Supporting Entrepreneurs & Workers with Disabilities
Alex Smith-Michaels is the founder of Milestones – a school for students with disabilities. In many ways, Ms. Smith-Michaels is ideally suited for the role, as she has both autism and bipolar disorder, and has had to overcome the trauma she experienced in the educational and psychiatric systems as a result of her disabilities.
Thirty years ago, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, enshrining the rights of more than 57 million Americans to have equal access and inclusion in society. While this advancement of equality has been monumental, entrepreneurs with disabilities still face unique barriers, including lack of funding and challenges establishing credit, as well as a significantly higher likelihood of going into business without support from family members and mentors.
As head of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), it is my mission to ensure the federal government’s resources are helping underserved entrepreneurs succeed – this includes women, veterans, minorities, and small business owners with disabilities.
Throughout the country, individuals with disabilities have found a successful path in starting their own business. As Alex explains, “being an entrepreneur is something that I can work around my disability. I don’t have to fit every single mold. As a person with a disability, you can be a lot more successful as an entrepreneur in a lot of ways. The aspects of running a business that I am really good at, I can shine. And the areas where I don’t do well, I can hire out.”
To provide critical economic support to these small businesses during the pandemic, we launched the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and it has been one of the most successful disaster response efforts in history.
Alex received a forgivable PPP loan to help keep her school open and her 75 staff on payroll. “If we didn’t get the PPP and I had to lay off or furlough my staff or not provide health insurance for them, it would negatively impact Milestone’s students,” Alex said. “The reason they take risks and make progress is based on their unique relationship with the staff. I don’t know what would have become of the company without the loan.”
PPP was a financial lifeline not only for nonprofit schools like Milestones, but also for mental health facilities, social service centers, and transition programs. More than 12,000 nonprofits and small businesses just in this sector received PPP loans, totaling nearly $13 billion in forgivable loans.
As we celebrate the progress we’ve made toward equitable opportunity for individuals with disabilities, we know much work remains. Thankfully, our nation’s small businesses are helping lead the charge by hiring individuals with disabilities.
There are many benefits to hiring disabled individuals, including an expanded pool of talent, ability to meet workforce needs, a diversified and inclusive workforce, and creative business solutions and goodwill among customers. To help keep that momentum going, the SBA has put together a toolkit to assist small businesses in hiring more people with disabilities.
For individuals with disabilities, entrepreneurship can be a powerful mechanism for success. SBA is working to ensure every individual, especially those in underrepresented communities, can access non-traditional pathways to success. Resource partners like the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy are helping launch the next generation of entrepreneurs with disabilities and working to combat the many barriers which lead to widespread unemployment and underemployment within the disability community.
Entrepreneurs like Alex remind us of the tremendous progress our nation has made in the past three decades toward equality for people of every ability. Their stories also underscore the resiliency and strength of the American small business owner. Our country’s 30 million small businesses contributed significantly to the thriving economy we enjoyed just a few months ago and they will be the same ones leading the recovery effort.
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