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close this bookSelf-Employment for Disabled People - Experiences from Africa and Asia (ILO, 1989, 100 p.)
close this folder6. Lessons to be learned
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentSelf-employment is not for everyone
View the documentThe disabled are not very different from other people
View the documentInstitutions should be local and flexible
View the documentFinance may be granted but loans must be repaid
View the documentAssistance must “bridge the gap”


We hope that most readers will have picked up a number of points from the foregoing pages which will help them to plan and implement more effective programmes of assistance for disabled people who wish to become, or already are, self-employed. In this chapter, however, we should like to stress again a number of issues which have been mentioned, because they seem to be of particular importance and because some of them are based on what has been learned over many years of experience in assisting new and smaller enterprises. Annex I consists of brief guide-lines for all those called upon to assist disabled people in setting up a business.

Self-employment is not for everyone

First of all, at the risk of over-stressing the obvious, we must yet again emphasise that self-employment is not for everybody, whether he or she is disabled or not. Most of the case studies describe people who have achieved remarkable success against heavy odds; they are and should be admired because of this, but it is vital to avoid the impression that entrepreneurs are in some way “better” than other people. It is unlikely that more than a very few of the readers of this book will be entrepreneurs; most will be social workers, trainers or others employed in helping the disabled to become self-sufficient.

This does not mean that such people are in any way less useful or less praiseworthy than someone who starts and sustains his or her own enterprise, and clients of rehabilitation institutions must not be given the impression that they should in any way feel obligated to emulate the self-employed or feel inadequate because they do not. Everyone must decide what he or she wants to do, and the role of the counsellor or trainer is not to compel or even to persuade but to present alternatives and develop clients' capacity to choose for themselves.

The purpose of this book, therefore, has not been to “promote” the idea of self-employment for the disabled. Instead, it gives some examples of what can be done so that disabled people themselves, their families and those who wish to assist them may be aware of the opportunities and the difficulties in order to widen the selection of ways in which disabled people can work towards self-sufficiency.

The disabled are not very different from other people

Although this book is about the disabled self-employed, many of the case studies and the data from the larger sample might equally well have been drawn from a sample of enterprises owned by the non-disabled in the same countries. There are certain advantages and disadvantages which may make self-employment more or less attractive to disabled than to non-disabled people, but a similar list could be put together for any group of people; the similarities are far more striking than the differences.

Most disabled people who are in business for themselves, like most other entrepreneurs, never received help from official institutions but merely made the best of their resources, using whatever family or other support was available. Those who work for official institutions should regularly remind themselves of this fact and should retain a due sense of humility about what they can do. Above all, they should avoid the temptation to refer to and think of the businesses started by their own clients as “their” businesses; the businesses belong to their owners, who took the risks and deserve the credit. The outsider's contribution can never be more than a modest one, and the best assistance agency is one whose clients deny that it ever helped them.

The types of enterprise started by the disabled are as numerous and varied as those started by anyone else, and their problems seem to be very similar to those of other enterprises. Ill-health seems to be relatively unusual as a problem, perhaps because disabled people take care to select enterprises which they can cope with, and the main difficulties of finance and marketing are exactly those which affect all small enterprises everywhere.

Vending and petty trade are particularly common forms of self-employment for the disabled, as for other people, and tend also to be neglected or even despised by outsiders; it is very encouraging, and in fact unusual, to find a number of institutions preparing trainees specifically for vending and to read lists of successful enterprises run by ex-trainees which include so many varieties of trading as opposed to manufacturing activities.

The case studies also illustrate another common feature of new enterprises everywhere regardless of who starts them, namely that a high rate of failure can be expected. Persistence is one of the main determinants of entrepreneurial success and this, as often as not, has to be demonstrated through unwillingness to give up in spite of repeated failure; others may regard such behaviour as stubborn rather than intelligent, but people who wish to assist the self-employed must be ready to face a high rate of failure among their clients and to recognise that the person who tries again and again will probably succeed one day.

Institutions should be local and flexible

Many of the rehabilitation institutions in our sample appear to be small and to operate on a local level. Those that are larger usually have numbers of relatively independent branches, whether they be run by government or by voluntary agencies, and this means that they are close to the people they are trying to help.

The general experience of small enterprise assistance agencies, particularly those working with the poorer members of society, is that you have to be small and poor to help poor people to start small enterprises. Voluntary agencies are generally poorer and always smaller than governments, and the few very critical reports from the interviewers related mainly to government institutions which were unable to adapt flexibly to the needs of their clients. Voluntary organisations seem in general to be more effective at this type of work than governments.

There are many advantages in a diversity of funding sources, including earnings from the sale of goods or services produced by trainees in the course of their rehabilitation. Scarcity of resources, together with concern for tangible results rather than mere institutional survival, means that the most effective rehabilitation training is as brief as possible and is related to the needs of the market and the wishes of the trainees rather than to the facilities and skills of the institution.

We have already referred to the tremendous diversity of types of enterprise; the types of training should reflect this diversity rather than attempting to force trainees into an inappropriate but institutionally convenient mould, and this probably means that the institution itself will have the facilities and the staff to train only a small proportion of its trainees. The remainder will have to be trained in an ad hoc manner; none of the institutions in our survey mentioned the use of existing enterprises as places for training, but experience shows that established business people are usually very happy to allow others to train with them, as in traditional apprenticeship schemes, through which many of the disabled entrepreneurs in our case studies received their training.

Some business people may accept trainees for nothing, out of good will and as a source of free labour; others may demand a small fee, while still others may be willing to pay a nominal wage. In any case, if the training businesses are properly selected and supervised, the training is likely to be more relevant and less expensive than can be provided within an institution. Large numbers of co-operating training businesses may not be as impressive as neat and well-equipped workshops, but they are probably far more effective.

Finance may be granted but loans must be repaid

It would be inappropriate to generalise on the basis of so little evidence, and every institution and indeed every prospective self-employed disabled man or woman is different and requires a different “package” of assistance. There does appear, however, to be a good case for making grants rather than loans, at least for people who are starting an enterprise for the first time. These grants should be modest and should preferably be in kind rather than in cash.

Loans are more appropriate for those who need money for expansion or to enter a new business in addition to an already established one, as so many of the people in our case studies wish to do. It is vital that a loan programme should be a serious and rigourously managed enterprise in its own right with commercial rates of interest. Prospective borrowers should be helped if necessary to appraise their proposals carefully, but they should be made to realise that they will have to repay, whatever may happen, and that the lending institution will have to take steps to recover its money if repayments are not made in time.

Social pressure may be a more effective incentive to repay than threats from the lender, particularly if it comes from fellow members of a revolving loan scheme who demand repayments so that they can in their turn benefit from a loan. No mention was made of this type of scheme, perhaps because many if not most disabled people are relatively isolated from one another, but it might be appropriate to try to implement such a scheme as a source of working capital and expansion finance for a trial group of disabled self-employed people, perhaps building on any informal associations of ex-trainees of a rehabilitation institution that are working in the same area.

The prospective able-bodied self-employed are usually selected partly at least on the basis of their emotional suitability, which includes self-confidence. Disabled people often suffer from a lack of self-confidence that may be even more debilitating than the disability itself. This may be the most critical difference between the assistance needs of the disabled and of other people, and it calls for close personal contact and sensitive encouragement without denying clients the opportunity to choose for themselves.

This may also call for greater use of behavioural training techniques such as achievement motivation and entrepreneurship development training, but these can never be a substitute for the individual contact and support which clearly played a major part in the success of many of the business people described in the case studies.

Assistance must “bridge the gap”

Disabled people lack self-confidence and most of them lack mobility; able-bodied people, particularly those who are in positions of responsibility, often feel an obligation to help the disabled and welcome opportunities to do so which are effective but involve a minimum of trouble and expense.

This means that one of the most effective ways in which an assistance agency can help is by bridging the gap between the disabled person and the large number of institutions that have the necessary resources. It is far better for a rehabilitation institution to use its good offices to help its trainees obtain bank loans than for it to try to become a banker itself, and it makes more sense to persuade the authorities responsible for allocating industrial sheds to give space to disabled business people than for the rehabilitation institution to set up its own industrial estate.

Similar help can be and is being provided with licences, raw materials and many other services, including introductions to customers, but marketing, as is so often the case, appears to be the most neglected area. Much is being done, particularly through contacts and introductions, but more can be done by mobilising the institution's own purchasing power and by persuading governments and other large buyers to purchase from the disabled. If a business has a market, it can usually raise finance, find a location, acquire skills and obtain raw materials and equipment, but without any sales all these things are in vain. Those wanting to help the self-employed must ensure that their clients recognise the fundamental importance of marketing.

They must also adopt a “marketing orientation” themselves, in relation to their clients, who are the “customers” of a rehabilitation institution even if they do not pay.

Marketing often means reaching out to customers rather than waiting for them to beat a pathway to your door. A rehabilitation institution must reach out to its customers by following up trainees, visiting them in their places of work and trying to provide relevant and practical assistance whenever possible. Staff with a marketing outlook on their job will not only help their clients to market their goods and services to their customers, but will also market the institution's services more effectively to its clients, to government and to donors. Thus a greater volume of more efficient assistance will be made available to help more disabled people become profitably self-employed, and thus to achieve both economic and personal independence.