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close this bookSelf-Employment for Disabled People - Experiences from Africa and Asia (ILO, 1989, 100 p.)
close this folder2. Self-employment - An option for disabled people
View the documentDefining the terms
View the documentSelf-employment is not for everyone
View the documentWhy self-employment?
View the documentThe position of the disabled
View the documentDiscouragement from self-employment
View the documentMotivation for self-employment
View the documentWorking together

Defining the terms

For the purposes of this book, we shall adopt broad and deliberately imprecise general guide-lines. By a disabled person we mean anyone who experiences significant limitations in one or several functions because of a physical, sensorial or mental impairment or deficiency. On account of these limitations, and of the negative societal attitudes which often go with it, the person who has a handicap will most likely experience restrictions in the ability fully to develop his or her potential and to earn a living. Disability may or may not affect the ability to work, but a disabled person will usually have to cope with many more problems than would a non-disabled person. However, it is a misconception - suggested by the term disability and nourished by common prejudice - that disability means inability to work.

The decision as to whether a particular person does or not fall into the category of “disabled people” is clearly affected not only by physical condition, but also by living conditions and the availability of artificial aids. A strong pair of spectacles, an artificial limb or even a wheelchair might move someone out of our definition, and a person living in a remote rural area with no roads which can be used by wheeled vehicles may be more “disabled” than someone with the same or greater physical disability who lives in a town and is well served by public transport. The disabled people referred to in this book are therefore ordinary people who are fit for work, ready to become entrepreneurs and able to earn a living for themselves and their families. The special handicap with which they must cope could be their private affair. However, as a disability often goes hand in hand with discrimination and the denial of equal opportunities in education, training and employment, disabled people do require positive and supportive interventions on their behalf.

“Self-employment”, “small enterprise” and such terms are similarly fraught with definitional problems. Here again, we shall select a meaning which is appropriate for our purpose regardless of any lack of precision or alternative views. Our concern in this book, as reflected in the case studies, lies mainly with the very smallest type of enterprise that employs few workers, maybe only the owner.

Larger enterprises are outside the scope of this book because once an enterprise has reached the stage of employing a significant number of employees, it is unlikely to need the same kind of support as one which is just being started, whether or not its owner is disabled; and this book is intended principally for those concerned with identifying ways in which disabled people can become self-sufficient, rather than with helping those who have already achieved this.

It is important to distinguish self-employment from subsidised and protected employment such as sheltered workshops or income-generating schemes funded by assistance agencies. Many severely disabled people may always need a degree of employment assistance, whether in the form of voluntary or otherwise subsidised management, an especially protected market, supplies of raw materials, provision of workshops or other forms of shelter from the pressures of the competitive world of business. The exclusion of a “business” of this kind, except as a route to what we call genuine self-employment, should not be interpreted to mean that it is not an appropriate solution. For some people, a sheltered environment will remain the only way of partaking in productive activities and of experiencing a certain degree of economic independence and recognition. However, such an enterprise can be considered as self-employment within the terms of reference of this book only if the employees themselves take over and manage it on a self-sustaining basis.

Self-employment is not for everyone

It is important to stress from the outset that self-employment is not a panacea through which every disabled person, or even a large proportion of the disabled, can become self-supporting and thus avoid the need for further assistance. “Entrepreneurship” is a dangerously fashionable term, and many governments and others are grasping at the concept of “enterprise” as the solution to all their economic problems. Only a minority of any given population is likely to possess the necessary attributes to start their own enterprise successfully. Even in the so-called “informal sector” in urban areas of many developing countries, where nearly everyone appears to be self-employed, it is clear on closer observation that most of them are actually employees working for smaller numbers who make the decisions as to what is bought, made and sold, and at what price.

The position of disabled people is no different; although some may be forced into self-employment because their disability disqualifies them from other forms of livelihood, there are many others whose disability makes them less likely to be able to start their own enterprises. Their physical incapacity may be such as to make self-employment impossible or very difficult, or the reactions of their families or the community to their disability may have the effect of reducing their self-confidence and making them less rather than more able to take the initiative.

It is, of course, impossible to state what proportion of any population of disabled people may reasonably be considered as potential entrepreneurs and expected to do the kind of things that the people described later in this book have been able to do. As pointed out above, the restrictions imposed by a disability may or may not affect the person's ability to work. This depends very much on individual circumstances, and for that reason no general conclusions can be drawn with respect to the appropriateness of certain types of jobs for people with certain types of disabilities. Quite contrary to common prejudice, which tends to associate certain disabilities with certain jobs, it is an established principle that each case requires individual assessment. This clearly means that the feasibility of a self-employment venture can be determined only when taking into account the very special circumstances of the individual. Not only does the disability count but even more the environment (e.g. family support, community attitudes, mobility problems or the market). But successful self-employment will above all else depend on whether the person has the necessary combination of personal characteristics to make him or her an entrepreneur. Although it is possible, as will be discussed later, to create or at least to reveal and enhance the personal characteristics which contribute to entrepreneurial success, it is neither humane, feasible nor cost effective to try to persuade or encourage any but a small minority of the disabled - or of any other group of people - to take this step.

Why self-employment?

There are a number of different ways in which people can attain economic independence. Self-employment is only one of them and must be compared with alternatives by disabled people themselves and by anyone who is trying to assist them to support themselves fully or in part. It would be altogether wrong if this book were to encourage institutions and policy-makers to promote self-employment as a universal solution, or even as a limited one, if the disabled people or the environment are not appropriate.

The unemployed person seeking employment in private business or government is fundamentally dependent on somebody else deciding to employ him or her. Self-employment is basically different; the unemployed person decides to start an enterprise, however small, and although its success depends on other people being willing to buy from and sell to it, for whatever motives, the decision to start it depends on the individual concerned.

Jobs on the open labour market become more and more scarce. Self-employment may therefore be the only practicable option for many people; however, there are many other reasons why this option, and the myriad of small enterprises that result from people choosing it, are a good thing for national development. This applies whether the entrepreneur is disabled or not; there are certain reasons, which we shall shortly examine, why this option is particularly suitable for disabled people, and others why it is particularly difficult.

In economic terms, self-employment represents possibly the most cost-effective way of creating jobs. The capital requirements are usually very small; perhaps the commonest form of new enterprise is the market vendor whose “fixed capital” may amount to no more than a basket or a sheet of plastic on which to display whatever is sold and whose “working capital” probably consists of sales worth no more than a day, half a day or even an hour. Such enterprises often “squat” on the verandas of existing businesses, or on roadsides or open ground without using any costly infrastructure.

New manufacturing, trading or service enterprises use a minimum of capital and a maximum amount of labour because the objective of the entrepreneur is often to buy a job; necessarily, he or she will keep the cost of the job in terms of capital requirements as low as possible. Since one of the common features of developing countries is their shortage of capital and surplus of labour, any form of employment creation which makes minimum use of the former and maximum use of the latter is clearly to be preferred.

There are other arguments in favour of new small enterprises as a form of economic growth and employment creation. Transport facilities for people and for merchandise in most developing countries are often overloaded and unreliable, and they use scarce foreign resources in terms of vehicles and fuel. A person wanting to start a business will be likely to do it near to or actually in his or her own home. Working for other people, unless it is within a family enterprise, almost inevitably involves travelling, often for long distances from peripheral squatter locations to central industrial areas or business districts.

These enterprises also tend to use readily available materials and to sell to local people; this means that they make still lower demands on transport facilities than enterprises which draw their employees and materials from long distances and which sell to customers in other parts of the country or even abroad.

Small businesses usually start where people live and continue to be local. They also provide goods and services which are economical, in terms both of cost and of the places and times where they are available. They are therefore appropriate in that they produce goods that poor people need at prices they can afford and when and where they need them. Planners, and the wealthy minority whose cars are delayed in streets crowded with vendors and small repair shops and manufacturers, may be irritated by these small enterprises, but the majority benefit by selling to them, buying from them and working in them.

Such enterprises do not usually earn foreign exchange by exporting, although handicrafts are often bought by foreign tourists; they do, however, save foreign exchange by making the maximum use of local equipment and materials. More importantly perhaps, they rarely, if ever, make any demands on foreign expertise and finance. Even when the entrepreneur is able to take advantage of special assistance schemes, the amount of capital used for each job created is almost always less than for larger enterprises. Such businesses are also necessarily appropriate in terms of the skills they demand of their owners. Vendors and roadside mechanics may not manage their enterprises with business school skills or employ the latest high technology methods, but they do make the optimum use of local labour as well as physical resources.

Finally, enterprises which are started by local people, particularly in rural areas, tend to be enterprises involving the whole family. The mutual support and security that this system provides makes it particularly suitable for disadvantaged groups.

The position of the disabled

The reader may already have picked out from this general survey of the advantages of new small enterprises those aspects which are particularly relevant to the disabled in a positive or negative sense. It is fairly clear that disabled people are more likely to be poor than others from the same socio-economic level, if only because they have had few opportunities to save money from previous earnings. Since disabled people often have no capital at all, the choice for them is not between starting a large capital-intensive enterprise or a small one, but between starting a small enterprise, trying to find a job or continuing to be totally dependent on family, charity or public assistance.

In respect of capital, therefore, the disabled are at a grave disadvantage; this partly explains why those enterprises which they do engage in tend to be those which require the very lowest amounts of capital, as for example petty vending or personal services such as massage or shoe-shining.

Disabled people are also less likely than others to have received an adequate formal education. There is very little evidence that higher education, or even advanced secondary education, is necessary or desirable for successful entrepreneurs, but basic literacy and numeracy are useful, if not essential, as countries develop and the communications infrastructure becomes more widespread. Those without these basic skills become more and more disadvantaged.

In addition, many disabled people are used to a sheltered and protected environment where they have little or no opportunity to make decisions and are expected to acquiesce quietly and cause a minimum of trouble. Excessive humility is a poor basis for enterprise; if people expect a disabled person to be helpless, it is all too easy for him or her to satisfy their expectations.

Most obviously, of course, disability means what it says. People who suffer from the loss or impairment of one function, whether it be sight or hearing, or who cannot use their hands or legs as effectively as others, are disadvantaged. Other faculties may become exceptionally well developed as a form of compensation but disability frequently means less ability to do the very job one is best suited for. Since self-employment requires ability of a high level, a disabled person may be less competitive in his performance than a non-disabled person.

There are some reasons, however, why self-employment may be more attractive to disabled people than to others who may in any case be able to find work in existing enterprises. Finding a job usually means going out and looking for it, queueing at a labour exchange, rushing quickly to building sites at the rumour of work or travelling extensively within the country or even abroad. Disability almost always implies some loss of mobility; it is easier, if potentially less remunerative, for a disabled person to start some form of enterprise at home or very close to home than to travel in search of work.

Family support is also even more important for the disabled than for others without work. Although some forms of disability, such as leprosy, may lead to ostracism by the community and even the family, it is usual for a family to accept responsibility for disabled members, as they do for other family members who cannot support themselves. If disabled people have to leave home to find work, they will not only find it difficult to travel but will also be deprived of the family's support. Those who can work at or near their homes can move gradually from total dependence towards independence, as far as is feasible, while still enjoying a certain degree of support from their families.


Mohamed Kagbo, a Zimbabwean shoe repairer, with his wife and child

Discouragement from self-employment

Success in self-employment, as in any other endeavour, is more a function of psychological factors and motivation than it is of physical resources. Everyone can think of numerous examples of people who have enjoyed massive support and every possible advantage and have failed, while there are others who have had to overcome overwhelming disadvantages and have enjoyed no external support but have nevertheless succeeded. We should therefore examine the possible effects of disability on the motivation of the disabled in order to identify those characteristics which may or may not be conducive to self-employment.

In many, if not most, societies, people who are disabled are regarded as just that. Even if their disability relates only to one faculty, such as sight, hearing or use of the arms or legs, there is a tendency for others to believe that they cannot do anything at all, or at least as well as those who are not disadvantaged in the same way.

Most human accomplishments require a subtle combination of faculties. A pianist must read the music, hear what he or she plays, use both hands on the keyboard and both feet on the pedals, and must also be able to sit upright in order to play. People are amazed when a blind person becomes a talented or even a virtuoso pianist, as many have. Sighted people cannot understand how the pianist has developed his or her other faculties in order to overcome the lack of sight since they do not have to do it themselves, and there is a tendency to admire what we cannot understand.

This admiration is a function of our expectation that disabled people will not be able to perform as well as others. It is well known that people who are not trusted tend over time actually to become untrustworthy, and that children whom their teachers expect to perform well do in fact perform well because of the teachers' expectations. In the same way, if a person is expected by those around him, including his family, fellow students and most people with whom he is in daily contact, to be less capable than others, he will in due course actually behave as expected.

The decision to become self-employed is as much as anything else a function of self-confidence, and the same may be said of success in self-employment. If a person's confidence has been continually eroded by the expectations of those around him or her, the effect on actual performance will be more serious than for a potential entrepreneur who has a support network of colleagues and superiors.

Reference has already been made to the ways in which leprosy patients are ostracised in that people are unwilling to have any physical contact with them or even to touch anything they have touched. This is clearly an extreme case - although such behaviour is not based on medical evidence - but disability is often regarded as a curse so that contact with disabled people is avoided at all costs. People who have been disabled since childhood are often hidden away by their families as objects of shame or because they may damage the marriage prospects of other family members; they may therefore come to perceive themselves as a burden to their families and of no value to society.

Ostracism, or even a milder version of deprivation of social contact, is even more disadvantageous to someone who is self-employed than to someone who is employed by others. An employee can work in isolation as a carpenter, a computer programmer or on an assembly line, more or less independently of contact with others, but someone who is self-employed must have regular and sustained contact with suppliers and, most importantly, with customers.

New small enterprises usually operate in highly competitive markets. If there are ten or more vegetable vendors selling similar produce at similar prices, many customers may avoid buying from the one whom they have been conditioned to avoid since childhood. This is particularly likely to be the case when the disabled business person actually comes from the community where he or she is working. We have already seen that the relative immobility of the disabled makes self-employment at home particularly attractive, but doing business in your own community may mean having to sell to people who have hitherto avoided you and tended to deny that you existed. This “social disability” also extends to finance, purchasing, licences, permission to operate and all the other resources which a self-employed person needs and which require personal contact and perseverance.

Motivation for self-employment

This form of ostracism or exclusion from society may, however, be more than outweighed by the sympathy which many people feel for the disabled. Some may avoid them but others may give them preference when making buying decisions, allocating space or giving licences in the same way that some firms give special preference to disabled employees. Many disabled people, and particularly those who are of the type to want to become self-employed, might be reluctant to accept this element of charity or support, but it has to be accepted like any other fact and it may in some cases make all the difference between failure and success.

There are a number of other positive factors which may make it easier rather than harder for some disabled people to survive in their own businesses. Entrepreneurship is frequently associated with the will to overcome the state of “social marginality”; people who are in some way excluded from society often derive from this the motivation to take the risky and original initiative of starting their own enterprise. This may be because they have no alternative.

One case in point may be refugees, who are perhaps the most obviously marginalised group. They usually arrive in their host country with little more than the clothes they stand up in, having often suffered physically and psychologically during their flight from their own country. Yet in spite of these difficulties, or perhaps because of them, refugees have, through self-employment, become prosperous members of their new countries and have often made a major contribution to their economic development.


A blind masseur working in the Philippines

It is often the psychological condition of disabled people that makes them particularly likely to do well and persevere in self-employment, for if this is successful, it is also a particularly effective way of establishing somebody's confidence and of achieving genuine rehabilitation not only of the body but also of the spirit.

Disability can also be a stimulus for independent problem-solving and innovation. Disabled children often develop new and effective ways of moving around, communicating or otherwise overcoming their problems. Nobody in the family or the community has been faced with the same problem before. The experience of facing and coping with difficulties which are unfamiliar can be a valuable, if onerous, form of personal development. Entrepreneurs have been defined as “people who put things together in new ways”. This is exactly what disabled people have to do.

In a more direct, physical sense, people who have lost the use of one faculty, or have never possessed it, are more likely to be able to concentrate single-mindedly on a task which needs the faculties that they do possess than those who possess other faculties which are not being used and are thus likely to be a source of distraction. Massage is perhaps the most obvious example; blind masseurs are well known for their skill, and there are many examples of blind people who are able to succeed partly because they can transmit all their skill and concentration through their fingers rather than being disturbed by sight, which is fundamentally unnecessary for massage.

Deaf people develop their own ways of keeping company with themselves without the distraction of conversation; if their business is of a kind where they do not regularly have to speak to other people or where such contact can be facilitated as necessary by outsiders, they may be particularly effective because of their ability to concentrate and to avoid distractions.

Working together

Self-employment has so far been treated exclusively as an individual activity undertaken by one person. It is important to stress that there are many examples of successful co-operatives or group enterprises where numbers of people have come together in order to pool their resources and their skills and to start a business together. This form of self-employment has many advantages; people can share the numerous responsibilities of business, they can take advantage of the economies in purchasing and operations that arise from the larger scale of their enterprise, and they can benefit from the mutual support and encouragement of their fellow members rather than having to labour alone.

The record of group enterprise, however, is far less successful than that of individual business, in spite of the obvious advantages. The commonest reason for the failure of such enterprises is the failure of the group to work together effectively; jealousies arise, members do not accept leadership from among themselves, and the end result is most frequently one of two disappointments: either the group breaks up and the enterprise ceases to operate or the group is “hijacked” by a particular individual who often exploits his or her fellow members and runs the enterprise for selfish ends.

Disabled people, like other marginalised groups, are particularly likely to be able to work together effectively because they share a common problem and feel that they must stick together in order to show the rest of the world that they can succeed. Groups or co-operatives of disabled people, like any other enterprise, must be effectively led; they must avoid being used by political interests and they must be managed in a businesslike way using the necessary skills to produce goods or services at a price that others are willing to pay. Such groups must also be genuinely “owned” and managed by their members, rather than being dependent on outside financing and direction. It is vitally important for anyone who is assisting disabled people to work together with them to ensure that the initiative and control belong to the group rather than coming from outside. If this can be achieved, disabled people may be more likely than most to overcome the problems of group enterprise and to exploit the undoubted advantages.