Freelancing and Self-Employment with a Disability

Many people start freelancing and self-employment with a disability due to the flexibility and options it can provide. And any person should be given fair opportunities to live and work in a way that best suits their needs and situation. But often, prejudice and ignorance towards disabilities mean those living with physical and mental conditions receive less opportunity and understanding than their non-disabled counterparts.

Often, those with physical disabilities are assumed to be able to do less than they’re able. In contrast, individuals with invisible illnesses (or those who mask their physical disabilities) are considered to be able to do more. Either way, a lack of support and flexibility of working conditions from employers has led many freelancers to go self-employed to create a work-life balance and working environment that is better for them.

Setting up as a self-employed contractor, consultant, or independent professional offers greater flexibility and is typically seen as a positive choice for those living and working with a disability. But successfully managing freelancing and self-employment with a disability comes with many challenges. Raising awareness, avoiding stigma and finding appropriate support and advice within the self-employed community can be difficult. And the right encouragement can make or break a freelance career. This guide brings together a range of helpful information on finding support for those who are self-employed with a disability.

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How is a disability defined?

Disabilities can be caused by many reasons, including lifelong conditions or due to an accident or chronic illness. And the term disability doesn’t just mean a physical condition; it also encompasses other types of disability, from invisible illnesses to cognitive issues and learning disabilities.

As defined by the Equality Act 2010, a disabled person is defined as "someone who has a physical or mental impairment that has a 'substantial' and 'long-term' negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities.”

Successively, Gov.uk defines ‘substantial’ as “more than minor or trivial, eg it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task like getting dressed” and ‘long-term’ as “12 months or more, eg a breathing condition that develops as a result of a lung infection.”

Some conditions such as HIV, Cancer and multiple sclerosis automatically meet the above disability definition, as do some other progressive diseases. 

The NHS defines a list of categories that fall under the umbrella term ‘disability’, including:

  • Behaviour and Emotional

  • Hearing

  • Manual Dexterity

  • Memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand (Learning Disability)

  • Mobility and Gross Motor

  • Perception of Physical Danger

  • Personal, Self Care and Continence

  • Progressive Conditions and Physical Health (such as HIV, cancer, multiple sclerosis, fits etc.)

  • Sight

  • Speech

  • And ‘Other,’ making the list of conditions, in theory, non-exhaustive.

Living with a disability, you may experience discrimination, feel you’re not being taken seriously, or that you are losing your dignity and independence. You may also become at risk of social isolation and mental health deterioration through stress and anxiety. Or your disability may be your superpower, opening up new opportunities and a way of living flexibly to suit your needs.

 

How many disabled people are self-employed?

There are almost 4.5 million self-employed individuals in the UK, and is estimated that 14 per cent of all disabled people in work are self-employed, This would equate to around 611,000 people. IPSE research also shows the number of disabled self-employed people has increased by 30 per cent in the last five years as the self-employed sector grows older. The Department for Health cites that “the prevalence of disability among people of working-age has risen in recent years and is likely to rise further with an ageing workforce.” 

Freelancers and contractors with disabilities appear more often in the self-employed sector than the general workforce. Many disabled people choose to work for themselves to manage their work/health balance. Additionally, long term illnesses and disabilities occur more in older people (aged 60 and over), a predominant demographic within the self-employed sector.

In a recent publication from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, they state they recognise that “self-employment may be attractive to people with a health condition or disability and that it is important to provide them with support to start, sustain and grow their self-employment.”

For individuals with disabilities, productivity levels can often be unpredictable, and many freelancers find themselves losing hours to medical appointments, sickness and recovery time. And managing multiple illnesses and disabilities may also be of concern.

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What are the advantages of being self-employed if you have a disability?

Flexibility

An IPSE study showed that “one of the key factors that encourages [a person with a disability] to become self-employed is the flexibility of work schedules and the ability to accommodate their conditions and impairments.”

The same study also showed that “self-employment offers disabled people the opportunity to accommodate their impairment or condition, suggesting that regular nine-to-five employment may make it difficult to work around their conditions.”

The flexibility of times, hours and days worked are without a doubt a huge advantage of being self-employed with a disability. Self-employment allows working around a schedule that fits an individual’s needs, such as around medical appointments and family commitments. 

Wellbeing

For those with disabilities, pain and fatigue can often impact productivity levels. On better days pacing and deep working can take place at an optimum level. On days when a disability may be causing obstacles, flexible working can lead to an improved mental health > wellbeing > productivity cycle. A home setting that is more comfortable and inspiring than a traditional workplace can offer improved wellbeing and motivation for disabled freelancers.

No commute

Working remotely is a great advantage to becoming self-employed and working as a freelancer. No commute to bookend the day results in less energy expended and lower stress levels. For those with mobility issues, no additional travel, and working from home or remotely can be a positive effect. Home comforts and facilities being available when needed and being close to bulky medical equipment that doesn’t travel easily is another plus point.

Community

Connecting with a like-minded community of freelancers and self-employed can offer a lot of support to those with disabilities. Sharing experiences, finding your ‘tribe’, and being able to ask for advice from others in self-employment with a disability is a real advantage, so as to increase a feeling of belonging.

“The social isolation of people with disabilities restricts their access to social networks,” WHO, Chapter 8 of the World Report on Disability, 2011.

 

What challenges are there for disabled freelancers?

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Working siloed

It’s often easy to feel siloed, detached and disheartened when you’re a disabled freelancer if you’re not receiving the correct level of support. A way to combat this is to establish a support network of like-minded people and share connections with other freelancers. Creating a comfortable, accessible work from home space can encourage creativity, productivity and inspiration.

Financial struggles

Money worries and forging a steady income can be a challenge with a disability. If you fall sick as a freelancer due to your disability or your condition, e.g. if you require hospital treatment, it can be difficult to manage finances, home life and your workload. Having a good understanding of your disability or health condition can be helpful towards identifying any trends in symptoms and predicting when you may need additional support. Additionally, good money management and financial planning, for example, understanding your annual self-assessment and taxes, is a must.

No Holiday or sick pay

A significant downside of being self-employed with a disability is having no holiday pay or the benefits of being employed, such as a company pension or maternity or paternity pay. However, the optimum way to rectify this can be to build potential costs into your budget and client charges and claim any additional state benefits to which you may be entitled.

Policies and rights

IPSE will continue to work on research and policy for people with a disability in the self-employed sector, campaigning towards:

  • The Re-design of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) to ensure disabled people with a broad mix of physical and mental health conditions and impairments are part of a process to coproduce a redesigned WCA.
  • Increasing the powers of the Small Business Commissioner, giving the Commissioner the power to fine late payers.
  • Increasing New Enterprise Allowance (NEA) mentor and benefit support to two years to reflect the length of time individuals need support whilst establishing their business.
  • Publicising Access to Work (ATW), encouraging the DWP to publicise ATW more broadly to make all eligible people aware. More details of the Access to Work Scheme are below.

 

 

Disability benefits and grants for the self-employed

Personal Independence Payment (PIP)

Personal independence payment is a non-means-tested benefit, designed to help with some additional costs of long term physical or mental health conditions or disabilities. PIP is replacing the current disability living allowance (DLA), which is gradually being phased out.

PIP is available for those who have daily living or mobility difficulties with long term health conditions, including chronic illnesses. Problems with daily living or getting around (or both) must have lasted for at least three months, or for those who expect these difficulties to continue for at least nine months.

After an in-person assessment, if you meet the requirements, you’ll receive a weekly grant payment which is tax-free.

For more information and to apply, visit https://www.gov.uk/pip.

If you’re eligible for PIP and you work (which includes self-employment, you may be able to get the disability element of Working Tax Credit (up to £3,220 a year, or up to £4,610 if your disability is severe).

Working Tax Credit / Universal Credit

If you’re disabled and working at least 16 hours per week and already in receipt for Child Tax Credit, you may be eligible for Working Tax Credit. If you’re not in receipt of Child Tax Credit, you can instead apply for Universal Credit.

The eligibility rules for Universal Credit are dependent on your personal circumstances, savings and income. 

See the complete set of eligibility criteria and apply at https://www.gov.uk/universal-credit.

'New style' Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

If you have a disability or health condition that affects your capability to work, you may be eligible to apply for the ‘new style’ Employment and Support Allowance. Eligibility includes whether you’re currently working (including self-employment) or have worked in the last two to three years (and have paid enough National Insurance contributions). 

You can continue to work when receiving ESA if you work less than 16 hours a week and do not earn more than £143 a week. ‘Supported permitted work’ of more than 16 hours per week is allowed in supervised circumstances, however, you still cannot earn more than £143 per week.

If eligible, a standard weekly assessment rate will be paid for 13 weeks, and after assessment, you’ll be placed into either a work-related activity group or a support group. Fortnightly payments can be a valuable lifeline to those with disabilities who may need additional support but want to maintain independence and continue to work with reduced hours.

‘New style’ ESA can also be paid if you have had or are recovering from the coronavirus (COVID-19) and you’re unable to claim Statutory Sick Pay.

For full details on ‘new style’ ESA and to apply, visit https://www.gov.uk/how-to-claim-new-style-esa.

Access to Work Scheme

The Access to Work scheme offers support in work if you have a disability or health condition. Which does apply in certain circumstances if you’re self-employed.

If you’re disabled, have a physical or mental health condition that makes it hard for you to do your job, you may be eligible for extra help from Access to Work. The support available is typically in the form of a grant to cover the costs of specialist equipment and adaptations, software and, in some circumstances, taxi fares. This also includes mental health support services and advice.

You can find full details of the Access to Work scheme, including eligibility criteria and how to apply, at https://www.gov.uk/access-to-work

New Enterprise Allowance

New Enterprise Allowance is an additional form of support if you are looking to move into employment (or self-employment) so that you can start your own business, or develop your own business if you’re already self-employed.

New Enterprise Allowance consists of mentoring support and a potential weekly allowance of up to £1,274 for up to 26 weeks, and the opportunity for a loan for business start-up costs.

Eligibility is dependent on being in receipt of other benefits including Universal Credit, Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance, or if you’re disabled, in receipt of Income Support.

Full details of how to apply for New Enterprise Allowance can be found at https://www.gov.uk/moving-from-benefits-to-work/starting-your-own-business

Disabled Facilities Grant / Equipment for your home

In addition to the above benefits, you may be able to apply for a disabled facilities grant or equipment for your home if you’re disabled and need to adapt your home to make it suitable. Contact your local council for eligibility and to apply.

 

How to manage a self-employed career with a disability

Sometimes you may need to make adjustments to your ways of working due to your disability. This might be through:

  • Altering your working hours and working flexibly around medical treatments or to combat fatigue.

  • Working to realistic deadlines with an understanding you may need additional time for rest or recovery.

  • Modifying your workspace for comfort and for mobility.

  • Increasing accessibility through the use of specialist software and equipment.

Although insurers are unlikely to cover pre-existing conditions, investing in health insurance as a freelancer can give some peace of mind for covering short-term periods of sickness. Creating a savings fund for rainy days can alleviate stress, knowing you have a few months of costs covered.

Also, finding like-minded freelancers and support groups can help with managing a self-employed career. Facebook groups, forums and networking events provide support platforms for the disabled and chronically ill, with advice on self-employment from contracts to managing pain.

If you’re considering becoming self-employed or are new to the freelancing community, the IPSE Incubator offers a wide range of help and support. The 12-month programme is currently free with IPSE membership and includes advice, events, webinars, networking opportunities and more.

 

Software and office equipment to help disabled freelancers 

There is a wide range of software and office equipment to help disabled freelancers and the self-employed, although which type of equipment you need will depend on your individual circumstances.

  • Adjust your basic computer set up using screen mounts to achieve the correct height.

  • Use lighting to increase visibility, such as ring lights, lamps at a low level and natural lighting.

  • Access screen readers and audio tools which offer accessibility to read and edit documents. Google Chrome has a built-in screen reader, screen magnifier and an option to type with your voice. Apple has included a Voiceover utility on all Macs, and Microsoft has implemented a Narrator and screen Magnifier amongst its accessibility options.

  • Invest in web accessibility, for example, My computer my way, which offers a range of accessibility settings for individuals, bespoke to your needs.

  • If you have arthritis or have limited mobility in your hands or arms, investing in a trackball and soft mouse mat instead of a traditional mouse can alleviate joint pains.

  • Standing desks, yoga balls and kneeling chairs can help with posture and keep joint pain at bay. Electronically adjustable desks are available to switch between sitting and standing throughout the day, particularly for those who may want to start the day standing then sit later in the day or when tired. Plus, using a pile of books to adjust the height of your screen can be a cheaper option.

  • There are a growing number of apps to help self-employed people with disabilities. They can assist with things from helping to manage medication to supporting visual and hearing issues. The Dragon Anywhere App offers accessible dictation.  

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Support and other resources for disabled freelancers

Managing a self-employed career with a disability can be both challenging but also is incredibly advantageous. The flexibility of working as a freelancer offers convenience and the opportunity to shape a lifestyle and career that best suits your needs, allowing you to focus on both productivity and wellbeing.

Finding support, whether that’s through self-employed groups on social media or networking events with like-minded individuals, can be a lifeline to anyone working remotely for essential connection. And financial support via disabled grants and benefits can support those who need additional assistance. 

Freelancing and self-employment with a disability can be a great option, particularly with the proper assistance and support.

Creating a workspace that meets your needs and defining your working hours and routine allows you to demonstrate your skills and show that having a disability won't hold you back.

 

 


 

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