Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tap That Talent Pool, Already: Disability, Entrepreneurship, and Social Obstacles

"This is what the ramen was for!" exclaimed my friend Rustin, as he pondered the very successful re-launch of his business. His company, Reed&Wright, had been left a metaphorical smoking ruin much in the same way as Rustin's life, health, dwelling, and property had been left a literal smoking ruin after a devastating apartment fire back in 2004. Besides losing his business and the majority of his possessions (what didn't get ruined by the fire or the smoke got ruined by sitting around in an inch of water for months afterward), Rustin sustained structural second-degree burns over a large portion of his body, a serious, life-threatening intestinal infection (you don't want to know the details, trust me), and lost most of the use of his left arm. His arm is recovering, slowly, but the medical professionals estimate that the damaged nerves repair themselves at a rate of about a half-millimetre a month, so he has a long, long recovery ahead of him still.

Nevertheless, because he is a self-described "driven motherfucker," he has managed to produce this, and this, and has an entire line of products in the works.* (Disclosure: A work which encompasses the information from Streetcar Suburbs and Trolleytrack Towns and Built For Riders is among them.) He is well on his way to having a successful small specialty publishing company.

Me, I'm also a disabled entrepreneur. (And I'm looking for more of you!) I went a slightly different route and got a government grant from the Canadian federal government for entrepreneurs with disabilities, and now I have a moderately successful microbusiness. It's keeping me alive and in groceries and roof, at least. I also know another disabled entrepreneur; I'll call him Theo, although that isn't his name. Theo is a consultant like me, albeit in a different field. He's missing a leg and uses a wheelchair.

While I realise that the plural of anecdote is not "data," one common experience the three of us have had is coming to entrepreneurship out of a desire to walk away from a system (the traditional employment system) that was not, we felt, giving us a fair break and recognising our talents and skills. In my experience, there are very many disabled entrepreneurs who go into business for themselves because they've felt shut out of traditional employment opportunities and undervalued in the workplace. For us, starting our own businesses and relating to potential employers as service-providing contractors rather than as job seekers changes the power dynamic dramatically and in our favour, especially if we already have a proven track record of successful job performance. (I built up a lot of my resume doing telecommuting jobs, the ultimate blind audition, because most of my previous clients had no idea what I looked like or that I was handicapped. I was the perfect author function; for all my clients knew, I could have been a cat with opposeable thumbs. But I could do the job, and that was what was important.)

The Power Dynamic: For us, the important part was to be able to shift the discourse away from being a petitioner (so to speak) to being an offerer. In terms of optics, it makes all the difference. As a job seeker, you are already in a subordinate position to the people who have the job on offer. If you therefore seem in any way weak or desperate, you are at a severe disadvantage. If you seem weak or desperate because of your very nature, as I've written about before, you are even worse off. Being unable to perform the appropriate look and feel on demand for corporations who are currently obsessed with "fit" (which, in my experience, is a sort of shorthand for "conformity to the corporate norm") because of your nature is a real drawback on the job-seeking market. However, if you can become an offerer of services, you are suddenly on a much more equal footing with potential employers, and the level of professionalism with which you are likely to be treated rises accordingly.

All is not lost for those who would rather not eat ramen while waiting (interminably!) for their embryonic startups to start having positive cashflow. A lot of corporations are coming to realise that there actually is a significant business case for hiring individuals with disabilities, which is a step in the right direction. A group in British Columbia, WorkAble Solutions, has published a research report and an employer handbook on the subject.** WorkAble Solutions' summary of the business case is as follows:
  • Employers need skilled workers

  • Persons with disabilities are a largely untapped human resource available to meet today’s growing labour and skill shortages

  • Persons with disabilities are a large, growing consumer market.
I am personally skeptical of the claim that there are "growing labour and skill shortages," particularly in light of the recent local demise of mandatory retirement laws, although I am hearing this claim repeated over and over again by HR professionals of my acquaintance (many). Cynical me, I suspect that their idea of a "labour shortage" means that the unemployment rate and the cost of labour is such that most employers no longer receive hundreds of resumes for one position and may have to -- horrors! -- select from a pool of merely some tens of candidates. Which is how it should be, really. I think a lot of the current crop of HR people have gotten so used to an "employers' market" that it makes them nervous when the tables are turned such that job-seekers actually have a little power.

I would also add to that list that people are more likely to patronise a firm they feel looks like them and their community, which is where my next point comes up. Unlike me, both my friends Rustin and Theo came to their disabilities late in life. As the population in general gets older, and as medical science turns what once might have been fatal or severely debilitating medical problems into manageable conditions, the proportion of disabled people to the overall workforce is only going to increase. A bias against disabled people in the workplace is only getting more irrational by the moment. There may in fact be significant improvements (finally!) in prospects for disabled people to have stable, meaningful work in the fields in which they were trained, particularly in future. (I'm also cynical enough to suggest that now that disability issues are becoming important to those penultimate power brokers, the Baby Boomers, they're starting to get some attention and remediation.)

Of course, rosy future prospects don't translate into paid bills now, which is something I think a lot of rights activists in general forget (especially when criticising others for choices they've made). Entrepreneurship is one of the ways to bridge that gap. Of course, it's not for everyone. (Not everyone likes ramen.) The hours are long, it requires a lot of work, patience, persistence, tenacity, and, as Rustin puts it, "complete shamelessness helps." The life of a small-business owner or a consultant may not be ideal, but it beats yet another "We received many applications from extremely qualified candidates...we wish you great success with your future career" letter in the mail.


* Obligatory Bleg: Feel free to buy posters. I don't make any money from the sale, but Rustin does, and they're $4US, cheap at twice the price. They look damn good in those pictures, and nicer in real life, too.

** Because of insider information, I know that more material like this is forthcoming from other groups.


Blogger seahorse said...

That was a very encouraging and persuasive read. If I can get into this mindset and persuade others that offering my skills as a freelance is a) what I do (and always did do) best and b) what best fits my current situation with no compromise in quality of work, then I may just be able to start turning things around.

2:50 PM  
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