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Self-Employment: One Solution to Unemployment Among Disabled Latinos?

By Sylvia Gonzales, Berkeley, CA

Despite all the services and programs serving disabled people, the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is very high - approximately 70%. Among disabled Latinos the rate is believed to be even higher. One possible solution to the unemployment problem is self-employment. Perhaps more Latinos with disabilities would take this route if they knew about the resources that are out there to help.

Silvana's Story of Self-Employment

Silvana Rainey immigrated from Brazil after she graduated college. She has had low vision since the age of eight due to macular degeneration. After working for many years with Lighthouse for the Blind Silvana became the training manager with a company that provided assistive equipment and services to people with disabilities. When that company merged with an equipment manufacturer, Silvana was faced with the choice to become a salesperson or leave her job.

Silvana has always wanted to provide services as an accommodations counselor/trainer. She was not comfortable with sales so she started to think about starting her own company. She had the expertise and the clientele but not the money. Fortunately, her boss and a co-worker suggested they go into business together as partners and their company, Adaptive Technology Services, was born.

The three of them never formally wrote up a business plan because they never had to apply to a bank for a loan (usually the first step in starting a successful business.) However, they did research the market and worked out a budget with yearly projections. The Small Business Administration provided seed money. Their total investment that first year (2002) was $1,000. They grossed $300,000! Their business has been flourishing ever since.

In order to keep costs low they worked out of their homes for the first six months. They also asked companies to loan equipment to them. Technology in their field changes so quickly that equipment purchase for their business is impractical. They hired a driver for Silvana. She is the only partner who has a disability.

It is important to the partners that they maintain positive, independent relations with the equipment manufacturers. They do not accept finder's fees. Many manufacturers offered them money to push their products. Silvana and her partners recognize their credibility and reputation rest on their clients' confidence. This means they are committed to recommending the most suitable equipment when they assess the clients' needs and not the equipment that the manufacturer wants them to buy.

When asked if she approached working with Latino clients any differently than others Silvana emphasized the importance of sensitivity to differences in culture and to what stage a client is in accepting his/her disability. Silvana said, "Some of my clients are still in denial, grieving or angry."

Silvana's advice for entrepreneurs with disabilities is, "Know your market, know your business, work hard and you'll succeed."

Resources for Entrepreneurs

For disabled Latinos considering self-employment it is useful to know there are many resources available to help. The Small Business Administration (SBA) is a federal agency available to anyone in the U.S. In addition to the SBA Silvana and her partners also used a nationwide service called SCORE that is affiliated with the SBA. SCORE connects new entrepreneurs with seasoned businesspeople who act as mentors/consultants. The initial consultation is free but later they charge a small fee for follow-up.

Near San Francisco, California there is another resource called Women's Initiatives for Self-Employment. They have workshops and consultants on all aspects of starting your own business with services available in Spanish too.

There also are government programs that provide hiring incentives in the form of tax credits for hiring people with disabilities. The federal programs are the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) and the Welfare-to-Work Tax Credit. State programs vary from state to state and include features such as vouchers for the job seeker and tax credits for the employer.

Go to your local city or county government office for information about programs in your area. You also can go to the nearest Small Business Administration office. Contact information for these offices is in the government pages of the phone book under the Federal government listings.