Helping people with disabilities become entrepreneurs

Sarah Parker Harris,an Associate Professor and the Director of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Disability and Human Development. Maija Renko,  Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship. Photo: Joshua Clark

Faculty members Maija Renko (left) and Sarah Parker Harris are developing a program to expand career options in business for people with disabilities. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services


People with intellectual and developmental disabilities often overlook — or are overlooked by — the business world. UIC researchers want to empower them through entrepreneurship training under a new, two-year, $300,000 grant from the Coleman Foundation.

Chicago is home to more than 600,000 people with disabilities. Their unemployment rate is twice that of the city as a whole. Most employment programs have focused on placing people with disabilities in any job, without considering their interests.

“Imagine being told as young as 16, 17 or 18 years old that you might love gardening, but we’re going to put you in a workshop packing boxes instead,” said Sarah Parker Harris, associate professor of disability and human development in the College of Applied Health Sciences, co-principal investigator on the grant.

The new program will expand career options by bridging the gaps in culture and language between the business and disability communities.

The training program will be developed with input from the disabled community, service agencies and small business development agencies. Disabilities service agencies will get resources and training to demonstrate how business development can be an option for those they serve and how to connect their clients with the business services they need.

“This will be a unique opportunity for people with disabilities to access entrepreneurship,” said Maija Renko, associate professor of managerial studies in the College of Business Administration and co-principal investigator.

The multidisciplinary collaboration between Renko and Parker Harris began with a pilot program in 2010, funded by a UIC Chancellor’s Discovery Grant. Overwhelming response forced them to turn away as many people as they were able to include, and they continue to receive inquiries on their website.


Business plans, marketing, networking

Many entrepreneurs start businesses to help disabled people. “What that doesn’t do is empower people with disabilities to actually be business owners themselves,” said Parker Harris.

Too often, she said, they lack the social networks and the business acumen to even begin. The training will bring together people from the business and disability fields to conduct workshops in writing business plans, marketing and networking.

“This will be a unique project that targets both people with disabilities looking to be entrepreneurs as well as their service providers,” said Renko.

The ultimate goal is to make the program self-sustaining, so that service agencies recognize individuals with the potential to become entrepreneurs and give them the support and training for success.

The team will develop a model that can be used in agencies across the country. At the end of the training, they hope to hold a business planning competition that brings entrepreneurs together with investors.

“Some people are just at the idea phase, and are often told ‘no’ before they can even begin because they have an intellectual or developmental disability,” Parker Harris said. “A lot of building success is connecting the right people.”

Helping people with disabilities become business owners could change the face of employment, Parker Harris said. Besides creating jobs, people with disabilities bring their distinct experience to the mission of their business and may be more likely to hire other disabled people.

“I think it’s really exciting that we’re trying push through not just the policy barriers and the systemic barriers, but some of the attitudinal barriers,” Parker Harris said.


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