By Gregory Miller
President/CEO Penn-Mar Human Services
The designation of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is both timely and significant. It underscores the U.S. Department of Labor’s commitment to ensure an American workforce for Americans of all abilities, and this year’s official theme is “America’s Workforce: Empowering All.”
According to U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, the unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities has significantly declined over the past year. That’s an important achievement and it validates our efforts here at Penn-Mar where we are continually innovating to ensure that the individuals we support have access to services and supports that will lead to meaningful work.
We are at a point in this country where there is a talent drain for first time in decades. There are currently more job openings than people to fill them.
Employers are scrambling to figure out how to resource the talent they need to run an effective business and we are encouraging businesses to consider our individuals as prospective employees, just as they would with any other job applicant. For many open slots, we can recommend an individual with the desire, training and skill sets that would make them an ideal candidate.
But how about those individuals with disabilities who would love to own their own business rather than work for someone else? I’m sure there are a lot of you out there who have that same dream. Every new business is really someone’s idea of how they can change the world and make money doing it.
To fill that void, Penn-Mar is currently embarking on a groundbreaking exploration to create an Entrepreneurship Program for people with disabilities. Every day we are learning more about the kinds of businesses people want to start, the partnerships that could be established, and the resources available to help them monetize their skill or interest.
We are not operating under the assumption that everyone has entrepreneurial leanings but we do want to create a level playing field as it relates to the opportunities available.
For people with disabilities, the start-up for an entrepreneurial venture may look different, but long-term, it needs to be self-sustaining, just like any other successful business.
For example, when Raven first came to Penn-Mar, he discussed his desire to one day be a Mobile DJ. It wasn’t just a pipe dream. He had a lot of the leg work already figured out and was doing unpaid gigs at family gatherings for some 10 years. His mentor was a friend of his grandmother’s, a professional DJ, who taught him the trade and opened his eyes to the profession’s possibilities.
But this is Raven’s business idea and he will ultimately be responsible for setting the parameters and working the plan. The goal of our Entrepreneurship Program will be to identify and align the supports to ensure that his, and other self-employment ventures, are a success.
We want to help formalize people’s dream by connecting them to the appropriate communities and financial resources. We are researching a variety of funding sources including one that provides early stage seed money for people with disabilities seeking their independence through self-employment.
The opportunities are there, and a diverse list of business ownership dreams have already been brought to our attention: from flower shops to advertising-supported movie blogs, to jewelry making, photography and greeting card design. The list is growing, and endless.
But best of all, innovative self-employment strategies will help to create additional avenues for Penn-Mar to proactively and successfully live our mission to transform life into living for people with disabilities.