entrepreneurs access to a two-year program involving learning how to develop a start-up, professional benefits, a pitch competition, a network of mentors, and an alumni program. However, that program is, as I wrote, just two years long. Networking occurs – or should occur – at every point along the lifecycle of a business. The Viscardi Center appears to be (and I could be wrong) focused on providing services in the State of New York.

The Disabled Entrepreneurs Network

In the United Kingdom, the Coast-to-Capital Growth Hub has the Disabled Entrepreneurs Network (DEN) helps disabled entrepreneurs with networking and small business management information.

The Global Network for Entrepreneurs with Disabilities

The Global Network for Entrepreneurs with Disabilities is (or was) a part of the Life Development Institute, a non-profit in Arizona that focuses on childhood and young adult “learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, Autism spectrum disorders[,] and other related-conditions.” It advertises having a website for members along with a LinkedIn Group, however, both appear to be defunct. (If you are involved with the Global Network for Entrepreneurs with Disabilities, please let me know how to redirect people.)

Northern Ireland Business Info

Northern Ireland provides a website that acts as a clearinghouse of organizations that support disabled entrepreneurs across the United Kingdom. Also associated with the website’s info is a business helpline (0800 027 0639).

And… that’s it. While I found other groups that helped with job placement for people with disabilities, particularly developmental disabilities, I could not find other networking-focused business groups for disabled entrepreneurs online. This is, of course, subject to readership suggestions (I’ll update this article with any additions you can provide).

Conclusion

Disabled entrepreneurs can network with one another to find the resources and support they need to start or grow their businesses. Disabled entrepreneurs often have a unique perspective that can help them see problems in a new light and come up with solutions. They also have a wealth of knowledge and experience that other business owners may not be aware of. By networking with other disabled entrepreneurs, one can gain access to valuable resources, advice, and support.



Are You Interested in Online Networking for Disabled Entrepreneurs?

I’m exploring whether there is interest in online networking for disabled entrepreneurs, given the research above that shows the benefit of online networking. If you’re interested in something like this, I’ve created a sign-up form for you. This isn’t an attempt to sell you anything (or to get your contact info to sell to others). If there is interest in the Online Networking idea, I’d probably set it up as a non-profit anyway. Regardless, you can sign up via that form or you can email me at todd -at- tradecraftwriting.com.


A Note Concerning Citations: This post follows, loosely, the citation format of the Bluebook Universal System of Citation, used by the Harvard Law Review. While I respect the Bluebook, it is, like the Associated Press Stylebook and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, a book that is intended to make sales, which requires slight changes each edition. Each time their publishers make these slight changes, students and researchers end up having to pay millions (it’s no joke; the Bluebook costs $45.00) buying new copies of these books. I’m not interested in funding those slight changes, so I recommend readers follow the open source Basic Legal Citation Guide published by Cornell University at the Legal Information Institute (PDF link).

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