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A Guide to Self-Employment for People with Disabilities

By Julie Jensen
Self-Employment Services Specialist at Easterseals Wisconsin

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Self-employment offers employment flexibility for individuals with disabilities that cannot be found when working for someone else. The business owner is able to adjust work hours depending upon how they are feeling on a particular day. They can work more when feeling good and work less or take a day off when disability issues create problems. Often self-employment becomes the only employment option for people with disabilities. Being self-employed provides income, feelings of independence and gratification by feeling needed and wanted while providing valuable service(s) or product(s) for the business customers.

Many questions need to be asked and answered to help an individual determine if their self-employment goal is feasible, a good fit for their skills, interests, proposed market area, and disability issues.

Determine your self-employment goal.

  • Do you have a hobby or special interest that you would like to turn into a business?
  • Are there skills you already have or could learn that will allow you to provide service(s) and/or product(s) that are marketable?
  • Do you see a need in your market area that is not currently being met by other businesses?

The answers to any or all of these questions can help you select a self-employment goal.

When you have selected a self-employment goal define the tasks you will need to complete to provide the service(s) and/or product(s) in your business.

  • Will you need some type of disability accommodation(s) to perform business tasks?
  • Do you have friends and/or family that will provide assistance to you in the operation of your business to complete any tasks you are unable to perform due to disability issues?
  • Will it be necessary to hire an employee to accomplish those tasks and if so can the business afford that expense?

All U.S. states and U.S. territories have Independent Living Centers and they may be able to help you with recommendations if you need disability related accommodations to operate your business.

What will it cost to start and operate your business?

  • Determine what is necessary to start the business.
  • Talk to a business owner operating a similar business (in or outside your market area) as they may be willing to help you with recommendations of the essential items needed to start the business.
  • Do independent research to determine business start-up needs.The more research you complete on what is needed for business development the better your financial decisions will be in business development.

It is important to start a business with the necessary items but you do not want to invest money at start-up for items that are not necessary or practical. Be sure to include in the business operational expenses business insurance costs, accounting fees, cost for supplies, transportation costs, marketing fees, professional memberships, facility costs, employee costs if you plan to hire to operate your business, and any other expenses you will have while operating your business.

How do you plan to obtain funding for business development?

Do you have access to the money necessary for business development? Are you in a position to obtain a personal or business loan? Do you have friends and/or family that are willing to loan you money for business development? Have you applied to your state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Program? All states and U.S. territories have state government run VR Programs. It is possible you may be able to obtain some funding and possibly business planning assistance through the VR Program in the state or territory you live in.

How will earning income affect any disability benefits received?

It is important to determine how earning income will affect disability benefits when making decisions about self-employment.

If you receive Social Security benefits it is necessary to contact the Social Security Administration if you become self-employed to let them know you are operating a business. For anyone who is self-employed Social Security will require a copy of your business taxes to determine if there is an effect on disability benefits. Social Security will look at net business income (business income after business expenses have been deducted) and hours worked in the business.

If you are working with Vocational Rehabilitation through your state government or territory you can request a benefits analysis to see at what point business earnings affect benefits.

The Social Security website provides specific answers to questions about receiving any type of Social Security benefits and self-employment. The local Independent Living Center may also be able to provide assistance in determining the effect of self-employment on disability benefits.

Complete business planning.

The more research that is completed on your self-employment goal the higher the chance for success. Lending institutions will require some form of a business plan to obtain a loan for a business.

The U.S. Small Business Administration provides many tools for business planning and the possibility of a business loan through their program. There are over 1,000 SBA offices in the U.S. and U.S. territories. On their website you will be able to locate the local SBA office closest to your location. The SBA local office will provide free business consultation and may also provide business planning classes for a small fee. The website has numerous resources for exploring business ideas and writing a business plan.

Additional resources include free online workshops, webinars, E-newsletters, worksheets, business plan outlines, etc.

Another resource on the SBA website are connections to SCORE which has over 10,000 volunteers throughout the U.S. and U.S. territories that provide free business consultation. You can connect with a SCORE mentor through the website or in person at your local SCORE location.SCORE may also provide business planning classes at a small fee.

“SCORE members are trained to serve as counselors, advisors and mentors to aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners.” There are links to numerous other organizations that provide business planning information on the SBA website. One resource for example is Women’s Business Centers (WBCs) assisting women to achieve their dreams by helping them start and run successful businesses. There are over 100 WBCs located around the U.S. and U.S. territories.

All local resources can be found on the SBA website with the convenient zip-code tool.

Julie Jensen is the Self-Employment Services Specialist at Easterseals Wisconsin. She works with individuals with disabilities who are pursuing self-employment as their vocational goal, helping them to choose an enterprise which they are able to operate and that will accommodate their disability. She provides assessments and feasibility studies, works with entrepreneurs to develop business plans, helps to research potential markets, and assists them in developing the structure and funding necessary to operate a business.

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