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Small Business and Disability – Myths and Misconceptions

According to the U.S. Census Department, approximately fifty-four million Americans are disabled, or have considered themselves disabled at one time or another. While this number represents a large percentage of the workforce, the vast majority of individuals with disabilities are unemployed. In fact, about seventy percent of Americans with disabilities who want to work are unemployed. Of the remaining thirty percent, only a fraction is gainfully employed full-time.

As a result, people with disabilities are almost twice as likely to start their own businesses as their non-disabled counterparts.

Only eight percent of non-disabled workers are self-employed, whereas fourteen percent of workers with disabilities are self-employed.

As an entrepreneur with a disability, I fall into the latter group. Unable to find gainful employment in my community, I sought to create my own place. The turning point came when two years of aggressive work search that yielded nothing finally led me to consider a receptionist’s position. Despite my college education, my formidable oral and written communication skills, my business management experience and a private consulting endeavor, I felt as though answering the phone for a living was the only option left. Unfortunately, even that door was closed to me. Unwilling to schedule an in-person interview until he satisfied his curiosity, the potential employer grilled me via telephone first.

“So, how do you people do things? How can you answer phones? Our phones are complicated. They have buttons on them. How could you transfer calls or place calls? How would you know what the buttons were?”

Astounded, I didn’t bother to point out that I was speaking to him by phone right then, and that I placed the call all by myself. Furthermore, with the latest technological advances, such as Braille, invented in the 19th Century, it was very likely that despite a steep learning curve requiring intense training, eventually I might make an adequate receptionist. Instead, I thanked him for his time, and left him to his ignorance.

Attitudes such as his finally prompted me to start my own business, which is a small yet satisfying sole proprietorship. In educating others as to the myths and misconceptions about people with disabilities and related workplace issues and hiring practices, I’ve discovered that many small business owners still tend to believe the worst about the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it can affect their business.

It is a myth that the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates costly construction and architectural renovation. Rather, the ADA is a guideline that among other things, attempts to provide for equal access to public buildings by removing barriers to that access.

Small business owners who are unfamiliar with the tenets of the ADA believe that compliance means budget-busting expenses to benefit a small group who will not elevate their bottom line in any significant way. They seem to prefer to do nothing and wait until they receive a complaint, threat of litigation, or worse . . . have a sheaf of legal documents served to them.

Why should a small business make changes? It is a mistake to believe that all people with disabilities are poor, and therefore cannot afford your products or services. It is a myth that people with disabilities have no disposable income and no desire to spend it. If an individual who does not drive because they are blind, or who uses a wheelchair arrives at your place of business, you can be assured they are a qualified customer. Chances are, that individual went to great effort just to get to your establishment, so ensure that they do not leave your business empty handed.

In the workplace, accommodating the particular needs of an employee with a disability need not be expensive. The ADA sets forth that “reasonable accommodations” be made so as to enable an individual to competently perform the duties required. An employer is not expected to provide state-of-the-art equipment, nor is the company required to fill a long wish list of gadgets and gizmos. In fact, there are numerous alternative funding sources and service organizations for this purpose.

If a small business finds that accommodating a disability poses an undue hardship, they are not required to fulfill the legal obligation; however, a business owner or manager might be surprised to learn just how easy it can be to meet a minimum. Secondhand or donated equipment, whether current or somewhat less so, is considered “reasonable.” As long as the accommodations help the employee to get the job done, that’s all that is needed. Instead of purchasing a custom-made, specialty ergonomic desk configuration to accommodate a wheelchair, raising the existing desk on blocks may be sufficient.

Taking the time to understand the truth about people who are potential customers as well as employees can tremendously enhance your business, as well as your personal growth. Even if you have no opportunity to hire a candidate with a disability, make your business a disabled-friendly establishment. Keep in mind that attitudinal barriers can be as seemingly insurmountable as the physical barriers. As a business owner, you are a leader in your community, and can set an example that will benefit both your image and your bottom line.

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