Why the Paralympics must celebrate disabled entrepreneurs

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Amid the noise about the London 2012 Paralympics, business owners with disabilities are forgotten despite their huge potential, says Robert Craven.

If you go to Google and type in 'business owners with disabilities' or 'disabled small business owners' and click on the 'UK' button to find out just what is available in terms of websites, resources and tools for business owners with disabilities, what do you get? Not much.

There is no shortage of articles dealing with employees and customers who are disabled. However, there is just one entry on the Google front page for people with disabilities who are actually running their own businesses.

So, what's going on? All this discussion on the Paralympics website about diversity and inclusion and yet an absence of defining who is or is not a paralympic athlete. Very strange. Surely, the Paralympics celebrates the elite performances of athletes who are disabled or challenged. I think that is the case. It is difficult to know from the website.

So, enough waffle. My point is pretty straightforward.

According to the Disability Living Foundation, there are over 6.9m people of working age with disabilities which represents 19% of the working population.

Could we extrapolate that if 19% of the working age population is disabled, then, all things being equal, some 19% of small businesses would be run by people with disabilities? You could round that figure down to 15%. In that case, I would like to believe that some 15% of the 4 million small businesses (i.e. 600,000 businesses) would be run by individuals with disabilities.

Well, it takes little to know that this is nonsense. In the last 10 events I ran I saw 1,000 small business people. I am only aware of maybe five individuals who had overtly recognisable 'special needs' (a requirement for disabled access, poor sight and poor hearing issues). So, we could add maybe another 10 or 20 to that number for those people attending who had less obvious needs. Even then we’d only have 2.5% and not the anticipated 15%. I know I am not being scientific here but it seems that the population with disabilities and small business rarely go together.

When we first consider the issue, the only ‘famous’ business-person with a disability that most/some people are explicitly aware of is Dr. Martin Sabry, who got thrown off an EasyJet flight. And of course there is Simon Weston, the Falklands hero, author, public speaker and charity supporter. But the list (for the man or woman in the street) seems to run dry here.

But some disabilities are less visible. There is a history of associating dyslexia with entrepreneurship. Articles such as Why Dyslexics Make Great Entrepreneurs argue that the ‘disability’ may actually be an asset. There’s even a Top 30 Dyslexic Entrepreneurs including Ford, Branson, Hewlett, Jobs, Wrigley, Spielberg, Hilfiger, Woolworth, Disney, Rockefeller, Watson, Edison, Roddick, and Bell; not a bad roster. Again, the man or woman on the street is probably not aware of what an impressive list this is. It contains six of my business heroes! So, some disabilities do go with entrepreneurship. However, I am not sure if being dyslexic qualifies you for the Paralympics.

And now for the big but...

It is agreed that the real skill in running a great business is in the thinking, design and planning. Working on the business, not just in it. Spotting an opportunity and marshalling the resources and making things happen. Thinking outside the box. This is probably why dyslexics can make great entrepreneurs. So, leaving out all the possible excuses, I still don’t understand why there are not more businesses run by people with disabilities.

In fact, with all this fuss about Paralympics, why isn't there a fuss being made about businesses run by people with disabilities? So much for the Equalities Act and the rest of the rhetoric, it is time for someone to represent and lobby and fight for the opportunity for people with disabilities to run their own businesses.

Robert Craven shows MDs and business owners how to grow their sales and profits and focuses on how to do this in recessionary times. His latest book 'Grow Your Service Firm' is out now!

For more on the Olympics, Paralympics and small businesses, visit our special London 2012 section.

About Robert Craven

Robert Craven

Robert Craven is an international keynote business speaker, author, consultant and owner of The Directors’ Centre, a consulting and training company which helps owner-directors run the business they want to run.

His latest book, Grow Your Digital Agency, which provides the business fundamentals that every growing agency needs to address, is out now!


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By David Evans
29th Aug 2012 12:06

Im sure the number of people who are disabled that run busineses is larger than many would first think, however, the paralympics will help in not only raising awareness and tolerance but also in shining a light on individuals who are able to run successful organisations and provide inspiration to younger entrepreneurs whether they are disabled or not. 


-- Dave Evans Commercial Director at accessplanit, specialist in training administration software and learning management system

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By Mumptie
29th Aug 2012 13:23


I am a disabled entrepreneur!  I am 55, female and have a range of disabilities that mean I am not particularly mobile.

Last year, when I was made redundant I talked to the local job centre about the optiions available for me to start a new business - there were none until I had been unemployed for 6 months and then only the NEA which, quite frankly, is not really worth the effort.

If I was young and able bodied I would be able to get loads of support and help but because I am old thereis very little help around.


Having said all that I am getting on with a new business venture and it will be successful.


Carole Gallant - create a future

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By Cupcakegirl
29th Aug 2012 13:41

 The problem is that people don't understand what disability is. According to the Equality Act definition, a disability is having a condition which significantly impacts your ability to do day-to-day activities on a longterm basis. Disability is much more complex than wheelchair use, or profound hearing / vision impairment.

Personally I think you'll find there are many more disabled entrepreneurs than you realise as most disabilities are invisible, and many disabled people struggle to function in a traditional working environment. I started my own business last year, because chronic illness meant I was unable to continue working full time, and the appalling criteria for ESA meant that I wasn't eligible, despite having to leave my job because I physically could not do it.

The main issue is that many disabled entrepreneurs are terrified of being 'found out' in the fear that it will affect perception and take up of our services. If people knew about my significant health problems, many would not use my services, despite the fact I've never cancelled a class or performed badly as a result of my illness.

I know many women with the same condition as me who work for themselves as they can no longer have a traditional job. They are very secretive too. The issue isn't whether there are enough disabled entrepreneurs - it's public perception of our abilities that's the problem.

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By ChrisSmithUK
29th Aug 2012 13:48

The opening to this post really intrigued me.

As somebody who works in online marketing, it is of no surprise that the searches mentioned yeilded very little in the way of the results you were looking for.

The first logical reason for this, is that successful businesses would sell on their USPs and I cannot see much benefit to labouring the point of them being disabled.

Secondly, there are many charities, advisaries and hugely authoritive sites that have more relavance to information relevant to those with disabilities, to make the work and resources ranking for such a search, a fruitless marketing exercise.

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By alandbs
29th Aug 2012 16:25


Robert, you are right we do need to celebrate the hidden group of business owners with disabilities. There are some likely reasons why you have not come across these people at your events.

  • Some do not see themselves as having disabilities.
  • Lack of confidence for a number of this group.
  • Some don't want to raise their profile for fear of discrimination.
  • The training sector is not very good at penetrating this market segment.

I have some experience and understanding of this market segment. Back in 1992 I became the manager of a business training centre and one of the more diverse set of training programmes that were being run there was Women Returner Programmes providing ICT skills/qualifications combined with job search/interview training under ESF funding.

Months later we piloted an adapted version of these programmes for people with disabilities to help them get into work. As we were also running business start up and growth programmes I decided to add a 1/2 day session on starting a business as an option as an alternative to finding a job. As became evident many participants had found problems with employers giving them a chance so starting a business was maybe their only realistic opportunity to escape from the 'Benefit Trap.' As this proved popular with the participants I obtained some limited ESF funding to design and pilot a redesigned and extended business start up programmes which I ran in three locations in the County.

We first had problems recruiting participants as they were worried about losing their benefit whilst they attended the programme but I had overcome this by designing the programme so that each week the attendees were there for less than 16 hours per week. Eventually we filled the 3 pilot programmes that were being run at the same time in 3 locations.

As well as the usual mix of training and business mentoring sessions we added advice on benefits etc.

The programmes proved very popular with registered disabled people and yes a few of them were people with repetitive strain injuries caused by typing etc. but also some severe disabilities. I acted as lead tutor on all of the programmes and I can tell you that often the participants were more motivated than some of the attendees without disabilities on the mainstream programmes.

A good example was someone I will call Fred, (not his real name). Fred had multiple health issues he was wheelchair bound an suffered from cerebral palsy, had an oxygen tank on his wheelchair due to breathing problems and an hearing aid. Fred fought to come onto the programme as he wanted to escape his home environment and become less dependent on benefits. During the programme which lasted several weeks, Fred was taken to hospital several times with breathing difficulties including twice when an ambulance had to be called during training sessions but he always came back and caught up.

During one early session we discussed the participants business ideas Fred explained his was to offer servicing of mobility scooters at more competitive prices as 'charges were very high.' When I asked who was going to do the servicing and repairs he explained that once his Father had unloaded the scooter (his dad had a missing leg) he would throw himself out of his wheelchair onto the floor and work on the scooter. Once finished he would haul himself back into his wheelchair. Fred of course completed the programme and started a successful business. As you can imagine I shed a few tears during these programmes. About 1/3 of the participants went on to start a business.

Many of the people who I have helped with starting and growing businesses over the span of time since have set up working from home and of course a large number are now internet based businesses. This is why you have not seen many.

As part of my portfolio of services I provide business mentoring services over the internet using the easily accessible free platforms which is ideal for this client group.

So lets celebrate and shout about these unsung heroes just like their Paralympic counterparts.

Alan Briggs @BizzyBizExpert http://www.dynamicbusinessstrategies.co.uk/ 



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By RobertCraven
30th Aug 2012 11:54

Thanks for your kind words.

I do hope that t he paralympics will help in not only raising awareness and tolerance but also in shining a light on individuals who are able to run successful organisations.

It has certainly started in the right direction,


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By RobertCraven
30th Aug 2012 11:56


Thanks for your comments.  I had hoped that you might get a bit more support than what you have suggested.

but... yes, go for it. 

Exciting times.  Good luck


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By RobertCraven
30th Aug 2012 11:58

 I think you are probably right that there are more than I think. I guess the mere fact that the numbers are so vague is an issue for concern. Self-emplotment is clearly a route for some and should be encouraged. I see little evidence (so far) that this is the case.


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By RobertCraven
30th Aug 2012 12:03


In hindsight I agree that googling the terms was a little naive but it was a starting point. I was looking to find support and information for people with disabilities who were interested in entrepreneurship or running their own business. Clearly the terms disabled etc get used for employers etc 

Having said that I am still surprised how difficult it is to find too much about how/if one should go about finding out about setting up or running a business if you are encountering certain difficulties/challenges. I had hoped that there would bemore support/information available. And more discussion of the subject. Seems to be a little buit swept under the carpet.


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By RobertCraven
30th Aug 2012 12:06


Thnak you so much for your comment which confirm much of my thinking.

As you say

"So lets celebrate and shout about these unsung heroes just like their Paralympic counterparts."



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By RobertCraven
05th Sep 2012 12:32

 A post sent by  email by someone who wanted it posted here:

“How many business people regard themselves as disabled?  How many of these people actually admit to being disabled?  Most people who are not business entrepreneurs but employees, housewives/husbands, family members, lovers and carers, to name but a few, will not admit to having a disability unless it is obvious.  Why do people think that business people will be any different?  The majority of people have a hidden sense of guilt when it comes to disability.  I know lots of business people who are disabled but who will not admit it to their peers because they think that they will be seen somehow as “weak” or less capable in their colleagues’ eyes.  As many small businesses are ‘one man bands’, admitting that they have a disability will not enhance but may destroy the image they are trying to create.  
In the last census in 2001, (I have not seen any figures yet for 2011), there were 11.7 million people in this country with a disability.  Only 3.6 million of those were wheelchair users, the most obvious ‘in your face’ disability and of course we must not forget those who have a facial disfigurement.  The majority of disabled people are those with a hearing impairment (8.7 million).  There were approximately 1 million sight impaired people at the 2001 census.  
Disability is like an iceberg, 5% above the surface, and 95% below.  Those who have a hidden disability fall into many categories such as diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, learning difficulties and mental health issues.  These disabilities are managed everyday by a large number of people and to look at them you would not realise that they have a disability, so to come right out and say “I have a disability” is a huge statement when you are running your own business and especially if you are a start up an d need people’s custom.  That is probably why there are insufficient statistics to inform the business world about the numbers of disabled business people.   
I have a disability.  I don’t mind people knowing because it helps me with my business, as I am an Equality, Diversity, and Disability Consultant.  It is part of my job, but for a lot of people it is not in their job description.  
Any admission may not assist them in getting contracts or picking up business if they admit that they have a weakness in whatever form it may take.  Admission of a disability has to be a cultural change and the Paralympics will go a long way towards helping people come out of their shell, but until business people themselves accept that this is not a taboo subject, it will always be difficult to recruit, employ and retain staff or win contracts.  It means a sea change in attitudes that I fear will take a long while to instigate.  After all, disability has been in the public domain since it was first raised by King Charles 1st back in the 1600’s!  After that, it has been down to wars to bring disability to the fore, and it has taken a long while to be recognised by some in the business world that disabled people are useful members of society providing they are given the tools and the environment in which to work productively.  
This view has yet to reach the majority.  Maybe the Paralympics will change all that but I won’t hold my breath when money means more to Company Directors and their shareholders than retaining staff who are loyal, work hard and have an interest in the company and its’ future development.” 
Susan Pattrick
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