Self-Employment Steps for Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors: Helping a Consumer Start a Business

Business Owners with a Disability

During the fall and summer of 1999, the Research and Training Center on Rural Rehabilitation Services surveyed people with disabilities who were self-employed to develop a profile. Participants were randomly selected from two main sources: people reported closed to self-employment by selected state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies between 1993 and 1997, and members of the Disabled Persons Association as of March 31, 1999. The survey was available in several alternative formats including large print, brailled, on diskette, and on tape, or a business owner could participate by telephone or by e-mail. A total of 1059 surveys were mailed: 459 VR surveys and 600 DBA surveys, 205 surveys were undeliverable. A total of 408 surveys were returned: of them 71 were blank and 33 respondents were ineligible. A total of 316 surveys were used for conducting analyses.

What was the demographic profile of business owners?
In general, the business owners were middle-aged (average age was 51), were Caucasian (88%), and were men (65%). Sixty percent of the business owners had completed one or more college degrees.

What was their disability and did it affect their business?
Most (57%) had a mobility or restricted activity impairment. Their disability was moderate to severe (83%) and about half said it substantially affected how they operated their business.

How was their health?
They were in good to excellent health (84%).

Why did people open a business?
People wanted to work for themselves and they needed to set their own hours because of their disability. People also wanted to own a business, to work at something they enjoyed, and they saw a need for their business’s product or service.

Did most develop a business plan?
No, 60% did not develop a plan, 40% did. But people who worked with a VR agency developed a business plan at a higher rate: 47%.

What kinds of businesses did people with disabilities open?
With few exceptions the businesses are the same as those opened by others who are self-employed. When compared with people who are self-employed in general, people with disabilities opened a higher percentage of agricultural and manufacturing businesses and a lower percentage of construction, transportation & communications, and service businesses.

Type of Businesses


Building, Heating, Refrigeration, Engineering

Office Supply, Food, Marketing,
Real Estate, Auctioneer, Mail Order
Travel Agent

Restaurant, Hotel/Motel

Bicycle Shop, Clothing, 2nd Hand,
Gifts/Crafts, Security

Financial, Engineering, Social, Geology

Law, Counseling

Hunting/Fishing Related:
Boat Builder, Taxidermist

Automotive, Small Engine, Auto Body, Air Conditioner, Piano Refinishing

Motivational Speaker


Childcare, Hairstyling, Massage,
Therapy, Dog Training/Breeding/Grooming
Security, Ironing, Home Inspection

Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping

Welding, Printing

Physician, Chiropractor

Art & Entertainment:
Photography, Graphic Design, Jewelry,
Art & Craft, Painting, Writing,

Sales, Repair, Building,
Software Development

Dental Tools

Landscaping, Greenhouse Operator, Weed Abatement

Are there certain types of businesses appropriate for people based on the severity of the disability?
There was no observed pattern or correlation between the severity of disability and the type of business owned.

How many hours did they work?
Business owners worked an average of 39 hours per week.

How many businesses had quit operation and why?
65 people closed their business: 19 because the business was undercapitalized and 16 because of the person’s disability.

How many businesses had the survey participants owned?
The average was 1.9 businesses: 52% had owned one business and 45% had owned more than one. Women owned an average of 1.6 businesses; men owned an average of 2.1 businesses.

How much money did they spend to start their business?
Half (51%) of the businesses were started with less than $10,000, 36% used less than $5,000, and another 15% used between $5,000 to $10,000.

Women opened their businesses with less money than men.

Where did the money come from to start and initially operate their businesses?
Most people (56%) started their businesses with personal savings. People also used credit cards (29%) and borrowed from a family member (24%). Sixteen percent used funds from a Vocational Rehabilitation agency.

Women were more likely to borrow from friends or use VR funds to start a business; men were more likely to use funds from a bank loan or bank line of credit.

How much money did state VR agencies contribute towards starting a business?
VR agencies contributed an average of $6,133. The minimum was $0 and the maximum was $200,000. VR agencies contributed almost twice as much to women-owned than to men-owned businesses.

Was there a difference in sources of start-up funds if the person worked with a VR agency?
Yes people who did not work with a Vocational Rehabilitation agency used personal savings at a 20% higher rate, a credit card at a 15% higher rate, and retirement funds at a 9% higher rate.

How much money did the businesses make?
For the previous 12 months of operation 55% of the businesses grossed $20,000 or less, 21% grossed between $20,000 to $100,000, and 21% grossed over $100,000.

How adequate was this income?
Businesses contributed an average of 37% towards the owner’s household income.

What were other sources of household income?
One-third of the business owners reported other household income was supplied by a spouse and one-third reported it came from Social Security Disability Insurance.

How satisfied were people with their businesses?
The business owners enjoyed their current or most recent businesses, were satisfied with their businesses, their businesses exceeded their expectations, and they felt their businesses were somewhat successful. This held true for business owners who reported their income was inadequate and for those whose businesses grossed $20,000 or less.

Business ownership contributes to the owner’s quality of life in more than a financial way.

How many people were employed by these businesses?
The average was 4.7 employees. Forty-five percent had no employees but the business owner, 55% had from 1 to 75 employees.

What benefits were provided by the business for the owner and for employees?
One third of the businesses did not provide any benefits for the business owner or for employees.

When benefits were provided most often they were flexible hours, pay that is higher than minimum wage, time-off without pay, and a family atmosphere.

Eighteen percent of the businesses provided health insurance. Twenty-four percent of the business owners said they did not have health insurance. Thirty-one percent reported Medicare as their source of health insurance.

Who provided the business owners with advice on running their businesses?
Business owners most often consulted with family members and friends, followed by other small business owners and owners of similar businesses. Women were more likely to seek advice and support from family members and from a business consultant. Men were more likely to seek advice and support from a banker.

Were the business owners connected to their communities?
Most business owners (75%) felt connected to very connected to their community. Sixty-four percent of the business owners belonged to a civic organizations or volunteered for one. Half also joined or volunteered for disability organizations.

What would the business owners do in a different way if given the opportunity to open another business?
Forty-one percent of the business owners would start with more capital. Twenty-nine percent would not do anything different.