Disabled entrepreneurs need a Paralympic-style platform of visibility and support

Governments have historically seen disability as a welfare issue, missing huge opportunities to support disabled entrepreneurs, writes Michelle Ovens

Wednesday 04 August 2021 11:59 BST
Diverse group of qualified businesspeople
Diverse group of qualified businesspeople (Getty Images)

If you are disabled in the UK today, you are disproportionately more likely to start your own business. You are also disproportionately more likely to face obstacles and lack support and recognition.

This is just not good enough. It’s not only a disservice to these incredible businesspeople, but a loss for the UK. The more we continue to have a fixed, stereotypical view of who we see as entrepreneurs today, the more we shut down the growth opportunity that comes from diversity.

This clearly needs to change. And the pandemic has given us a much overdue chance to address this. For all the unfair burdens Covid-19 placed on those with disabilities, its digital revolution has transformed accessibility, and is a seismic shift we can build on.

This is no small issue, and it will benefit a huge number. There are 14 million people in the UK living with some form of disability, including 20 per cent of working-age adults. Many start their own business and many more aspire to.

This is often out of necessity; whether it’s to create career opportunities, have greater flexibility to balance work around personal needs, or to solve a problem impacting their lives.

Take Matt Pierri, the founder of Sociability App, which helps find accessible spaces, inspired by his own experience as a wheelchair user. Or Seema Flower, who is registered blind and built a successful business offering disability awareness training.

Disabled entrepreneurs are a phenomenal group, who often develop key entrepreneurial skills like tenacity, problem-solving and flexibility. Yet their access to support, and visibility in media and with policymakers, is woefully behind other entrepreneurs.

Governments have historically seen disability as a welfare issue, missing a huge opportunity to support disabled entrepreneurs. This needs a change in focus, which last week’s National Disability Strategy is an opportunity to address. Unfortunately, it is currently wildly short on engagement with entrepreneurs. Filling this gap should be a key focus for BEIS when it launches its own proposals later this year.

Existing research underlines the need for intervention. A report by the Innovation Caucus with Professor Tim Vorley found huge barriers in place for disabled entrepreneurs – inequalities in support, bias from business advisors or educational settings, and a much higher likelihood of entrepreneurs coming from a background of poverty or unemployment.

Small Business Britain’s own research found only 15 per cent of disabled entrepreneurs have access to peer-to-peer support, and more than a third (46 per cent) feel limited by confidence.

The forthcoming Paralympics – with its international spotlight on the skills of disabled athletes – is a well-timed reminder of the awesome power of diversity. Set up to shine a light on people that society had for centuries overlooked, the Paralympics is a moment to champion ability over disability. It is time we took this approach in business too.

As in sport, representation and role models are key. To uncover and unlock the UK’s top talent, we need to make entrepreneurship more inclusive, and give its differently abled stars more of a platform too.

This means celebrating the stories of business owners from all backgrounds, along with more targeted help, and more access to training and skills, particularly for people starting from a lower base of support.

While the pandemic has heightened many inequalities, the boom in free, online digital training has accelerated access to enterprise skills. The shift to digital ways of working will also play to the strengths of many disabled entrepreneurs too.

Too often people living with disabilities are told they cannot achieve the things they want. It is time we change the conversation to focus more on how we help people to reach their potential instead.

Michelle Ovens CBE is the founder of Small Business Britain

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