Despite the large number of disabled people in self-employment, relatively little is known about their experiences and views of this way of working. Given the high level of satisfaction among the wider self-employed population, there may be a tendency to assume disabled self-employed people are equally satisfied and are on an equal footing with the rest of the UK’s freelancers. As Making self-employment work for disabled people uncovers, satisfaction is high among disabled self-employed people. However, previous research shows the playing field may not be level for this group. In this section we look at previous evidence and outline what others have uncovered on this subject.
A question mark hangs over the experience of disabled people in self-employment
In recent years, efforts have been made to answer major questions about the experiences of disabled people in self-employment. One study found that disabled people were less likely than non-disabled people to cite positive reasons such as the desire for independence or exploiting a market opportunity as reasons for becoming self-employed.6 Their reasons included more so-called ‘push’ factors such as a lack of alternative opportunities.
Others argued that disabled people’s motivations and experiences of self-employment depend on whether their condition or impairment is work-limiting or not.7 For those with work-limiting conditions or impairments, one of the key factors that encourages them to become self-employed is the flexibility of work schedules and the ability to accommodate their conditions and impairments.8 The same study also recognises 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 issue with much of the research is that while it offers a valuable insight into this self-employed group, much of it is now out of date and does not provide insights from disabled people themselves.
In 2016, an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability, a parliamentary group that focuses on issues that matter specifically to disabled people, explored what disabled people and disability experts think about employment as a whole.9
During their inquiry, they heard evidence that suggested self-employment was positive for disabled people. Many of the witnesses echoed what the academic research has shown: that freelancing enables people to work around their conditions or impairments, while employment is slow to adapt. Witnesses said employment was inflexible and unsupportive in many ways, and believed that disabled people face attitudinal barriers in employment. Others commented that they were more productive as a result of being in self-employment.
The APPG’s report provides an invaluable initial insight into disabled people’s experiences. However, as its focus was on the issue of the disability employment gap, it left some questions about self-employment unanswered. Most notably, it did not answer certain questions about how disabled people view the welfare system, access to training opportunities, support getting started in freelancing, as well as many other issues.
The income disparity between disabled and non-disabled self-employed people
A lack of training and qualifications may be holding disabled freelancers back financially
Disabled people are a significant and growing section of the UK’s self-employment sector
14 per cent of all disabled people in work are self-employed, equal to 611,000 people.
The number of disabled self-employed people has increased by 30 per cent in the last five years.
- More than seven million people (7,274,000) aged 16-64 in the UK are classified as disabled under the Equality Act 2010.
- Over four million (4,081,000 or 56%) of those classified as disabled are either employed or seeking employment.
- Around half (51%) are in employment, accounting for 3,723,000 people.
The gender breakdown for the UK’s disabled self-employed is uneven
- 61 per cent are men and 39 per cent are women.
- Despite the shortage of disabled women in self-employment, there has been a surge in the number of disabled women choosing this way of work – numbers have increased by 48 per cent since 2013.
Disabled self-employed people tend to be in the higher age brackets
54 per cent are aged between 50-59 (28%) and 60+ (26%).
A further quarter (24%) are aged 40-49.
Although only seven per cent of disabled freelancers are aged between 16-29, this group has almost doubled with a 97 per cent increase since 2013.
Many disabled self-employed people work in highly skilled jobs
42 per cent of the disabled self-employed are concentrated in the three most highly skilled occupational categories which includes jobs such as engineering and IT professionals, health and social care professionals, marketing professionals and many others.
- 26 per cent work in trades which include skilled roles in the agriculture, construction, textiles and printing trades.
- The lowest proportion can be found in the administrative and secretarial occupations (4%) and the sales and customer service occupations (3%).
Disabled people in self-employment are in it for the long run
Nearly half (44%) of all disabled self-employed people have been in self-employment for ten or more years.
Of this proportion who are self-employed for ten years or longer, more than a quarter chose this way of work because of better work conditions or job satisfaction and the nature of their job or chosen career (22%), followed by a desire to maintain or increase income (12%).
- 20 per cent of disabled freelancers have been self-employed for four to seven years, whilst a quarter (26%) have been in self-employment for less than three years.
Highest level of education
Over a quarter (27%) of the disabled self-employed are qualified to degree level or equivalent; and over a fifth (21%) are qualified to A level or equivalent.
- A further eight per cent have received a postgraduate qualification.
- One in ten (11%) disabled self-employed people have no formal education which is almost twice as high as the proportion of disabled employees with no qualifications (6%).
In this section we outline disabled people’s experiences in self-employment. As mentioned in greater detail in the Methodology, this section is informed by interviews ComRes undertook with disabled self-employed people on our behalf. In addition, IPSE and Community conducted interviews with experts from a wide range of organisations that support disabled people.
To build as complete a picture as possible, disabled people and experts were asked a comprehensive set of questions relating to a range of areas which affect the everyday working lives of disabled freelancers.
We focused on:
- Motivations for entering self-employment
- Overall impressions of self-employment
- Welfare and support from government
- Challenges whilst in self-employment
- What they like about self-employment
- Training and career progression
- Support from government and non-governmental organisations
One of the leading academics regarding disability and self-employment, Professor Melanie Jones, described ‘push and pull factors’ that brought disabled people into self-employment. In other words, factors which compel disabled people into freelancing due to negative experiences in employment, and factors which draw disabled people in. A review of the testimony from disabled people and experts shows that this holds true, and although on balance disabled people’s experience of freelancing is positive, it is important to acknowledge the positive and less positive sides to this way of working.
Looking at Labour Force Survey (LFS) data on the main reasons for disabled people choosing self-employment, the most common reason is better work conditions or job satisfaction as outlined by over a fifth (21%) of all respondents.
Other disabled people chose self-employment because of the nature of their job or chosen career (19%) or to maintain or increase their income (9%), suggesting that the larger proportion of respondents did so because of pull rather than push factors.
Six per cent of disabled people chose self-employment because they could not find other employment, and a further six per cent did so because of redundancy. This finding is in line with the motivations of the wider self-employed population.
Over a fifth (22%) of the disabled self-employed respondents selected the ‘other’ category suggesting that the reasons for joining self-employment for disabled individuals might be far more diverse than the options presented in the survey and therefore we address this question in a greater detail in our qualitative findings below.
Many of the factors described to us that push disabled people into self-employment related to negative experiences of being disabled and in employment.
- Some described a lack of understanding in the workplace around a person’s condition or impairment including from colleagues and employers.
- Our disabled interviewees also said they felt the presence of stigma in the workplace around their conditions or impairments.
- On the theme of conditions and impairments, many told us that traditional employment was inflexible in terms of supporting them to manage their conditions or impairments, for instance when it was necessary to seek treatment or take time off work. There was also an absence of part-time employment opportunities or flexible working hours.
- The perceived lack of other employment opportunities was also a key issue many people stated lead them to self-employment.
- Those who had specific mental health conditions, such as those on the autism spectrum, felt the traditional office environment and nature of work was not conducive to a positive experience for them.
- A theme around inaccessibility of workplaces also emerged. This includes workplaces being inaccessible, either for wheelchair users, or for those who have difficulties getting to the workplace through public transport.
There is a lot that pulls disabled people towards self-employment. Most of the feedback we received mirrored the factors that pull the wider population towards freelancing that IPSE and Community regularly hear in feedback.
- General flexibility around working arrangements such as working hours and working days was a key factor pulling people towards self-employment, and flexibility to work around an impairment or condition was a factor unique to disabled freelancers.
- Similarly to the wider freelancing population, greater control over work is seen as an important pull factor.
- Self-employment was also seen as a pathway to get greater fulfilment from their job, which helped boost self-worth and gave them a personal sense of pride.
- Lastly, disabled people feel that self-employment offered them an opportunity to pursue a personal passion or skill.
- There was also an indication some were pulled into self-employment because of a market demand, such as one individual who is a professional musician. Another indicated employment fatigue after ten years in the corporate world.
- Finally, work-life balance is a factor many cited as an attractive feature of self-employment.
Overall verdict on self-employment
All respondents had a positive overall view of self-employment, and while they acknowledged the challenges they faced within it, they were broadly happy and satisfied with their quality of life as a self-employed person.
- No matter whether they were pushed or pulled into self-employment, many reflected on how being self-employed had a positive impact on their lifestyle in light of their condition or impairment.
- For those with mental health conditions, this might mean taking time away from other people or being able to work in a way that suits them. For those with physical conditions or impairments, it might be the chance to take more regular breaks or look after their physical health more carefully.
Disabled freelancers do face a set of challenges in self-employment. But, it is important to note that, whilst many of these problems will feel very real for those going through them, they can be overcome, and solutions are addressed in the Recommendations section. The remainder of the Challenges section outlines the issues that face disabled self-employed people, and find that in some cases, such as the issue of late payment, disabled and non-disabled freelancers share the same problems.
Late payment makes fluctuating income worse
Late payment is the scourge of the UK’s self-employed, with the average freelancer spending 20 days a year chasing late payments.16 For 40 per cent of freelancers, this results in no payment being made at all.17 When these factors are coupled with the issue of fluctuating income it can have greater consequences on some disabled self-employed people.
- Experts were nearly unanimous in telling us fluctuating income and seasonality of earnings in some sectors created more acute problems amongst some disabled self-employed people.
- In some cases they said this has lead to increased feelings of depression or low-mood.
- It was suggested that a factor that made this worse in some cases was late-pay, where clients do not pay freelancers on time.
Skills and training
Continuing training and development is important for all self-employed people to keep ahead of technological, professional and regulatory changes. This claim could be even more relevant for the disabled self-employed who are more likely than average to have no educational qualifications. But, too often disabled freelancers find they are priced out of training opportunities or are unaware of what’s on offer.
According to our LFS data analysis, there are large differences in the number of disabled self-employed and disabled employees reporting job-related training in the previous three-month period.18
Less than one in seven (13%) of the disabled self-employed reported undertaking job-related training in the last three months, compared to more than twice as many disabled employees (27%) who had done so.
This trend raises questions about whether the UK’s disabled self-employed engage in enough learning and training opportunities to support their skill development needs. It also poses questions over the potential impact on their career progression, income levels and accessing more or higher quality work opportunities.
- The main reason disabled people chose not to take up training was because of a lack of knowledge of what is out there.
- The perceived steep costs of training courses were also off-putting.
- For others it was simply that they were experienced enough and were less receptive to take up training opportunities, as they may be planning for retirement or feel they know what they need in order to get their job done effectively.
- According to the experts interviewed, accessibility could be another obstacle preventing the disabled self-employed from seeking training.
- As reflected earlier, some of the key areas disabled freelancers sought training include developing their sales and marketing skills, as well as training on tax and finance management and bookkeeping – the essentials of any successful business.
Confidence in negotiating day rates
Many experts recognised the fact that disabled people in self-employment are more likely to be less confident in negotiating higher rates in pay than the wider self-employed.
According to them, in some cases this is associated with difficulty finding a client or a job, while in other cases disabled people are not aware of how much they can charge for a product or a service and end up undervaluing their work.
Experts suggested access to mentoring and networking opportunities, as well as good guidance on setting day rates as key for boosting income through improved self-confidence.
Disabled freelancers face challenges when it comes to their finances
As with all businesses, disabled self-employed people may require financial assistance from time-to-time, or will need to divert some of their earnings for other things such as preparing for retirement. At times they can feel unsupported in this area, either by banks that don’t understand their needs or personal circumstances and pension providers whose products are inflexible, amongst other areas.
- Most of the experts interviewed agreed that disabled self-employed people tend to face significant difficulty in accessing loans from banks and investors. One disabled person’s account focused on the personal background and circumstances they have in relation to the impact of their condition or impairment such as not having any savings, being in debt and having poor credit history.
- What emerged as common between disabled and non-disabled self-employed people is that banks often lack the understanding of their background and personal circumstances, and don’t take this into consideration in their decision of whether to provide a loan or not.
- Some raised the issue that they felt there is a lack of a security net, namely around pensions, where freelancers have to make their own arrangements. IPSE found this is a common issue amongst the self-employed, where 69 per cent not currently paying into a pension.
In any industry, support from trade unions like Community and bodies like IPSE, as well as through the government provide vital access which can help disabled people make a success of self-employment. We explore the available support options and highlight areas for improvement.
Welfare support for disabled freelancers is welcome – but there’s room for improvement
For many disabled people, the welfare system is an essential lifeline to support them through periods they are in or out of work, or when they need extra support to accommodate their condition or impairment and a range of government-provided benefits help to that end. There are a number of different benefits that currently exist:
- Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit for those seeking work and provides extra support to those who need it. It is gradually being superseded by Universal Credit (UC).
- Access to Work (ATW) provides additional support for people who are either about to re-enter work or are in work and require additional support to aid with their condition or impairments, such as transport to get to work, specialist equipment or mental health support.
- Disabled people are also able to access Personal Independent Payments (PIP) for the extra costs associated with their condition or impairment, such as for the cost of a wheelchair or the cost of getting a taxi to work where public transport is inaccessible, amongst other things.
- The New Enterprise Allowance (NEA) provides additional support for new businesses and access to a local businessperson who acts as a mentor.
All these benefits have been the subject of varying levels of criticisms over the past few years, however, much of the criticism revolves around the execution of them and not the principles behind the ideas.
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
ESA is a good example of a benefit that divides many. For disabled recipients, the benefit creates two separate groups:
• The Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG): For those that have a condition or impairment and are expected to be able to work within 12 months.19
• The Support Group: This is for people whose impairment or condition means they are unlikely to work in the future and there is no requirement for them to seek work.20
A key issue with ESA is not necessarily with the creation of these two groups, it is generally with, at times, the unfair placement of ESA recipients into the wrong group. The assessment process for ESA, the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), has been criticised for placing individuals unable to work into the WRAG group which has lead to views that the assessment is unfair. Feedback reveals that it does not feel as if the WCA was co-designed with disabled people and that it misunderstands certain conditions or impairments.21,22
Universal Credit (UC)
Universal Credit has been the subject of heavy criticism since it has gradually been implemented. UC will eventually supersede a range of benefits, including ESA, and will mean many millions will migrate onto the benefit over time. The issues associated with UC affect disabled and non-disabled recipients in equal measure, though given salaries for disabled self-employed people have been found to be lower than for non-disabled self-employed, it could be argued that it penalises disabled recipients more.23 These relate to two core issues:
- The Minimum Income Floor (MIF): The MIF is an assumed level of earnings that is used to calculate a person’s UC entitlement. If a claimant earns more than the MIF in any given month, they will receive less, and when a person earns less they will not be offered more money to top up the loss. The key issue is that when calculating payments, the system does not take into account fluctuations in earnings between months. This is unfair for the self-employed, who in general have much more fluctuating incomes than employees.
- The start-up period: This is where a newly established business is exempt from the MIF for the first 12 months of trading after which the MIF kicks in. Businesses, including the self-employed, that are older than one year do not qualify for the start-up period. As many businesses take at least two to three years to comfortably establish themselves, the short start-up period is unhelpful.
These issues in turn can exacerbate the already present issue of fluctuating income that some self-employed people must manage.24
Personal Independence Payments (PIP)
Personal Independence Payments (PIP) are a welcomed benefit that supports disabled people with their extra costs. Many criticisms have centred around a gruelling application process that applicants have to go through, in addition to the Work Capability Assessment they must go through to apply for in-work benefits. In March 2019, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced a trial to combine PIP and WCA processes by 2021, and we cautiously applaud the government in their efforts to make this a less stressful and cumbersome process for disabled people.25, 26
Access to Work (ATW)
For some, Access to Work (ATW) is thought of as one of the best kept secrets in welfare support.27, 28 In addition to the benefits mentioned earlier, ATW offers disabled people access to job coaching and training support which are welcome and should help with skills gaps amongst disabled freelancers. Keith Bates of Mutually Inclusive suggested there is potential for ATW to be extended to cover personal assistant payments for those who need extra support with accounting and invoicing, and should place less responsibility on the individual to find the support structures.
Much of the criticism, however, refers to the relatively low take-up rates for the benefit which indicates the relevant authorities are not making enough people aware of ATW, such as within the Job Centre Plus system. The latest statistics provided by the Department for Work and Pensions indicate only just over 33,000 people are in receipt of the benefit, and a strikingly low proportion of them identify as having a mental health condition (less than 5%).29
ATW is not without its supporters, however. Seema Flower of the Blind Ambition charity argued ATW is “the best thing the government does to support disabled people in work.”
The New Enterprise Allowance (NEA)
The New Enterprise Allowance (NEA) is a benefit which disabled people are eligible for, to assist them with setting themselves up as a business. They can receive an additional £1,274 over 26 weeks on top of any benefits they receive and the support of a local business mentor. Experts we have consulted argued the NEA is in theory a good means of supporting disabled people to get the support they need when setting up as self-employed, however in practice there are some limitations, namely:
- The NEA only offers support for up to six months: The NEA does not recognise that businesses will need continuing support after their six months of trading. 30
- The NEA is not widely publicised: Despite the NEA being a useful means of support for disabled people starting out in self-employment, the relatively low take-up overall would suggest it is not being widely publicised enough. Just over 120,500 businesses have been set up through the scheme since 2011, and only one in four of those individuals running said businesses self-declare as disabled.31
Job Centre Plus (JCP)
Job Centre Plus (JCP) are a network of offices which individuals can go to apply for a range of benefits and get support to find work. In interviews with a range of experts, many told us that in the wake of JCPs withdrawing Disability Employment Advisers, the centres now lack the depth of in-house expertise around disability.
The knock-on effect means many of the Work Coaches who are responsible for dealing with all JCP customers do not have sufficient knowledge of the needs of disabled customers and this can lead to poor outcomes at the assessment process and beyond. Further evidence from the interviews IPSE and Community conducted suggests there is a lack of awareness and understanding around self-employment as an option. Given JCP’s are an essential point of contact for disabled people to get the support they need to sustain their self-employed careers, it is vital this is reconciled.
Organisations such as trade associations like IPSE, trade unions including Community, and the wide variety of charities that meet the various needs of disabled people are just as important in enabling this group to have a positive experience of freelancing.
According to interviews with disabled people in self-employment, there is variable access to support from membership organisations and charities.
Those who did access such services generally found them helpful, especially in relation to gaining understanding of advice on transitioning into self-employment.
The majority of the experts interviewed also felt there is a real support gap, and a growing space for charities and commercial organisations to fill in this gap in terms of providing specialised advice and support, as well as products and services.
- Experts highlighted that information relevant to disabled people in self-employment is either lacking or difficult to find.
- Our interviews showed many disabled freelancers often do not know what support they can access or are eligible for, and in the cases when they do, they often find it hard to access appropriate advice or find going thought disability assessment hugely challenging. This underscores an opportunity for support organisations to improve their signposting to such support.
- Some experts pointed to the need for greater mentoring support from support organisations, especially around freelancing as most work advice is aimed at employment.
- A need for more flexible and affordable support packages to help disabled people whilst in self-employment was also identified. These include tackling the loneliness aspect of self-employment by providing access to networking events and the need for business development and training support.
- Discounts on legal and accountancy services, as well as mortgage and other financial products, were seen as essential, especially for those who might find the financial and time cost of accessing these particularly challenging.
In this section we outline a series of recommendations to enable and support disabled people to make a success of self-employment. The recommendations we have developed have been informed by the experiences of disabled people themselves, the advice of experts working in this area, and the literature.
Disabled people are a vital and growing section of the self-employed community. In fact, their numbers have risen by 30 per cent in the last five years alone. They now make up 14 per cent of the total self-employed workforce, and this extraordinary growth shows no signs of slowing.
The disabled self-employed are part of an already diverse and thriving sector, and their varied perspectives and lived experiences do much to enrich the professions they work in. In return, while many of the disabled people we spoke to said employment had done little to support them, self-employment had allowed them to work more flexibly around their conditions and impairments.
When IPSE and Community set out to answer our key question, ‘is self-employment a positive choice for disabled people?’, we were encouraged to find the answer was, for the most part, ‘yes’. We found many of the factors that pull disabled people into self-employment – flexibility, greater control over their work and who they work for – are the same as those that pull non-disabled people into it. The key area where disabled and non-disabled people diverged was push factors. Many see employment as inflexible for disabled people, who have to manage physical or mental health conditions and impairments. Self-employment, however, offers them an opportunity to work around these.
It is important to recognise, however, that despite the overwhelmingly positive message from disabled people about self-employment, for some there are very real challenges that deserve our attention and call for solutions.
For people who receive welfare benefits, there is a strong feeling that at times the system works against them. Where this is the case, it crucial that the Department for Work and Pensions works to resolve this.
Just like their non-disabled counterparts, disabled people are also not immune from the scourge of late payment, and we urge the Small Business Commissioner and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to tackle this by fining the worst offenders.
When disabled people need support getting themselves set up or adapting to new regulations or innovations in their sector, organisations like IPSE and Community will also do our best to help them make a success of self-employment.