Why aren’t you a charity?

Being an entrepreneur isn’t always about the money.

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


“Shouldn’t you be a charity?”


Establishing the Disability Leadership Institute has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I’m doing something that I love while contributing to my community every day.


It’s also been a weird experience every day, as I come across prejudice and assumptions that I’ve never dealt with before. There’s that big assumption that disabled people aren’t leaders and can’t do “proper” leadership – whatever that is – but more recently I’ve come across a recurring assumption that if your work is about disability then you must be a charity.


I was chatting with a group of disability entrepreneurs the other day and somehow the conversation got onto charitable status and whether we should be shaping our businesses to be a charity. Everyone in the group had rejected the idea of charitable status, which was a fascinating discovery.


Every single one of these businesses had the potential to be a charity and all were working to advance the status of disabled people, while also employing people with disabilities in their enterprises.


For some being a charity would limit their enterprise’s capacity to operate as a business, particularly into the future as growth occurred. Fair enough, this is good business sense.


A clear thread running through the group, though, was that being a charity would reduce the status of their work. There is a long history of charities and disability going back centuries. Unfortunately, a lot of that history is clouded with pain, segregation and abuse. Many people with disabilities have experienced disempowerment through being “charity cases”. Most of us still exist in a whirl of excessive bureaucracy just to get through each day as a disabled person.


When your enterprise is about advancing the status of disabled people, being a charity is almost like sleeping with the enemy.


All the enterprises belonging to the group were social enterprises, although none had formal certification as such. All of them would pass charity status expectations without fail, yet none of them wanted to be charities because it would demean their community to do so. It would also add more bureaucracy to their existing excessive levels of daily disability bureaucracy.


All of these enterprises would save money by being a charity, yet they didn’t want to go there. So, no tax concessions, no salary packaging for their staff, no capacity to receive donations.


Yet they are doing just as much “charitable” work as most of the charities I know (and I know thousands).


Being an entrepreneur isn’t always about the money. For many of us in the disability community it is about being respected as “real” business people who run credible profit-making enterprises. It is about being able to do business our way, while changing the way “doing business” is understood.


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Hostile Environments?

Learning workplace flexibility from disability entrepreneurs

By Christina Ryan – DLI CEO


Learning workplace flexibility from disability entrepreneurs


Recently, I had the enormous pleasure of speaking at a forum on disability entrepreneurship as part of the Victorian Small Business Festival. Thanks to AFDO for pulling it together. It was a wonderful event bringing together a panel of disabled entrepreneurs, in a room full of disabled entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. The event sold out in a day and a larger room was found, which indicates enormous interest in the subject.


Apparently people with disabilities are more likely than the general population to become entrepreneurs, yet curiously there are no programs to support this and no real recognition of this entire sector. Of course, the Disability Leadership Institute has many entrepreneurs as members and provides support for them to do their work, including peer groups.


Something quite interesting happened during the first panel event of the day – several of us realised that we were now in better shape than we’d been for a long time, despite working the long hours that entrepreneurship often demands. Entrepreneurs talked about being in less pain, having better mental wellbeing, sleeping better, having fewer down days, being able to reduce medication, and much more.


I wondered what this was about. How was it that so many disability entrepreneurs were finding their general health and wellbeing had improved, even though they were working harder than ever?


It seems to come down to 2 key factors:


  1. Being able to work flexibly and to your own rhythm.


Organisations still haven’t quite nailed flexible work and what it looks like. Having to turn up at an office between certain hours is very restrictive, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Disability entrepreneurs at the forum talked about napping in the afternoon before doing a few more hours before dinner; or using their middle of the night sleeplessness to best effect by talking to international colleagues or doing website updates; or starting early or late depending on individual biorhythms.


We are all very different and running our own businesses means we can work to our own beat and in our own way.


The upside of this is that you can work more hours because you can work when it suits you and when you are at your best. Those who have big peaks and troughs of energy / being at their best, were better able to push hard when they could and better able to manage downtime rather than trying to work through it to damaging effect.


It raises the question: is the 4 day week more effective for other reasons. Part time isn’t necessarily less capacity, it might actually create more.


  1. Not being subjected to hostile environments


It doesn’t seem to matter how much you love your job, or your team, the wider world is still an inherently hostile environment for most disabled people. Doors are too heavy, equipment is often not quite right, things happen unexpectedly to confront your equilibrium, and (awkwardly) there is a constant undercurrent of not quite appropriate commentary or inquiry about your disability.


Even at the most inclusive workplaces it can feel difficult to ask for something to be repeated yet again because a colleague forgot to face you during a meeting, or the background noise overrode what they said.


Asking for assistance, generally, can be very difficult and often doesn’t happen. Equipment takes months to arrive and then isn’t quite right, or your supervisor becomes obsessive with getting it right and you feel an obligation to be grateful while wishing they’d just let it go for a bit.


For those who are not openly disabled the pressures are even greater as they attempt to conceal their disability or minimise the environment’s impact on it.


Those in team leading positions often cite the need to gloss over when they aren’t feeling well to maintain team morale.


So, it doesn’t seem to matter where you work or who with, it grinds you down over time. This leads to poorer health and wellbeing, greater pain levels, less mental equilibrium and greater difficulty in sustaining peak performance.


Of course, the answer isn’t for everyone to become an entrepreneur or to work from their own location, that’s an unacceptable return to segregation for people with disabilities.


What becomes clear, though, is that we can never assume that the workplace we offer is “safe” for someone, or that it will work. We are still a long way from fully inclusive workplaces that are physically and emotionally safe for people with disabilities.


Complacency must be avoided as we learn valuable lessons about genuine flexibility, and what “safe” looks like, from disability entrepreneurs. As technology continues to take us places we never expected there are so many options arising for workplaces of the future and how they might operate. Flexibility has a long way to go and it means a lot more than just “working from home”.


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