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close this bookSelf-Employment for Disabled People - Experiences from Africa and Asia (ILO, 1989, 100 p.)
close this folder3. Disabled entrepreneurs: Case studies
close this folderThe sample
View the document(introduction...)
Open this folder and view contentsGroup I: Enterprises still receiving assistance
View the documentCommentary: Group I
Open this folder and view contentsGroup II: Enterprises which received assistance
View the documentCommentary: Group II
Open this folder and view contentsGroup III: Independent entrepreneurs
View the documentCommentary: Group III
View the documentNote


We have examined the arguments for self-employment and have identified reasons why this option may or may not be an appropriate one for disabled people as a way of supporting themselves. We shall now look at a number of individual enterprises, owned and run by disabled people; this will illustrate how their founders and owners have overcome the difficulties which face anyone, particularly a disabled person, who wishes to become self-employed, and will also show how others have failed because they could not overcome these problems.

It is important to recognise that these examples or case studies are in no way representative of all enterprises run by disabled people; so small a number could never hope to illustrate more than a few aspects of the problems and opportunities involved in self-employment.

The case studies have been selected from a survey of 53 small enterprises owned and managed by disabled people. The survey was undertaken in Gambia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, the Philippines and Zimbabwe. The actual enterprises covered in each country were chosen in order to be approximately representative of the disabled people with whom each of the individual interviewers was in contact. Since these interviewers work for rehabilitation organisations, they clearly had a tendency to contact people who had been assisted by their own or similar institutions. They were asked to include a number of enterprises which had never received any official assistance from any source, but enterprises of this type are inevitably underrepresented since the interviewers naturally found it easier to contact those whom they already knew.

Before turning to the case studies, we briefly summarise the most important features of the group of 53 enterprises which were surveyed; again, it is important to stress that the whole group, like the smaller number described in the case studies, is not a representative sample of small enterprises owned by disabled people. It would be wrong and dangerous to suggest that because particular types of businesses in the sample had succeeded more than others, or because people with a particular disability tended to be engaged in a particular type of enterprise, this is the most appropriate type of business for other disabled people to undertake. The data are given merely in order to illustrate the nature of the group of enterprises from which the case studies were selected; readers must judge the degree to which this group is similar to those with whom they themselves have to deal.














Sex of owner:





Type of business:

Shopkeepers and vendors




Handicraft workers








The “others” included carpenters, training schools, radio repairers, transporters and toy-makers.

Type of organisation:

Sole proprietors


Formal co-operatives


Informal groups




Period in business:

6 years or more


3 to 5 years


2 years or less


Complete loss of mobility through loss of leg functions (e.g. double amputation, paralysis, deformity)


Reduced mobility through restricted leg function (e.g. amputation of one leg, deformity in one or both legs, but moving possible with crutches, sticks, etc.)


Loss of sight or severe visual restriction


Loss of arm or hand functions with partial restriction in manual operations (e.g. amputation, leprosy or polio-induced deformity)


Loss of hearing and/or speaking ability


Others (including combination of above disabilities)


With regard to the underrepresentation of disabled women in the sample, it is important to point out that other surveys on self-employment report an equally low proportion of female entrepreneurs. This is not the place to look into the specific reasons for this pattern, but it is relevant to note that it concerns women in general and not disabled women alone. Even though it may be attributed to the traditional role of women in most of the developing countries, there is no reason to assume that women are in any way less able to be successfully self-employed. It has been estimated that there is no male earner in about one-third of all households in developing countries and that most of the female breadwinners depend on self-employment for their income. Evidence from many countries also shows that women are more likely to repay loans, and to make successful entrepreneurs, than men.

Traders and vendors are also somewhat underrepresented since in most countries small-scale entrepreneurs who sell things rather than make them usually total half or more of the self-employed. This feature of our sample may be due to the fact that only a quarter of the disabled people had not had any external assistance in starting their enterprises. Petty trading is the most obvious form of self-employment, particularly for the disabled, since it requires no specialised skills and a minimum of initial capital. It is probable that if the sample had been more representative and had been made up mainly of those who had never received any official assistance, more of them would have been vendors and shopkeepers.

The survey also covered 32 rehabilitation institutions for disabled people, at least some of whose ex-trainees go on to become self-employed. We shall discuss the results of this part of the survey in Chapter 5, but it may be appropriate at this stage to mention the enormous range of different types of enterprise which were mentioned by the various institutions.

It might be thought that disabled people, if they can start any kind of business, would be restricted to traditional and familiar activities such as tailoring, joinery and handicrafts. The following case studies show that this is by no means true and that disabled people can start and sustain just as varied a range of enterprises as anyone else. The list of enterprises run by ex-trainees of the 32 institutions runs to approximately 100 different trades; as might have been expected, tailoring was the most popular, followed by carpentry, basket weaving, leather work and shopkeeping, but there were also a large number of far less familiar types of business, many of which were mentioned by several of the institutions, and of which there are many hundreds owned and managed by disabled people.

The following sample gives some idea of the variety included in the list:

Sign writing


Lottery ticket sales


Milk selling

Transport services


Screen printing



Umbrella repair

Phone booth operation




Scrap metal dealing

Confectionery making

Toy shop


Cardboard folder making

Figurine moulding


Petrol selling

Library operation



Water carts

Postage stamp selling


Licence acquisition

Railway ticket buying



Plant nursery

Appliance repair

The list is remarkable not only for its diversity, but also for the fact that many of the activities, such as water selling or scrap metal dealing are often perceived as somehow illegitimate and representative of the “informal sector”, which is regarded by uninformed observers to be an indicator of poverty rather than a means of survival. The fact that assistance institutions mention such activities shows that their staff at any rate are aware of the vital and continuing importance of informal enterprise, particularly for those who are most in need, and are proud of the fact that they have helped people to become employed in it.

Businesses such as operating 'phone booths or obtaining railway tickets and licences for a fee are also excellent examples of ways in which people who have restricted physical ability but are persistent, patient and efficient can make a living.

A trainee from the Fellowship of the Physically Handicapped operating a public telephone business in Bombay

We also collected information about the types of assistance, if any, that the business people had received or were presently receiving and about their customers, scale of business, problems and future plans. We shall present this information later in the course of our discussion of ways in which such people can most effectively be assisted. But we shall first examine 16 case studies in more detail.

It was difficult to decide in what sequence or categories the case studies should be presented in order to put over a coherent message. One could analyse them in terms of types or scale of business, the sex or age of the owners, or the countries where they operate. However, since the overall goal of the disabled people themselves and of those trying to help them is presumably self-sufficiency with no further assistance, the case studies have been chosen to illustrate varying degrees of dependence. We start with some examples of enterprises which are still receiving outside help of various kinds and to varying extents. We then go on to case studies which describe people who were at one time assisted with training, finance or in other ways and have now progressed to the level where they no longer need such help. Finally, we present descriptions of a number of disabled people who are in business for themselves and who have never enjoyed help from institutions as opposed to family sources.

The reader should not assume that assistance is unnecessary because the latter group comes last and might therefore be considered to be the ultimate or “best” form of disabled entrepreneurship. It is important to recognise, however, that the vast majority of disabled people who are self-employed have never received any official assistance at all. They have reached whatever level of success and self-sufficiency that they have achieved through their own efforts and with family support. Those who are trying to help other disabled people to do the same must be humble; they must face the fact that their efforts are unlikely ever to reach more than a small fraction of those who might be able to benefit from them. This does not mean that the assistance is unnecessary or trivial, but it is inevitably limited and exemplary. Its objective must be to help people who could not otherwise become self-employed to do so and to encourage others to do the same through the example of those who are successful. Excessive assistance, in fact, can be more dangerous than no assistance at all; it perpetuates dependence and creates the impression that disabled people cannot achieve self-sufficiency without massive help. The last set of case studies in this collection should effectively destroy this illusion.