Disabled Entrepreneurs Network - Quietly campaigning for Empowerment

The Disabled Entrepreneurs Network, which launches this month, seeks to provide network support for self-employed disabled people. Jane Hunt spoke to Sarah Perrin about her involvement in the venture

This month sees the official launch of the Disabled Entrepreneurs Network. ICAEW member Jane Hunt has been closely involved in its creation.

Jane has suffered from cerebral palsy since birth, but overcame the associated speech, hearing and writing handicaps to achieve her accountancy qualification. Accountancy featured Jane's success back in April 1985, when she was working in IBM's tax department in Portsmouth. 'I left IBM seven years ago and became a volunteer, having my fingers in different pies at different times,' Jane reports.

One of the pies is the Association of Disabled Professionals (ADP), an organisation established in 1971 to provide a forum for disabled people to share experiences of successful personal development and valued work, and to help create conditions for other disabled people to realise their ambitions. Jane is the ADP's treasurer. 'We quietly campaign,' she says. 'We do get recognition from politicians and the Employment Service.' The ADP produces a quarterly newsletter, as well as policy briefings and responses to government consultation documents. The organisation has also produced three informative booklets covering selfemployment, management and teaching. 'They tell you about the experiences of disabled people,' Jane says. 'They are written by disabled people, for disabled people.'

It's good to talk

The idea to set up the Disabled Entrepreneurs Network arose from a realisation that further networking support would be helpful. 'The reason why we developed the network was that disabled people wanted to know how other disabled people had fared,' says Jane. 'It's about sharing information. So we [the ADP] applied to the Phoenix Fund, which is run by the Small Business Service, and were successful in getting the funds to develop this network.'

There is no doubting the discrimination disabled people face when they look for work. Perhaps because of this, many people with disabilities are attracted by self-employment, or decide to set up their own businesses. According to a winter 1999/2000 Labour Force Survey, 14% of disabled people who work are self-employed, equivalent to over 400,000 disabled people in Great Britain. Self-employment can suit people with disabilities, since it means they do not have to conform to other people's working regimes. 'Some disabled people, for example, need to have a break in the day,' says Jane. 'Being selfemployed means they can work when they want to; it gives them the flexibility they need.'

The Disabled Entrepreneurs Network is designed to provide networking opportunities among self-employed disabled people and those setting up and running their own small businesses. It will also signpost opportunities for accessible and appropriate training and development to disabled entrepreneurs, and will identify and share good practice on selfemployment and SME business management. The Network also aims to advise the Small Business Service, banking and financial institutions, the Employment Service and other interested bodies and government departments on issues relevant to disabled entrepreneurs.

The ADP sought, and was awarded, just over £100,000 from the Phoenix Fund in order to set the Network up and support it for two years. From then on it aims to be self-funding through membership subscriptions, sponsorship and in-kind support (such as free use of office space). 'You can claim 10% of the award as an advance,' says Jane. 'So in this case we had £10,000 to kick off the project.'

In May, consultants with expertise in working with disabled people on employment issues were appointed. 'I make sure that the disabled members are running the project,' says Jane. 'We are managing it, but the consultants have got to do the work.' That work involves setting up a database of members, publicising the network widely and building links with key agencies (such as local Small Business Services), education and training departments and government departments. The consultants are also developing a computer-based information resource for network members and others, including a website.

The Network will cover England, with regional-contacts appointed to each of the nine English regions. The plan is that there will be occasional networking meetings in different regions, organised according to local Network members' demands. Those members' opinions will be sought on key issues in order to inform policy briefings and consultation responses produced by the Network and the ADP.

Room to expand

This network for entrepreneurs is seen as a pilot project. The ADP hopes to attract future funding to establish a series of other networks over the next three to five years. These would be focused on sectors such as accountancy, management, science and technology.

Jane's involvement in the Network has been keeping her busy. 'I am a contact for the consultants when they need anything,' she says. 'I write our quarterly reports to the Development Fund and then get them approved by my fellow members. We invoice the Fund for whatever we have paid out in that quarter.'

In addition, Jane is involved with several other charitable projects, including an organisation in Portsmouth, which provides advice on housing and independent living. 'I am a volunteer manager,' she says. 'It's a small organisation, but we have kitchens and bathrooms, with showers and beds and so on, for people to try them out before they buy them. We give people information to take away. It's about empowering disabled people as to what is available.'

Jane is herself a wonderful example of an empowered individual. The Network should help to empower other people with disabilities to develop successful self-employed careers.


The Network's web address is www.disabled-entrepreneurs.net To contact the ADP for further information or to request its booklets, use its email address:

AssDisProf@aol.com. The ADP's website is at www.adp.org.uk.
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