Breaking down barriers for disabled entrepreneurs

  • 25 Jul 2022

FSB is calling for political and practical support to help disabled small business owners compete on a level playing field, writes Peter Crush. Our case studies provide a small glimpse into some of the challenges these inspiring people face.

It’s hard enough running a small business, but being disabled throws up whole new challenges, many of which shouldn’t exist.

This is the conclusion of a new FSB report that questioned more than 1,000 SME business owners. It finds that nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of disabled business owners or business owners with health conditions have suffered discrimination or negative treatment, including 15 per cent who claim they’ve faced barriers when applying for financial support and

8 per cent who have struggled to access quality business support. Just 42 per cent of disabled SME owners haven’t experienced barriers to their business as a result of their disability or condition.

“More disabled people are starting businesses and more SMEs employ disabled people [51 per cent according to the research],” says Julian John, who is disabled and runs Swansea-based learning and development consultancy Delsion.

“While there’s no evidence SMEs run by disabled people fail more often than any other business, the challenges around access to finance in particular were stark. The banks do not – it seems – do a lot. The only thing that will change assumptions and prejudices is providing disabled entrepreneurs with more support.”

Lack of coordinated and good quality advice was another concern found by the research; 41 per cent of disabled SME business owners claim to have used no support at all – preferring instead to use informal support, such as FSB networks (15 per cent) and other networks (19 per cent). “In the interim, we need specific workstreams providing specific support,” says Mr John. “But ideally we just need disabled SMEs to be able to access mainstream support – because SMEs need to be in an enterprise environment.”

Lack of support flows through to lack of awareness about schemes that do exist, such as Access to Work (although this is primarily to help disabled employees find work, rather than support business owners). However, Mr John also criticises this for being a “one-hit” scheme that SMEs can’t reapply to for another five years if they don’t hit lower earning levels. “What little support there is tends to be tailored to getting people into work rather than helping disabled people set up their own business,” he says.

The research makes a number of recommendations. It wants the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to set a hard target for growing the number of disabled entrepreneurs by 100,000 by 2025, and to more than 250,000 by 2030. To achieve this, FSB is calling on the Government to produce condition-specific ‘Pathways to Entrepreneurship’ strategies, to address the differing barriers faced by those with different conditions.

FSB wants practical help, too, including scrapping the ‘one chance only’ Access to Work rule, and argues that HMRC should introduce a one-year employer National Insurance contributions holiday on the wages of newly recruited disabled employees. It also wants The British Business Bank to launch a Disability Angels CoFund to provide funds for disabled entrepreneurs, and calls on high street banks to publish the proportion of loans that they give to disabled entrepreneurs.

The FSB Business Without Barriers hub features inspiring interviews with successful disabled entrepreneurs and personal accounts from employers who are helping to break down barriers to employment. Together with experts and leading organisations, we're also helping you to make your workplace more inclusive and accessible with free advice, guidance and resources.



David Plotkin, Plotkin & Chandler

Disabled business owners need to be able to get off to the best possible start

As a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, David Plotkin – who runs employment law firm Plotkin & Chandler – says he’s proof SME entrepreneurs can challenge what people think is and isn’t possible.

“Typing takes a bit longer,” he says, “but it’s a very small obstacle. Intellectually I’m all here, so when I engage with people via phone and email, most of the time they’re not even aware of my disability.”

What he does do is choose not to mention his disability unless he has to meet someone face-to-face. “My disability can sometimes be a surprise to someone if we meet in person,” he says, “but I regard this as proving that, unless you knew it about me, my disability is not obvious. I also make the point of telling people 20 per cent of the working population has a disability of some description.”

What he does concur with are FSB’s findings around lack of awareness of schemes to help disabled SME owners. “Certain schemes, like Access to Work, I know about, but that’s only because it’s in my line of business anyway,” he says. “The awareness just isn’t there among most other SMEs.

“Provision of services is often scattered,” he adds. “There needs to be some sort of single portal where all available help can be accessed in one place. Disabled business owners need to be able to get off to the best possible start.”

Mark Esho, serial entrepreneur

I know I’ve been discriminated against

He runs three businesses, a charitable foundation and employs 20 people, but having been paralysed by polio at five, Mark Esho says he knows that, had he not been disabled, he’d have been treated differently. He says: “I’ve been laughed out of banks before, even though I’d previously been a finance manager, and came in pitching for money knowing my numbers.”

Does it make him bitter? “I know I’ve been discriminated against,” he says. “Now I try and avoid face-to-face meetings if I can, because people can be so judgmental. I remember I lost two contracts just months after I’d met the clients directly, yet I’d worked with them for five years. The only thing that had changed was them actually seeing me.”

Mr Esho believes the problem many disabled entrepreneurs face is sporadic and generic information. “Official sources don’t understand the sorts of problems faced by disabled business owners,” he says. “Moreover, I’ve often found that far more useful than things like access to funding is actually raising disabled entrepreneurs’ confidence and self-esteem.

“The knockbacks disabled SME owners get really impact this. Networks for disabled people by disabled people are often far more useful; there are things that disabled SME owners just don’t want to talk about to non-disabled people.”

Fiona Campbell, Crazy Capers

A disability doesn’t define a person

For 14 years, Fiona Campbell – a type 1 diabetic (who was only the eighth person in Scotland to receive an islet transplant) – has run Crazy Capers, a provider of after-school care for primary school kids.

Among other conditions, such as fibromyalgia, she requires an insulin pump that delivers insulin directly into her body through a cannula, as well as a feeding pump. She lost her previous job – also in childcare – 15 years ago, and was cruelly told that her disabilities had escalated to the point that she was “unemployable”.

“It was devastating to hear someone tell me I couldn’t look after kids,” she recalls. “My business [she is a ‘Disability Confident Employer’ and has two members of staff with hidden disabilities] is evidence this person was so wrong.”

While the business is growing, it hasn’t been plain sailing. “I’ve had to work extra hard – including getting additional references and having medical vetting – to prove I have the capability to look after young people. I just say disability is part of who I am, though; and that it shouldn’t impede things, which is why I want to employ others with disabilities.”

Finding finance has been traumatic. “I’ve previously tried to apply for loans, but banks just wouldn’t go near me,” she says. “Their worry was that I could become incapacitated and be in hospital for months and the business could collapse, but there have already been occasions where I’ve been in hospital and my fantastic team have carried on without me.

“I think what this proves is that disabled business owners don’t get the credit they deserve. They can be off work, but still capable of successfully keeping their businesses going. A disability doesn’t define a person. It doesn’t mean you can’t do things.”

Peter Osborne, Business Data Group and UK Business Forums

Just the same, unbiased support would be good

In his own words, Peter Osborne, CEO of Business Data Group and UK Business Forums, is “too weird to be normal, and too normal to be weird”. It’s his way of describing his autism, which has seen him be self-employed for 23 years and run eight separate companies – including one of the first to offer online registration services.

However, his successes have been overshadowed by circumstances where he suspects his disability has gone against him. “I’ve been turned down by banks, at one point financing one of my businesses with credit cards and a loan I said was for a conservatory,” he says. “I showed them I was making money, and just needed to finance my orders, but I didn’t ‘tick the box’.”

In another, even worse, event, he says he was taken advantage of. “With one company I ran, I was virtually duped into giving the business away, because I wasn’t very good at reading social signals,” he says. “I got sucked in and within a year came away with nothing.”

Although he says disabled SME owners shouldn’t just expect to be given credit “without being prepared to put their own necks on the line first”, he sympathises with the struggles some report having. “It’s tough having another thing to deal with,” he says. “I’ve been in situations where I have to say ‘I’ve interpreted what you say as this, am I correct?’ Fortunately, the investors I now have know me, but I can see that this could cause problems.”

Mr Osborne wants a more level playing field, rather to be treated differently. “I’m not sure many business owners would want this – certainly not being pigeon-holed as needing special support,” he says. “Just the same, unbiased support would be good.” 

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