Microenterprising and People with Disabilities: Strategies for Success and Failure – Statistical Data Included

Richard T. Walls

Over the past decade, economic and societal trends have converged to impact the policy and practice of self-employment as a vocational rehabilitation strategy. One such trend is the move from a predominately industrial economy to that of an information and service economy. This post-industrial transformation of the global economy continues to shift work from large, manufacturing facilities toward smaller service-oriented worksites. “Forty years ago, in the 1950’s people who engaged in work to make or move things were still a majority in all developed countries. By 1990, they shrunk to one fifth of the work force” (Drucker, 1993, p. 40). The 1990’s have seen a rise in small businesses that can “accommodate emerging consumer values such as convenience, customization, variety, quality, and reasonable cost” (Ryan, 1995, p. 9).

A second trend involves the rise of a self-help, empowerment philosophy in the field of rehabilitation. This trend signals a change in the way decision making occurs during the rehabilitation process. Consumers increasingly make informed decisions concerning their rehabilitation (Kosciulek, 1999). The shift within rehabilitation and transition service delivery models gives consumers increased influence in decision making and greater control over planning their own futures (Thomas, 1999).

A third trend impacting the rehabilitation of people with disabilities is the successful application of the microenterprise model. Microenterprise Fund for Innovation, Effectiveness, Learning, and Dissemination (FIELD) defines a microenterprise as:

a sole proprietorship, partnership or family business that has fewer than

five employees, does not generally have access to the commercial banking

sector and can initially utilize a loan of under $25,000. This definition

is somewhat broad as most of the microenterprises that programs work with

are in fact much smaller, generally with under three employees. Many

microbusinesses, perhaps the majority, are operated by the owner alone,

which has led to the frequent use of the term self-employment (Langer,

Orwick, & Kays, 1999, p. xii).

This model evolved as an anti-poverty strategy in developing economies such as some areas of Asia and Latin America. In the past few years, the microenterprise strategy has been applied to displaced workers (Sonfield & Barbato, 1999), low-income U.S. communities (Himes & Servon, 1998), and people with disabilities. In 1998, Americans for Community Co-operation (ACCION) released the results of a comprehensive U.S. study of individuals who engaged in microenterprise and who were offered a micro-loan. The study revealed that take-home income increased for those who received a loan and started a microenterprise.

The convergence of these three trends promises to create opportunity for people with disabilities who choose to develop a microenterprise (which is often self-employment). Microenterprise may enable many of the 49 million Americans with disabilities, for whom the unemployment rate is 50% (World Institute on Disability, 1999), to compete in the marketplace. The authors of this paper seek to explore the barriers to successful application of microenterprise in vocational rehabilitation. Barriers identified are (a) those cited in the literature and (b) those noted by people with disabilities who call the Job Accommodation Network to gain information about microenterprise.

Two major barriers to the enterprising opportunity of people with disabilities emerge from these sources. One is the “low” readiness levels of people with disabilities and community-based organizations to engage in entrepreneurial enterprises. The other barrier is unrealistic expectation of traditional business resources toward people with disabilities. Metts and Metts (1999) noted a report of the business community’s “disrespectful attitude” toward entrepreneurs with disabilities. Creating and managing channels of engagement among multiple agency partners and the person with disability can help to bridge the gap between a low readiness level to engage in microenterprise and an unrealistic expectation by traditional small-business resources (Metts & Metts, 1999). Engagement in training and technical assistance is a key that can unlock the potential of talented, committed entrepreneurs. Engagement through contact with these talented, committed persons by rehabilitation counselors, trainers, and technical-assistance resources in the business community is another key. In combination, they can open windows of microenterprise opportunity.

The Low-Readiness Barrier:

The Funding Cart before the Planning Horse

Inexperience with business start-up, management, and important sources of technical assistance contributes to the barrier to microenterprise of low readiness. For example, people who want to start a business often explore sources for funding before considering necessary prerequisites. Obtaining capital and loan guarantees must be preceded by comprehensive planning. A good first step is a self-assessment which assists in understanding and articulating one’s own knowledge, qualifications, penchants, and responsibilities. The individual certainly has a general idea of the goods or services that are to be the foundation of the business (e.g., taxidermist, satellite dish sales and installation, baker, rug weaver, pool maintenance, pet sitter, locksmith, TV and VCR repair), but careful self-assessment is a recommended prerequisite. Market research is a second step to success. Realistic expectations of the market may discourage or encourage continued planning. Gaining reliable information about who will buy what and when can be a daunting task, but the effort expended to gain accurate market information is well worth the investment. A written business plan based on sound research (e.g., tax information, copyright law, licensing requirements, funding sources, personal finance planning) is a third prerequisite.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (2000) recommends that potential business owners create a business plan. The form of this plan has been created to solicit personal and financial information from those who are considering starting a business. Answers to questions about the business, product or service, location, marketing plan, and financial needs inform the individual planner as well as the individual’s rehabilitation counselor, funding contact, and family. Thus, the value of a well-thought-through business plan extends far beyond the search for investment capital. It is an essential planning tool and can be used to gauge progress after start-up (Herzog, 1998). The care and time expended on a business plan have been shown to be related to business success and failure rates (Institute on Rehabilitation Issues, 1998). In articulating the business concept, technical assistance from knowledgeable people is almost always helpful and, in many cases, may be necessary when the planner begins to conduct formal or informal market research and to write a reasonably detailed business plan. Continuing support is a necessity in reducing the low-readiness barrier.

In describing the need for continuing support and assistance, Goldmark (1996) cited business development services such as training, technology transfer, marketing assistance, business advice, mentoring, and information. These services are aimed at helping the microenterprisers to improve and sustain the performance of their business. Delivery of these services has had positive, sustaining effects on microenterprise in developing countries.

The Traditional-Expectation Barrier: Redefining Success

The traditional-expectation barrier is a result of conflicting models of “success.” The conflict is the viewpoint of growth-oriented businesses versus the viewpoint of self-supporting microenterprise. Any emerging model forces redefinition of traditional concepts. A new concept of success includes microenterprise ownership that does not necessarily have a “growth” orientation (Sonfield & Barbato, 1999). Business success for microenterprise may mean increase in self-sufficiency and reduction of dependence.

Confusion about definitions of (a) microenierprise (including self-employment), (b) very small business, and (c) small business contributes to the traditional-expectation barrier. Small business and microenterprise differ considerably. Based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition, a “microenterprise” is a commercial enterprise with five or fewer employees, one or more of whom owns the business. Thus, microenterprise is often synonymous with self-employment, as noted earlier in the FIELD definition. Clark and Kays (1995) indicated that a microenterprise is generally a sole proprietorship that has fewer than five employees and that can benefit from a start-up loan of under $15,000. They indicated that the average loan size was $5,640 and that loans are generally secured by non-traditional collateral, flexible collateral requirements, or group guarantees. The microenterprise, therefore, is distinguished from the traditional small business (Himes & Servon, 1998).

The Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a “very small business” as having (a) no more than 15 employees and (b) annual receipts that do not exceed $1 million. Based on the Federal tax incentive definition, a “small business” is a business whose gross receipts did not exceed $1 million for the preceding taxable year or that employed not more than 30 full-time employees during the preceding year. The SBA, however, has definitions of small business that vary depending on the Standard Industry Classification code and group (U.S. Small Business Administration, 2000). Such variation can be confusing. For example, cereal breakfast foods manufacturing, gypsum products manufacturing, metal cans manufacturing, and railroad equipment manufacturing have a criterion of 1,000 employees for a “small business.” Natural gas distribution, coal mining, and water transportation have a criterion of 500 employees. Agricultural services, airports, and radio broadcasting stations have a criterion of $5 million. For chicken egg production, the criterion is $9 million, but for beef cattle feedlots, it is $1.5 million. Such breadth of definition indicates an economic sector in transition. Thus, this lack of completely coherent concept is likely to confuse people seeking to begin a small business or a microenterprise and may contribute to the misunderstanding that occurs between the person with disability and traditional small-business resources.

A traditional measure of the success of a business is income. In a report to the Office of Microenterprise Development (USAID), Inserra (1996) suggested that usable indexes of financial information might involve (a) gathering qualitative data on the existence of change, direction of change, or amount of change in microenterprise income, (b) using existing financial records, and (c) seeking figures for revenues separately from costs. Gaining accurate income data about microenterprise, based on respondent recall and report, however, is subject to considerable inaccuracy. Moreover, income may not be the most telling measure of success. From a rehabilitation perspective, measures of success need to be tied to the reasons for exploring the microenterprise option. Those goals are specific to the individual and may include (a) increasing control over work load and scheduling, (b) resolving mobility or accommodation concerns, (c) increasing income and self-sufficiency, and (d) engaging in meaningful work. Personal benefits also may include greater participation and inclusion in the community, enhanced status, and increased self-confidence (Rehabilitation Services Administration, 1998). Perhaps the most telling criterion measure is survival of the microenterprise.

Historically, state vocational rehabilitation agencies have had a mixed view of self-employment as a viable vocational goal for people with disabilities (Ravesloot & Seekins, 1996). The reasons for this mixed view are diverse. Probably, the reasons revolve around the agencies’ intention to protect the best interests of their clients. One belief is that business development is a precarious enterprise both for people with functional limitations and for those in the general population. Placement into the traditional workforce, therefore, is seen to be a more secure goal. The belief persists that failure rates in the population of small business enterprises tend to be high. First, that perception may be exaggerated (Rural Research Institute, 1999), and second, the goals of the microenterprise may not be the same as the goals of “small business.”

Despite the many vocational rehabilitation professionals who are not integrating self-employment into their vocational planning, clearly there are people with disabilities who may benefit enormously from having this vocational option. There are people with disabilities who have the desires, skills, enthusiasm, creativity, and willingness to make such an endeavor work for them.

Lessons from the Field

From 1992 to mid 1999, the Job Accommodation Network (a project of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities) received over 250,000 calls from employers, rehabilitation professionals, and people with disabilities who were seeking workplace accommodation information. There were more than 1,000 cases which concerned microenterprise (Job Accommodation Network, 1999).

Of these callers, 408 were seeking specific information concerning self-employment. These individuals were self-employed at the time of the call or were unemployed and seeking to start their own business. For these 408 individuals, an array of disabling conditions was represented such as back injury, multiple sclerosis, learning disability, stroke, cerebral palsy, and mental illness. Percentages for categories of disability of callers who reported their disabling condition are presented in Table 1. These individuals reported a variety of functional limitations that they considered to be barriers to employment. Categories of their functional limitations are presented in Table 2. In these 408 accommodation cases, the most frequent reason for calling the Job Accommo-dation Network was to obtain specific product information to accommodate the worker. As displayed in Table 3, callers also requested general information packets on self-employment, funding a microenterprise, and legal issues related to disability and self-employment. As an example of these calls, a caller who was self-employed as a carpenter and who had a back impairment wanted information concerning adapted tools. He was sent information on panel movers, biocurve hammers, handle adapters, and manipulators. Another caller was seeking to become self-employed as a paralegal and had fibromyalgia and other orthopedic limitations. After discussing specific tasks she would need to perform, she was provided information and suggestions for voice-activated software, alternative mice, filing accommodations, and office ergonomics. Many of these callers had specific ideas for the type of business they would like to start. Computer and technology-related microenterprises were reported as self-employment goals more often than any other class of jobs (15%). In addition, callers had ideas for businesses where they would be self-employed as a leather-harness braider, day-care provider, auto-glass installer, seamstress, plasterer, fish-hatchery operator, court reporter, photo-journalist, peanut-stand vendor, salad-dressing bottler, silk screener, vineyard-tour guide, wood carver, math tutor, and a variety of other occupations.

Table 1

Categories of Disability of Callers

Seeking Information Concerning Self-Employment

Type of Disability Percentage

Back Condition 12.6%

Accident/Injury 11.8%

Quadriplegia 7.7%

Multiple Sclerosis 6.9%

Attn. Deficit Disorder/LD 5.7%

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome 4.9%

Arthritis 4.1%

Stroke 4.1%

Amputation 3.7%

Cerebral Palsy 3.7%

Paraplegia 3.3%

Head Injury 2.4%

Mental Illness 2.4%

Cumulative Trauma 2.4%

Diabetes 2.0%

Fibromyalgia 2.0%

Eye Disease 2.0%

Congenital 1.6%

Heart Condition 1.6%

Cancer 1.2%

Epilepsy 1.2%

Polio 1.2%

Chemical Hypersensitivity 1.2%

Knee/Leg Impairment 0.8%

Other 9.5%

Total 100.0%

Table 2

Categories of Functional Limitations of

Callers Seeking Information Concerning


Functional Limitation Percentage

Handling/Fingering 18.3%

Low Vision 6.1%

Sitting 6.1%

Lifting 5.3%

Grasping 4.9%

Mobility 4.9%

Standing 4.9%

No Vision 4.2%

Use of One Hand 3.4%

General/Nonspecific 3.0%

Overall Body Weakness 3.0%

Reduced Concentration 3.0%

Back 2.3%

Walking 2.3%

Lower Extremity 1.9%

Reading 1.9%

Upper Extremity 1.9%

Learning 1.5%

Balancing 1.1%

Climbing 1.1%

Environmental Illness 1.1%

Hard of Hearing 1.1%

Mathematical Calculation 1.1%

Operating Foot Control 1.1%

Speech 1.1%

Carrying 0.8%

Memory Loss 0.8%

Neck/Trunk 0.8%

Pushing/Pulling 0.8%

Reaching 0.8%

Respiratory Distress 0.8%

Squatting/Bending 0.8%

Stress Intolerance 0.8%

Vision/One Eye 0.8%

Other 6.2%

Total 100.0%

Table 3

Type of Information Requested by Callers to the Job Accommodation


Type of Information Requested Percentage

Accommodation (Equipment/Products) 42%

Self-Employment Info Packets 33%

Funding for Business 10%

Legal 9%

Accommodation (Funding) 3%

Other 3%

Total 100%

There were also 487 cases during 1998-99 in which the caller reported that he or she was employed at the time of the call but was considering microenterprise as an option. These individuals requested the packet of general information on self-employment. Of the callers who received this general information, 103 contacted the Job Accommodation Network again to discuss self-employment in more detail.

In response to this level of interest and need, the President’s Committee established (November, 1999) the Small Business and Self-Employment Service (SBSES) as a project within the Job Accommodation Network. The SBSES provides information, counseling, and referrals about self-employment and small business ownership opportunities for people with disabilities. Self-employment options for people with disabilities are only viable if the support system exists to facilitate these efforts. Based on the experience of callers to the SBSES, adequate structures are not widely in place at this time to support the needs of those who wish to become self-employed. One major hurdle callers face is finding a counselor who can work with them from the initial stages of microenterprise development into the life of their business. Some callers initially are unable to articulate how their job skills could be translated into a viable business. Others have well-developed ideas about the business they would like to pursue but have been discouraged by various agencies from pursuing these goals (Small Business and Self-Employment Service, 1999).

Callers often state that they are “worn out” from their experiences with public vocational rehabilitation, health care, and the social security system. There is need for both vocational and general counseling, as it is impossible to separate the other “life” issues from the “vocational” ones. People are looking for employment options, but they also need a place where their other (related) life issues can be addressed. It seems plausible that the public vocational rehabilitation program could fill much of this gap. The following description represents the plight of one such caller as reported by a consultant from the SBSES.

A woman called the SBSES project inquiring about jobs we knew of that would

allow her to work from home. She also stated that she would be interested

in starting a home-based business, but that she had few assets, and her

credit had suffered due to medical interruptions in her previous jobs. Her

current strategy when she applies for a position is to disclose to the

potential employer, up front, that she will most likely need time off for

surgeries during her time there. She found that her state’s vocational

rehabilitation program was less than helpful. She had attempted to discuss

options to work from home or start her own business, but they refused to

entertain her ideas. She then contacted her local Small Business

Development Center (SBDC), and they set up an appointment for her to meet

with a Service Corp of Retired Executives (SCORE) representative. She

described this experience as very degrading. The SCORE representative had

no exposure to working or interacting with someone with disability. He had

been the CEO of a large corporation and had no experience in working with

“small” or “microenterprise” initiatives. Her goal in contacting the SBDC

was to begin this process. When she had her initial meeting with the SCORE

representative, one of his first statements to her was, “Let me see your

business plan.” From the start, the person with disability and the SCORE

representative were at very different places in the process. The SCORE

representative went on to “scold” her for not being more prepared and

organized, not having a business plan, and “wasting” his time. She left

this meeting feeling upset, demeaned, and hopeless.

There is recognition that microenterprise and self-employment may be under-used in the public vocational rehabilitation service program. The title of the 19th Mary Switzer Memorial Seminar was “The Entrepreneur with Disability: Self-employment as a Vocational Goal” (Hansen & Perlman, 1995). This seminar, hosted by the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, considered creation of a coherent national strategy for supporting self-employment for Americans with disabilities. One assertion was that non-profit vocational rehabilitation service providers are in the best position to play a leading role in the development of self-employment programs. Implications for action included (a) helping rehabilitation counselors foster positive attitudes and dispel myths about self-employment, (b) determining best ways for rehabilitation service providers to collaborate with programs devoted to establishing small business, microenterprise, and self-employment, and (c) conducting research on short and long-term outcomes of vocational rehabilitation for self-employment and microenterprise.

Prescriptions for Success and Failure

Training, technical consultation, and counseling appear to be crucial components of a prescription for success for potential microenterprisers. Examples of effective services in these areas include a program for veterans with “serious disabilities,” which includes (a) training in social skills for dealing with the public, (b) training and technical consultation on coping with business startup details, and (c) counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues. The services of this U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) program in Hawaii have resulted in start-up of such businesses as a small print shop, a franchised sandwich shop, an eco-tour service, a kayak business, a theater cafe, dry-land farming, and poi-food manufacture and sale (Hurley, 1999). As a second example, the Vermont Division of Vocational Rehabilitation invests $300 of case-service funds for each consumer in the microenterprise group. Group members then may apply to the group for a loan. In addition to obtaining loans, members build credit histories, exchange business ideas and contacts, develop improved business skills, and have access to technical assistance (Stoddard, Hanson, & Temkin, 1999).

Other agencies also have found ways to facilitate entrepreneurial success through training, technical assistance, and ongoing counseling. Participants can gain assistance and guidance in writing business plans and gaining other business skills at the International Leadership Forum for Women with Disabilities (World Institute on Disability, 1999). The Exceptional Entrepreneurs of Louisiana program provides business-development workshops, technical assistance for disability-related accommodations, and an intensive follow-up program. Businesspeople Overcoming Limitations from Disabilities provides training in business skills, business-plan development, finding and creating loan funds, and mentorship (BOLD, 1999). A state of Washington program has provided displaced workers a continuum of self-employment development and support services from inception, through start-up, and well into the business operation (Sonfield & Barbato, 1999).

The New Castle, Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Pittsburgh Blind Association also have developed a program that focuses on the needs of clients who wish to consider self-employment as a vocational outcome (Brown & Faris, 1999). The program covers a four-county region in Pennsylvania that incorporates both rural and urban communities and is guided by six principles. Principle 1 is the belief that self-employment should never be considered as a last resort for those clients who cannot be placed elsewhere. Principle 2 is that most of those clients are prepared to discuss their interest when they come through the door. This vocational program acknowledges and facilitates those interests through the entire tenure of that client with the rehabilitation agency. This program does not do a formal assessment to determine which clients’ profiles make them candidates for this track in the program. Instead, any interested client is directed to the self-employment specialist for further counseling. A team consisting of the district administrator, the business expert, the self-employment specialist, the vocational counselor, and the aspiring entrepreneur works toward a self-employment goal. Principle 3 is to prepare the client for the rigors of the microenterprise option. Through an intensive process of exploration, consultation, and skill development, the program prepares clients for a successful outcome. It is not uncommon that some clients self-select out of the microenterprise option and enter another track as they become more aware of what is involved in their preparation for and operation of a business. Principle 4 is that the vocational rehabilitation program makes a smart choice when it invests money in these clients through an internal micro-loan program instead of granted monies. Brown and Faris (1999) contend that there is a different relationship to the process when monies are lent as opposed to granted to clients. They report that clients rarely default on these loans. When financial and other crises arise, the rehabilitation team is there for the client, throughout the process in a long-term commitment. Principle 5 is that family support is necessary. The program requires that all members of the family (e.g., spouse, partner) pledge or demonstrate encouragement of the client and the business. If one member of the family “team” is not supportive of this endeavor, it is likely to be unsuccessful. Principle 6 is that clients become a part of the business community because they are a part of that economic community’s success. These microenterprisers, in real terms, are contributing to economic health and vitality of the region the business serves. The rehabilitation team applies these six principles to facilitate microenterprise ownership and increased independence (Brown & Faris, 1999).

In contrast, prescriptions for failure are constructed when (a) the vision is unfocussed (as reflected in a self-assessment), (b) the commitment is tentative (as manifested by the rehabilitation team, the family, or the client), (c) technical assistance is insufficient in quantity or quality (as evidenced by a gap in planning or ongoing support), (d) market assessment is faulty (as shown by inaccurate projections), (e) training and preparation are neglected (as demonstrated by an underprepared client), and (f) continuing teamwork is missing (as found in short-term commitment). Lack of a cohesive service strategy facilitates the prescription for failure. Recent developments in research and implementation are putting in place infrastructure for reducing failure and increasing success for microentrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship presents an opportunity for people with disabilities. With a healthy collaboration between formal and informal support groups from the local community, people with disabilities can be successful in self-employment and microenterprise. The trend in the economy from a large industrial base to a focus on a more diverse information and service economy is causing redefinition of success. The opportunity for creation of microenterprise businesses increases proportionally with empowerment philosophy and consumer choice. Microenterprise, although misunderstood and poorly defined in the past, is emerging as a viable vocational rehabilitation strategy.

Author Notes

This study was supported, in part, by the International Center for Disability Information and the Job Accommodation Network, West Virginia University. The Job Accommodation Network is a service of the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Special thanks are given to Randall Brown and Dave Faris for their assistance. Appreciation is expressed to Lori Britton for manuscript preparation.


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Richard T. Walls

Denetta L. Dowler

Kimberly Cordingly

Louis E. Orslene

John D. Greer

West Virginia University

Richard T. Walls, Ph.D., International Center for Disability Information, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506-6122. Email: rwalls@wvu.edu

COPYRIGHT 2001 National Rehabilitation Association

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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