If You Have a Disability, Self-Employment Could be the Most Liberating Thing You’ve Ever Done

Tim O'Brien
5 min readOct 28, 2016


The message here is simple. Just because you may have a disability that does not mean you cannot work. Of course, you may have heard that before. But the news here is a little better than that.

Having a disability does not mean you can’t start and run your own business. That’s right, you can be an entrepreneur.

This is not to say it’s any less risky if you do have a disability. One thing all entrepreneurial opportunities bring with them is the equal opportunity to fail. That ever-present risk exists whether you have a disability or not.

According to the U.S. Census, there are an estimated 57 million people with disabilities in the U.S. Around 15% of those who are working are self-employed.

What this means is that if you are contemplating what to do with your life and your career as you wrestle with putting your disability in its place, it may be worth considering what you have to offer as a potential small business owner.

I know this first-hand because I have a disability and I run my own business.

For context, you probably need to know more about my story. I started my business in 2001 before I acquired a mobility challenge. A couple years into entrepreneurship, which was going quite well, I started to get klutzy. Klutzy turned into unstable, and unstable turned into the need for an ankle-foot-orthosis (actually two) and eventually a cane (occasionally two).

On the medical side the doctors were stumped, so they labeled the cause “idiopathic,” which is official physician terminology for “Beats me.”

That left me with some choices. Mainly, do I want to stay self-employed or not?

Actually, for me that wasn’t a question. The only question was how this new challenge would affect my ability to do my work and a few other things in life. Long story short, I adapted and moved forward.

If you have a disability, particularly one where you can do your work with some adjustments, that’s the idea I’m raising for your consideration. Think about whatever it takes to do your work and move forward.

Now, if you can do that, while working for someone else, great! But if that just doesn’t seem to work for you, self-employment may provide for you a sense of self-reliance, independence and value that you will find nowhere else.

Before going any further, I have to remind you of the ground rules for entrepreneurship that apply no matter who you are or what your ability or disability:

First, there are no safety nets.

If you fail you fail, and that means you lose whatever you sacrificed to start your business, whether it be money you’ve invested, time, energy, changes you may have made to your living and working environment, and whatever employment you gave up to become a business owner. If you borrowed money from a bank or a friend, you likely still need to pay it back. And if your investors are friends and family, you may have some relationships to heal. This is no small matter.

Second, don’t overestimate your capabilities.

Think of it this way, if you don’t have the resume to open your own restaurant without a disability, what makes you think you’re any more qualified with a disability?

The point is, while we are often reminded that those of us with disabilities can do anything — and we can — we have to frame this perspective within reason. This is centered on developing our abilities and capabilities around what we know, our own pre-existing knowledge, talents and skills.

In my case, I’ve been a professional communicator for over 30 years. I’ve been disabled for a little over ten. I have to admit, I’m still not very good at dealing with my disability, but I do know communications and public relations. That makes me qualified to do my work to the extent I can manage the physical aspects of the work.

Third, carefully consider the pros and cons of employment versus self-employment.

You may have certain benefits that include health insurance, steady income or other things you could risk losing if you cut ties with your current employer or lifestyle. In the big picture, it may not always be worth the risk. Every individual’s situation is different.

If you’ve given serious thought to the pitfalls and yet you still want to know more about the possibilities, there is more.

In my case, not having to commute to an office because I work from home is a major plus on a number of levels. Being self-employed, I outfit my office and my daily routine around what I can do and do best, and avoid the daily obstacles that may get in the way of being truly productive.

You don’t have to worry about your boss not understanding what you can and cannot do or how unconventionally you may need to function to get the job done.

You can give yourself the flexible hours you may need to balance your ability to carry out your daily routine and do your work.

You can work with clients and customers on your own terms.

If you grow your business, you can add staff or develop strategic partnerships in ways that enable you and your business to do more. In other words, your business does not have to be limited only to what you physically can or cannot do on the front lines.

No One Owes You Anything

For as different and varied as small business owners can be, with or without disabilities, the one thing most have in common is they take “no excuses” approach to business. They understand no one owes them anything and that their success or failure relies on them.

Once you embrace this way of thinking, the feeling of liberation is hard to describe. You find your own security within yourself, through your own self-confidence and in your ability to make a vision come to life.

If you’ve come this far and still want to explore starting your own business, my recommendation is take all the time you need to self-reflect, do your research, and create an exhaustively detailed business plan. As you write that plan, if you run into a roadblock, that’s a sign to do more homework or rethink your approach.

No one said it would be easy. But if you do it, you may look back and find that starting your own business was one of the most rewarding things you’ve ever done in life.

I’d be curious as to hear your questions or thoughts on this issue. Please let me know.



Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien, APR, veteran strategic communications consultant at O’Brien Communications.