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January 2011



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Setting up your own company is not easy at the best of times, but there is support available and it can be hugely liberating

Graham Snowdon

The Guardian

In 1995 Vanessa Heywood had the world at her feet, her talent as an actor, singer and dancer winning her roles in prestigious touring theatre productions such as West Side Story, Twelfth Night and Elvis: The Musical. But then she began to notice something was not quite right.

“As a dancer I was incredibly fit, obviously, but I was doing double pirouettes and not quite landing on a sixpence. At first I thought I wasn’t practising hard enough, that I must practice harder,” she recalls. “But then I started to realise it wasn’t that.” To her disbelief, a brain scan confirmed she had multiple sclerosis.

Heywood carried on dancing for a while, but found the life increasingly gruelling. “My energy was affected and I was trying to hide the MS constantly,” she says. Soon after, she had her two children in quick succession, but things became even more complicated when her husband suddenly left. This meant she had to look after two young children alone, without an income.

Six years ago she saw a chance to reinvent her career, utilising her lifelong passion for music to write inspiring, interactive songs for young children. “I took my kids to a singalong session where the mums were drinking coffee and singing The Wheels on the Bus rather halfheartedly, and I just realised, I could do better than this,” she says.

Looking after her two young sons by day, and working by night, she wrote in her lounge, often sleeping on the sofa when the MS stopped her getting up the stairs. “I was writing frenziedly,” she says of a time during which she composed 36 songs and created a group of characters, the Tiny Mites, which sprang from stories she told her sons. Unable to afford to hire a hall, she held her first music sessions for children in a church field in Radlett, Hertfordshire, where she lives.

Today her business, Tiny Mites Music, has contracts with a number of large holiday parks, nursery chains and schools and has released a Tiny Mites CD. Last week, she won the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs in the UK – an annual £50,000 prize awarded by EasyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s philanthropic foundation in association with Leonard Cheshire Disability, an honour she describes as “life-changing”.

Her story shows some of the advantages disabled people can derive from being self-employed. The government’s Office for Disability Issues estimates there are 10.1 million disabled adults – covering people with a longstanding illness, disability or infirmity, and who have significant difficulties with day-to-day issues – in the UK, about half of whom are of working age.

While setting up a business is not easy at the best of times, Kath Sutherland, a development officer with the Disabled Entrepreneurs Network (DEN) and a small business owner herself, says being able to work from a particular location, in hours that suit the individual, can be hugely liberating.

“I set up my company in 1999 because it was difficult to work nine to five,” says Sutherland, who needs 24-hour support for a combination of neurological and visual impairments and mobility issues. She set up her business, START (Ability), by offering support to groups of disabled people wanting to approach lottery funders, and who needed help with business plans and structures. She now also offers one-to-one training and support to national organisations, as well as resources in different accessible formats.

One problem, she says, is that would-be disabled entrepreneurs are often trapped in a Catch-22 situation. “At the DEN we get a lot of calls from people who need assistive technology, but can’t get it without starting up a business,” she says. “But then they can’t start up a business, or draw up a business plan, without the assistive technology. It can be very complex for some people to take the first step.”

Amar Latif, a blind entrepreneur and former Stelios award winner with his tour company, Traveleyes, agrees. “Setting up any business requires a lot of hard work and research. Then, if you’re blind, you’ve got other issues, such as information not being accessible for you to do the research,” he says.

Latif set up Traveleyes in 2004 because he loved travelling but was frustrated at not being able to do it independently: “Being blind, just jetting off by yourself without your family wasn’t an option,” he says. “You could fly, but you couldn’t explore by yourself.”

Traveleyes offers heavily subsidised prices for sighted travellers who, in exchange, spend part of the trip acting as the “eyes” for non-sighted travellers in the group. “I knew, in my heart, it was a great idea and it would work,” Latif recalls. “I did a little experiment and took someone to Malaysia and Thailand to be my eyes. The great thing was that the sighted person really, really enjoyed it, too.” He now also acts as an ambassador for Leonard Cheshire Disability, which helps would-be disabled entrepreneurs negotiate problematic issues like banks and business plans.

Long-term ME sufferer Linda Edmonds dreamed of starting a business hosting cookery parties and teaching kids to cook, but hadn’t worked for six years. “I’d always been active, but having ME was terrible,” she recalls. “I was hospitalised for six weeks at one point. It was crippling.”

She got in touch with Leonard Cheshire Disability through her local Jobcentre in Braintree, Essex, and was assigned a business adviser, Leonore Lord. “We offered Linda help with a business plan, accessing finance, help coming off benefits and lots of moral and emotional support,” says Lord.

“Leonore was fantastic in helping get me started,” says Edmonds, who finally overcame her ME shortly before her business, The Cookery Angel, launched in 2008. “It was a great feeling to come home exhausted, but because I’d been working, not because I’d been lying on the couch in agony all day.”

Lord thinks one of the biggest challenges disabled people can face in going self-employed is persuading relatives that it is a good move. “Friends and family are often concerned at the thought of disabled people setting up in business,” she says. “It can hold them back, so we provide the emotional support, critical friends and background information about opportunities, workshops and one-to-one support, so they’re thinking about all the things they should be thinking about, such as, What happens if I get poorly? What happens if the business doesn’t work? And also about coming off benefits.”

For those accustomed to benefits, that can be daunting. “If people’s whole household income is from benefits and they have fairly high housing costs, moving into self-employment is a bit like falling off a cliff,” says Ann Chaplin, a project manager with Enabled4Growth, a scheme that supports London-based businesses run by disabled people. “The benefits can stop immediately, and who can start a business that provides them with an immediate income of £20,000 to replace that lost income?”

The DEN’s Sutherland commonly answers questions about disability benefit entitlement for the self-employed. “There’s a lot of misconceptions, like you can’t get Access to Work [a practical advice and support service for disabled workers] assistance, which you can, and also that you can’t be self-employed if you’re on incapacity benefit. Actually, it can be allowed as permitted work,” she says.

Under the current permitted work rules, many ESA or incapacity benefit claimants can work for less than 16 hours a week on average with earnings up to £95, although government advice website Directgov recommends checking with your adviser beforehand. From February 2011, over 2 million people claiming incapacity benefit will be “migrated” on to the newer Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). To achieve this, the Department for Work and Pensions is undertaking a massive reassessment programme. Permitted work will still be allowed under the new scheme, but the prospect of reassessment is understandably causing apprehension among many claimants.

All this impacts on another key issue for disabled entrepreneurs: the difficulty in raising working capital. “Banks worry about lending to people who don’t have a perfect financial track record because maybe they’ve been on benefits, or they’ve got hearing or visual impairment, or they’ve got a chronic long-term illness,” says Lord.

Latif had to overcome just such preconceptions when setting up Traveleyes: “I’d walk into banks and they’d just say, ‘What? You’re blind, and you want to set up as a tour operator? Alone?’ There was a lot of working around that, it was quite a challenge.”

Jeremy Freeman, a deaf entrepreneur who runs website design consultancy Bamps.com, as well as two online toy shops, Treeblocks and The Bubble Shop, has also found funding hard to come by. “Even though we have a good business plan and our turnover has increased year on year, we haven’t been able to grow as fast as I would have liked,” he says. “I believe some bank managers use my disability not to lend – but they have not said that to me.”

Freeman has used the challenges he has faced to spur himself on and is also a regional director of a nationwide business networking group called BNI. “There are thousands of members all over the UK, and I only know of one other deaf person who is a member,” he says. “My deafness has helped me show businesses that deafness should not be a barrier – it has opened people’s eyes and given me a lot of respect that I can be successful despite being profoundly deaf.”

All the disabled entrepreneurs Guardian Work spoke to were keen to stress the importance of being passionate about your business. Heywood, who is preparing to franchise her Tiny Mites Music business nationwide, agrees it’s important to find an idea you really believe in, “then your passion and belief will push you through the bad times. I think that’s true for anyone, but especially if you’ve got extra difficulties to battle through.”

Read in Full:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2010/dec/04/disability-entrepreneurs-self-employment

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