The University of Illinois — Chicago is home to a unique education program for entrepreneurs with disabilities run by associate professor Dr. Katherine Caldwell. It’s called Chicagoland Entrepreneurship Education for People with Disabilities.
“We wanted to really bring disability studies and entrepreneurship to the same table to look at, ‘Okay, well where are we now?’” Caldwell said. “What does it look like, what are the main barriers that they’re running into, and what sort of facilitators would help them out?”
Caldwell found that Chicago-area entrepreneurs with disabilities had trouble finding resources to grow their businesses, had high barriers to entry and faced structural challenges from the disability benefits system.
Caldwell also notes that most of the entrepreneurs she works with are women of color. Women and minorities with disabilities face extra challenges. “There’s that whole discussion of the pay gap that we’ve been having in women’s rights circles,” Caldwell said. “But it hasn’t included women with disabilities.”
Chicagoland Entrepreneurship Education for People with Disabilities aims to help participants understand the benefit system and other typical barriers to entrepreneurship so that they can find a way to be most successful in building a business.
Like in any demographic group, there’s plenty of desire to build businesses in the disability community. Perhaps, it’s even stronger, Caldwell said, because traditional employment opportunities for people with disabilities are often less than ideal.
“They want to take control,” she said. “ They want to start a business so they can, not just create a job for themselves, but also create jobs for other people with disabilities.”
Many people with disabilities are employed through something called sheltered workshops. Which, Caldwell said, “Is basically work in a segregated work setting where they’re paid less than minimum wage.”
Sheltered employment was originally intended to give people with disabilities a chance to get work experience and skills that they could use to get other jobs. But, “Only five percent of workers actually go on to competitive employment from sheltered workshops,” Caldwell said. “So it’s not effective at achieving what it was supposed to back in the ’30s and yet for some reason we’re still doing it.”
In fact, she argues many companies are exploiting workers with disabilities through sheltered employment because it’s a way for companies to employ people who they can pay significantly less than minimum wage.
In addition to entrepreneurship as an escape from sheltered work, people with disabilities can use entrepreneurship to tackle challenges they face every day navigating a mostly inaccessible world.
“They can tap into that innovative potential of having experienced the problems that their business serves first hand,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell believes there needs to be an increase in representation of entrepreneurs with disabilities on a wider scale.
“One thing that they really need, and one thing that they currently lack are mentors, are examples of success,” she said. “Which is why having more visibility of entrepreneurs with disabilities especially women entrepreneurs with disabilities in the media would be super helpful.”
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