BRENDAN MAGILL
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SUPPORTING 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 business plans.)

INTRODUCTION

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.

PREREQUISITES

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 individual, there is no guarantee that a business can be established and run profitably.  However, they do form a good foundation on which to build.

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 ES, 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 the process.

ASSESSMENT

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 self-employment.

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.

BUSINESS PLAN

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 possible.

RESOURCES

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 case with any business startup.

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 money.

FINANCIAL SUPPORT

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.

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 guidance.

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 the client.

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 individual client.

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 their 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.

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 not be 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.

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 the business.

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 business affairs.

Depending on the initial ATW training budget and how this has been used, it may be possible to fund this review through ATW.

ONGOING SUPPORT

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 these sources.

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.

REVIEW

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.

DELIVERY

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 group sessions.

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.

CONCLUSION

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