Breaking Barriers: Opening doors to entrepreneurs with disabilities

At an iPoliticsLive panel on Monday in Toronto, stakeholders spoke about the landscape for those with disabilities in the entrepreneurial sector. Currently, some 14 percent of Canadians live with a disability, and according to Industry Canada figures, the number of small and medium-sized enterprises whose owners are persons with a disability are declining.

“The face of entrepreneurship in Canada is changing,” said Ellen Austin, national director of diversity and inclusion with Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). “Gone is the small manufacturing plant with eight people. That was our bread-and-butter for many years. Entrepreneurship today is increasingly less definable. It’s green, it’s global, it’s socially responsible, and it’s technology-driven.”

Austin said that she is puzzled as to why Canadians haven’t leveraged technology to support entrepreneurs with disabilities, and notes that there may be a reluctance to engage because they aren’t sure where to start, given that the term disability covers a broad scope.

“When I look at rest of the entrepreneurial landscape, I see us supporting women entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and more recently newcomer entrepreneurs, so it does give me pause why we haven’t rallied behind entrepreneurs with disabilities,” said Austin. “I think there’s an opportunity for us to do that.”

To that end, Austin notes that BDC is partnering with groups that have the experience with Canadians with disabilities to help in ways that they would not have been able to with existing networks.

“There are a lot of teething processes with having your own business, and to have organization or groups that are going to be supportive of you within the spectrum of your disability dealing with business is something that is really integral,” said Apanaki Temitayo M, artist and art teacher with CAMH, who started her own business.

Temitayo M noted that she spoke as someone with an invisible disability – mental health and PTSD – but also as an entrepreneur who happened to have a disability. She said that through Rise Asset Development, she was given space to develop her business plan with the assistance of a course that taught her how to put one together, and once it was seen to be a viable plan, helping get access to loans. Rise also offers mentorships to help entrepreneurs in the same business fields.

“I can’t say that every day has been rosy in regards to entrepreneurship, but I can say that is my life goal to be successful in, but to also highlight that having a disability, be it mental or physical, does not limit you in terms of what a successful business looks like,” said Temitayo M.

Dr. Marie Bountrogianni, Dean of the Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, spoke about how she was misdiagnosed as a slow learner as a child, which made her sensitive to helping on disability issues, something she carried forward in a career as Chief Psychologist for the Hamilton Board, and later as a cabinet minister in Ontario who introduced accessibility legislation.

Bountrogianni noted that Ryerson is a few weeks away from launching a new program that will help entrepreneurs with disabilities.

“We are launching our accessibility project where people from Ryerson and the community with a Ryerson connection can apply for grants up to $25,000 to develop programs or products for people with disabilities or senior citizens,” said Bountrogianni. “It could be an app, it could be a dance program for people with depression, it could be a program for people with Alzheimer’s, and we have quite a few applications.”

Bountrogianni added that it was not enough for government to get involved, but everyone – including businesses – need to step up, because it makes good business sense.

Guillaum Dubreuil, director of public affairs and media relations with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, noted that Canada will be facing a labour shortage, which is already manifesting in the province of Quebec. He noted that normally this is dealt with through immigration and retraining, but that is not enough.

“There remains an untapped pool of talented workers,” said Dubreuil. “People with disabilities are able to work, they have the willingness to work, and we are generally not providing the right tools for that to happen, and when I say we, I mean businesses in general.”

Dubreuil noted that the rate of entrepreneurs is slightly higher among people with disabilities than among other Canadians because they can’t get jobs within regular businesses.

“People with disabilities who are starting businesses are facing a certain number of challenges,” Dubreuil said. He noted that buildings in downtown core are fairly well-adapted for accessibility, but this is not where start-ups are setting up shop, typically in older buildings that aren’t subjected to the same building codes.

Temitayo M noted that there are advantages for businsses to hire people with disabilities.

“Because we have another lens, we may be able to see other opportunities that other employers don’t,” Temitayo M said.