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.
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
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.)
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.
What are the advantages of being self-employed if you have a disability?
What challenges are there for disabled freelancers?
Disability benefits and grants for the self-employed
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.
Support and other resources for disabled freelancers
Disability Rights UK, run by and for people with lived experience of disability including long term health conditions
Citizens Advice Bureau, Confidential and independent advice
MIND, Information and Support for those living with a mental health problem
Scope, the disability equality charity, who offer practical advice and emotional support
Big Orange Heart, A well-being support community for remote workers
My computer my way
Creative Freelancers UK Group
Blog: What to do when you fall sick as a freelancer?
IPSE Incubator, Knowledge, support and protection you need to get going in self-employment
IPSE Research Study, Making Self-Employment Work for Disabled People: An Agenda to Make it Happen
IPSE Member Benefits
DWP / DoH Publication: Improving Lives, The Future of Work, Health and Disability
Benefits and grants: Access to Work
Benefits and grants: Personal Independence Payment (PIP)
‘New style’ Employment and Support Allowance
New Enterprise Allowance
Apple Accessibility Guide
Microsoft Accessibility Guide
Dragon Anywhere App (mobile dictation)
Finding work as a disabled freelancer (Freelance Corner podcast)
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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