A PERSON WHO IS VISUALLY IMPAIRED INTO SELF-EMPLOYMENT
(This paper was written in 2001, but
still contains much that is of value and which underpins my current
thinking. Although the focus here is on people who are vision
impaired, I have since learned that the principles set out can
generally be applied effectively across a wide range of
disabilities. Note that, since writing this paper, I have
developed significant reservations regarding the value of formal
The purpose of this paper is to propose a way in which an individual
who is visually impaired can be supported through the transition from
training into self-employment. This is not a hard and fast
definition of how such a transition can be made, but it does highlight
general principles and some specific areas that will need to be
addressed. Because each client will be an individual and each
small business will be different, there will inevitably be potential
for almost infinite variation in the approach taken.
As with the population in general, only a relatively small percentage
of people who are visually impaired will wish to and will be able to
enter self-employment. There are certain general attributes that
are required of any individual who is to attempt to establish a new
business. In general terms, these are:
Even where all of these characteristics are present in an
there is no guarantee that a business can be established and run
profitably. However, they do form a good foundation on which to
- the individual must have something to sell;
- the individual must have or be capable of acquiring
the necessary level of entrepreneurial skills and attitudes required to
run a business;
- the individual must have or be capable of acquiring
appropriate interpersonal skills to be able to work with customers and
- the individual must have a high level of motivation
and be able to work almost entirely under his or her own initiative.
THE TRANSITION PROCESS
Any move into self-employment should be regarded as a continuous
process, rather than as a series of steps. However, for the
purpose of this paper, steps will be defined which, in practice, will
overlap and may not be taken in the order presented here.
The first six of these areas will probably not be supported by the
since ES support is generally not available until a business has
started trading. Indeed, one of the major stumbling blocks is
that a person who is visually impaired has great difficulty in
developing a business plan and making all the contacts that are
necessary before they start trading. This is because the ES will
generally not provide Access to Work (ATW) support until trading has
commenced. There have, however, been situations in which it has
been possible to subvert this ES policy and to procure ATW support
during the business planning and setup period. It is clearly
advantageous to procure such support at the earliest possible point in
- Assessment of business idea and potential for
- development of a business plan;
- identification of resources available and required;
- identification of sources and acquisition of
- securing support from the Employment Service (ES);
- preparation for commencement of trading;
- acquisition of appropriate technology and systems
to run a business;
- training in the operation of a business;
- mentoring and support;
- first year review and
- ongoing support.
Assessment of a business idea and its potential for implementation is
the starting-point for the transition process. At this stage it
is necessary to visit the client, so as to make the assessment in
surroundings that are as close as possible to those in which the
business will be operated. To make the assessment at a college or
other institution would be to begin from a false situation, and
increases the risk element in the whole process of transition to
The assessment should take account of a range of factors, including,
but not limited to, the areas set out below.
It is to be hoped that the outcome of the assessment part of the
process is that the client and business are found to be an appropriate
match for one another. However, it is always possible that the
contrary will be indicated, in which case it will be necessary to
discuss the situation fully with the client. It may eventually be
determined that there is nothing to be gained from progressing the
particular client further with the particular business venture.
- The specific business to be started. What is
to be sold and how qualified is the client to undertake this business
activity? Does the client have an appropriate level of technical
and professional skills to be able to supply the goods or services
- The business location. Where will the
business be based and where will it interact with its customers?
How suitable are these locations and what needs to be done to make them
- What resources, financial and other, are available
to start the business? What additional resources are required and
where might these be procured?
- Does the client have a proper business plan, or
just an idea? What support does the client need in order to
develop a business plan that might satisfy funding agencies?
- Is the client in contact with his or her
Disability Employment Advisor (DEA)? Is the DEA supportive of the
self-employment plans of the client?
- What preparations does the client need to make
prior to commencing trading? Does initial stock need to be made
or acquired? How long will it take to reach an adequate stock
- How does the client intend to advertise his or her
business startup and market the goods or services offered?
- What special limitations may be placed on
operation of the business by the client’s visual impairment? This
might include travel, mobility, personal presentation, understanding of
the visual aspects of the work and the market and the difficulties
associated with handling office paperwork. (It may be possible to
address some of these issues in an ATW assessment, but it would be best
to be prepared for that well in advance.)
- What are the implications of starting a business
for the client’s benefit status? How might the business impact on
the client’s overall income?
- What local support is available to the client,
pending his or her securing financial and other support from government
and other agencies?
Essentially, the business plan will be similar to that of any business
that might be started by anyone in the population at large. There
are, however, specific difficulties faced by a person who is visually
impaired in this respect. In particular, it is often not possible
for the client to have access to the necessary access technology to be
able to develop his or her business plan or to communicate with
commercial and public agencies. It is therefore desirable that
adaptive technology should be available to the client at this stage, so
that the client can have access to, and thus ownership of, as many
documents as possible.
The business plan should be developed as far as possible by the client,
along conventional lines. It should, however, take account of the
client’s visual impairment and any limitations or constraints that this
might place upon business activities. Although there is a great
deal of guesswork about business plans, the plan should be as realistic
As with any business, a variety of resources will be required to get
the client’s business started. These may include:-
Some of these resources will already be to hand, as would be the
with any business startup.
- plant and machinery;
- consumable items;
- initial stock;
- and others.
The specific difficulty for the person who is visually impaired is in
accessing information about these resources. Much of this
information is only available in ways that are accessible only with the
aid of access technology, and may even then remain difficult to access.
As with much of the transition process, and with running the business
itself, the most useful thing that can be done here is to work with the
client to develop strategies that will work for the individual.
The availability of adaptive technology can be a significant benefit
here, but it may not yet be possible to convince the ES to provide
support through ATW.
It will be beneficial for the client to be guided in making a list of
resources required and available, so as to identify shortfalls.
Dealing with most of these shortfalls will require the expenditure of
An extensive range of financial support services are available to
anyone wishing to start a business. It is important that the
client should understand the differences in services provided by:-
In the case of people who are visually impaired, there are more
potential charity sources available than would be the case for the
population at large. This, in turn, means that there is a greater
possibility of obtaining grant aid, as opposed to loans, for people who
are visually impaired.
- other financial institutions;
- the State and
Having identified the cash shortfall, it will be necessary to make
approaches to various agencies so as to try to obtain additional
funds. This can be a lengthy and paper-based procedure, in which
a person who is visually impaired will generally require support and
Hopefully, it will be possible to secure financial support that will
substantially provide for the shortfall in resources already identified.
ACCESS TO WORK
The purpose of ATW is to provide a person who is disabled with support
that will, as far as is reasonably possible, compensate for their
disability, so that they will be able to be more fully integrated into
the workforce. This means that the ES cannot use ATW to provide
equipment or services that would be necessary to run a business, were
the client not disabled. In the case of a person who is visually
impaired, there is a particular difficulty with computers, which may be
viewed as an essential part of any adaptive technology, but which may
equally be viewed as an essential tool in almost any business.
Some DEAs and Disability Service Team (DST) managers take a flexible
view of such equipment, whilst others may be difficult to convince.
It is important that an ATW assessment be conducted as early as
possible in the process of setting up the business. However, this
cannot be done until the precise nature of the business has been
established. There will be a critical point at which use of
adaptive technology becomes essential if the client is to be successful
in starting his or her business. It is important that this point
is anticipated and that an appropriate approach is made to the DEA by
Should a problem arise in securing ATW support prior to the
commencement of trading, it may be necessary to conduct dealings with
the ES through a consultant, acting on behalf of the client. This
has already proved to be a successful approach in more than one case.
PREPARING TO TRADE
As part of the runup to trading, there are many tasks to be carried
out. Most of these are similar, whether the client is visually
impaired or not. However, they may be less accessible to the
visually impaired person, who may require additional support or
guidance in their execution. There will be systems to be created
from scratch, including:
In a mainstream business there are many aids to address these
areas. Unfortunately, most of these are not accessible to a
person who is visually impaired. It will therefore often be
necessary to create specific systems, tailored to the needs of the
- filing system for paper documents;
- computer filing system;
- accounts system;
- cash management system;
- contacts management system;
- task organization system;
- and many more.
There will be a range of paper documents to design and prepare.
These are similar to those used in any business, but will need to be as
accessible as possible to the visually impaired business person.
Such documents include:
Because these documents present a substantially visual impact to
intended audience, guidance and support may be required in their design
and setting up. The objective, as ever, should be to make them as
accessible as possible to the visually impaired client, whilst still
making the appropriate visual impact.
- sales invoice;
- purchase order;
- business cards;
- fax cover sheet
- and many more.
There will be a variety of professional arrangements to be made with a
range of agencies, including:
Many of the organizations providing services in these areas may
particularly good at offering services to people who are visually
impaired. It is important to choose professionals who can offer
their services in an appropriate way to meet the needs of the
individual client who is visually impaired. Again, support and
guidance at this stage can save time and effort later.
- Inland Revenue;
- insurance companies
- and others.
Depending on the ATW assessment and on how it is received by the ES, it
may be possible for the ES to fund at least some of this preparatory
work through ATW.
SPECIFIC BUSINESS TRAINING
It is to be hoped that the client will have had general training in the
operation of a business, possibly at an institution specializing in
training of people who are visually impaired. It will be
necessary to apply this training to the specific business in hand and
for this purpose it may be necessary to provide additional training in
setting up and operating the business. This training would
substantially address the areas listed in the previous section, placing
these firmly in the context of the visually impaired client.
It is difficult here to make the distinction between training and
support. Much of what is required may be regarded as initial
support, which is progressively withdrawn as the business and its
proprietor find their feet. Situations will inevitably arise in
the operation of the business where specific training needs will be
identified. It is important that there is a mechanism in place
that can rapidly respond to such needs so as not to hinder operation of
Depending on the ATW assessment and on how it is received by the ES, it
should be possible for the ES to fund a significant proportion of this
specific business training through ATW.
MENTORING AND SUPPORT
The training and support role described above should change as the
client grows in confidence with the development of his or her
business. The client should, however, have access to a mentor,
who would be able to “think with the client”, being contactable by
telephone and/or email. It would also be generally beneficial for
the client to have occasional meetings with his or her mentor for
face-to-face discussions. It is envisaged that this would form an
ongoing part of the initial training programme.
By this stage, it should be possible for the ES to fund almost all of
such training and support through ATW.
FIRST YEAR REVIEW
The end of the first year of trading is a good time to review the
progress of any business. In the case of the client who is
visually impaired, it may be useful to have the support of the trainer
and mentor during this review. There will be certain tasks that
have to be addressed at this time, such as preparing the books for the
accountant or completing a self-assessment tax return. There is a
great deal of material in this area that may not be accessible to the
client, and for which strategies have to be developed to overcome the
consequent difficulties, whilst preserving the confidentiality of
Depending on the initial ATW training budget and how this has been
used, it may be possible to fund this review through ATW.
Self-employment can be lonely, and particularly so for those who are
visually impaired. It is therefore important that procedures and
structures are in place whereby the individual client can obtain
specific and peer support as and when he or she needs it.
Peer support is available through internet discussion groups and a
range of associations and self-help groups covering various business
areas and self-employment in general. The client should be
encouraged to take advantage of any support that may be available from
Additionally, there is no reason why a person who is visually impaired
should not join mainstream organizations whose members are in
businesses similar to his or her own. Indeed, this approach is to
be highly recommended.
It is essential that the process described above be kept under
continuous review. Without overloading the transition process
with paperwork, notes should be maintained of meetings, training
sessions and other activities, so that it is always possible to
establish the current status of the client. This should allow
obstacles to be quickly identified, so that they may be addressed.
Effective review procedures will facilitate monitoring of the
effectiveness of the support provided during the transition process.
An essential element of the transition process is that it be tailored
to meet the needs of individual clients. It is anticipated that,
because much of the service will be delivered in the workplace, it will
be provided on an individual client basis. There will, however,
be scope, particularly within a college or similar institution, for
It is important that each individual client should have the confidence
of knowing that they are not alone and that they have access to
individualized support services, tailored to meed their specific needs
within their specific business. However, much of the earlier
stages of the process of transition, with the exception of assessment,
can be done in group sessions and there may be real benefit to the
clients from doing this.
A pilot scheme should be undertaken, with a view to increasing the
prospects for success in self-employment of a small group of clients
who are visually impaired. It is suggested that a group of, say,
five or six people would be suitable for this purpose. It is
important that each client should first be assessed, as described
above, so as to be sure that there is the greatest likelihood of
success in their chosen businesses. Reasonable measures of the
success of such a scheme would be the number of clients who actually
started in business and the number of these who were still trading in
twelve months from startup.
Brendan N. R. Magill,
4th July 2001