The month of October was National Disability Employment Awareness month highlighting the need and value of hiring persons with disabilities across the business landscape. While the inherent value of pushing this type of inclusion is critical to building a strong and vibrant economy that embraces diversity there is still something missing. One of the great rallying cries of the Disability Rights Movement that can still be heard echoing today is “Nothing About Us Without Us.” It is these words that should offer a blueprint into expanding the very definition of the value of employment in the economy of the 21st century.
The business of the digital age offers a plethora of opportunities from not only the changing nature of work but reveals a limit that is only defined by our imagination. For persons with disabilities embracing this new reality will be critical for long term growth. Entrepreneurship needs to become a key ingredient for the recipe of success for persons with disabilities. It is a way to gain control and create new pathways to financial freedom as well as propelling a new vision of what employment can be.
While there is an abundance of platforms to develop, build and market there entrepreneurial ventures, for the disability community there are still barriers. However, business schools like UCLA Anderson and the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University among others are participating in an innovative program called the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities offering skills training for new venture creation as well as the support needed in building management strategies for small businesses and other entrepreneurial endeavors. This sea change is showing that the business establishment are beginning to envision the potential value and opportunities that this community can offer in cultivating an exciting and vibrant new economy in the digital age.
However, it is time to go further, fostering entrepreneurship is a vital piece of the puzzle and a true value add in terms of employment for persons with disabilities. National Disability Employment Awareness Month needs to make a bold statement by incorporating entrepreneurship as a key tenant of its mission. Stakeholders within the disability community need to reassess their relationships with organizations such as incubators, VC firms, private equity and other financial institutions. The community itself must redefine and reclaim their very understanding of employment and realize that the potential for the social and economic growth as well as innovation are contingent upon expanding the narrative to show that creating as the writer Virginia Woolf so aptly put “ a room of one’s own” where they can have an impact that resonates across society.
Incorporating a culture of entrepreneurship into the framework of the National Disability Employment Awareness Month will take some time and needs to be done in a thoughtful way. Not only developing an infrastructure to foster and promote entrepreneurship amongst persons with disabilities but also have the mechanisms to find great talent who are engaging with new ventures and connect them with capital to scale and grow their business. One of the great models that already exists is that of Rise of The Rest, a seed fund from Revolution Ventures which was founded by Steve Case, co-founder of America Online (AOL). What makes the Rise of The Rest model so intriguing is that they have made it there mission to look beyond the traditional hot spots of innovation such as Silicon Valley, New York City or Boston and realize that finding valuable entrepreneurs who are real disruptors can emerge in the most unlikely of places. It is this ethos which should be adopted and modified to demonstrate the potential that entrepreneurs with disabilities can have in this new business environment.
Each year The National Disability Employment Awareness Month should not only be a place to push forward the agenda of promoting employment for persons with disabilities but should be a time when we can evaluate trends, explore innovation and look towards a more complete vision of what employment can look like and be in the digital economy. Shaping a culture on entrepreneurship is paramount not only to those with disabilities but its social, economic and innovative growth will be felt across society in ways we have yet to experience.