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Promoting Self-Employment

Rural Institute

Small business accounts for 53% of all jobs in the U.S. People who are self-employed and businesses that employ fewer than 10 workers are becoming more vital to the U.S. economy. From 1988 through 1991, while larger firms experienced a net loss of 2,065,000 jobs, these small businesses experienced a net increase of 2,624,000 jobs.

Since 1989, the Research and Training Center on Rural Rehabilitation Services, a National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research funded project at The University of Montana, has conducted research and developed self-employment models, procedures, and training for people with disabilities, particularly for people using the services of the state-federal Vocational Rehabilitation Program.

Self-employment is part of the American dream. People are drawn to the notion of working for themselves in a way they are not attracted to working for someone else. Americans think of self-employment as a way to control their own futures and to make work more fulfilling.

Although self-employment is part of the American dream, it often has been overlooked by the Vocational Rehabilitation system, which typically focuses on placing people as employees into businesses. While not appropriate for all people with disabilities, self-employment is a viable option for many. Because of the difficulty they have finding employment, many turn to self-employment to become self-sufficient. For example, from 1988 through 1992, Vocational Rehabilitation closed between 2.3 and 2.7% of their caseload to self-employment. This accounts for approximately 5,000 people with disabilities becoming self-employed annually. While this sounds like a large number, it does not come close to the 12.2% of working age people with work disabilities who reported being self-employed in the 1990 census. In fact, people with disabilities are self-employed at a higher rate than people without disabilities. For example, the 1990 census reported that 7.3% of the workers without a disability were self-employed.

People with disabilities are capable of owning and operating a variety of businesses. Of course, the person's disability must be considered in the planning process, but research conducted at The University of Montana indicates that the types of businesses people with disabilities start represent a wide range of mainstream businesses, including piano refinishing, chiropractic, autobody repair, boat making, contracting, weed abatement, retail used clothing sales, accounting, restaurant management, child care, welding, dog grooming, counseling, real estate sales, air conditioner repair, auctioning, bicycle maintenance and sales, and cleaning/maintenance.

Including language in the Rehabilitation Act legitimizes the use of self-employment by Vocational Rehabilitation, and puts it on an equal footing with competitive and supported employment, providing one more tool for people with disabilities to become self-sufficient. It is anticipated that these changes will:

  1. Legitimize its use by Vocational Rehabilitation agencies.

  2. Promote an often-overlooked and underused vehicle for achieving self-sufficiency.

  3. Support people with disabilities' interest in self-employment and business ownership.

  4. Expand employment options available to people with disabilities.

  5. Increase the VR closure rate from about 2.5% to 5% or greater. This would increase the number of businesses started by people with disabilities from 5,000 to 10,000 or more annually.

  6. Move towards providing the supports needed by both the Vocational Rehabilitation agencies and people with disabilities to start the most successful businesses possible.

  7. Contribute to rural and community economic development through business development and job creation.

For more information contact Tom Seekins or Nancy Arnold at RTC: Rural, 52 Corbin Hall, The University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812; (406)243-5467(v/tt) or (888) 268-2743 ; e-mail: or

Produced by the Research and Training Center on Rural Rehabilitation with the US Department of Education's National Institute on Rehabilitation Research Grant #H133B20002-94. The opinions expressed are the author's and not those of the Department of Education.

RTC: Rural, Montana University Affiliated Rural Institute on Disabilities, 52 Corbin Hall, The University of Montana, Missoula, MT 59812; Toll-free: 888-268-2743; Fax: (406) 243-4730; (406) 243-5467 voice/TT