Impact Feature Issue on Supporting New Career Paths for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Supported Self-Employment as a Career Option for Individuals with Disabilities


Corey Smith is Director of Employment Services with Via of the Lehigh Valley, Bethlehem

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people with disabilities are nearly twice as likely to be self-employed as the general population, 14.7 percent compared to 8 percent (Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2012). A recent article in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation observes:

Over the last two decades, self-employment has become more prevalent among individuals with disabilities due in part to the (a) shift in the U.S. economy from industrial manufacturing to a high-technology, information and service-oriented economy, and (b) philosophy and movement of consumer choice and self-determination in employment for individuals with disabilities (Yamamoto, Unruh & Bullis, 2011, 118).

In recent years, Via and Job Squad, Inc., community rehabilitation programs in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, have, under the tutelage of Cary Griffin of Griffin-Hammis Associates, learned a great deal about self-employment as a career option for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We have learned that Customized Employment (CE) recognizes self-employment as a possible outcome for all employment seekers. And we have been supporting a growing list of self-employment business ideas for the people that we have served, including soda and candy vending machines, t-shirts, online tropical fish sales, polka disc jockey service, clothing manufacturing, art, and Notary Public.

When first meeting job seekers, we describe wage employment, self-employment, or both as possible job out-comes. The point of our work is to assist individuals to explore and maximize their interests, skills, and talents for use in income-producing activity. We start by engaging in Discovery, a structured process that seeks to answer questions such as “Who is this person?”, “What are their Personal Geniuses™?”, and “What are the ideal conditions of employment.” These questions cannot be answered without engaging the local community, so we explore neighborhoods, relationships, and activities. From there, the individual and those supporting them in their job seeking can develop a clearer picture of what kinds of work are a good fit for the person as they live their life in the context of their local community.

For some of the individuals with whom we’ve worked, self-employment has been the path they chose. Three of those individuals are Mike, Clint, and Neal, and in the rest of this article we share a little of their stories.

Making Music: Mike’s Story

In the mid 1970s, Mike graduated from high school with some pretty non-traditional career ideas. When he met with a traditional vocational evaluator he said that his work interests were polka, darkroom photography, television cameras, and taking apart electrical devices around the house. Already labeled as a person with both an intellectual disability and mental health issues, Mike was considered too disabled to work in a competitive job. He then spent the next 30 years working in a sheltered workshop. When we began working with Mike we used CE strategies to help him attain work in the community. We discovered he still had the same work interests, and we spent a considerable amount of time learning about the polka, darkroom (not digital!!) photography, television, and small electronics industries. We discovered Mike had skills in all these areas, but it kept coming back to polka. We also learned that his father was in his 90s and needed support from Mike on an intermittent schedule, which made regular wage employment problematic.

We were able help Mike get a very part-time gig doing a polka show on the radio, but were never able to help him develop enough advertising to make any money. We tried to talk him into taking a job in digital photography, in which he had no interest. We discovered that Mike had an affinity for older people who were interested in polka music. One of our staff has a sister-in-law working in the nursing home industry who was struggling to find entertainment on-site for her residents. Since Mike loves polka, is great with electronic equipment, and is a bit of an entertainer, we helped him play polka music with DJ equipment in a few local nursing homes. He did very well and was well received. In the end, we used some grant resources to help him develop a business plan; he also received job coaching support from a creative vocational rehabilitation counselor, received a small business loan from a revolving loan fund, and got follow-along job coach funding from the county disability service office. “Polka Mike” was in business!

Mike has now grown his musical offering from polka to also include big band, swing, country, and even rock ‘n roll. With the expansion of Mike’s musical offerings has come expansion of his bottom line, as well.

A Rural Home-Based Service: Clint’s Story

Over the past year we were fortunate enough to meet Clint, a young man graduating from high school and needing help with career development. Clint has both an intellectual and physical disability and lives in a rural area where traditional wage employment options are hard to come by. He has a support dog and requires some personal supports throughout the day. When we first met, we learned he had a history of working as a greeter for a local big box store on weekends and has highly developed customer service skills. Through the Discovery process we learned that he had over 300 people at his high school graduation party and is considered the “honorary mayor” of his hometown, that he has a very supportive family, and that because of his rural home setting and limited transportation options perhaps a home-based business should be considered.

One of the business ideas that came up was that of a Notary Public business out of his home. With support from his employment specialist and mother, he researched and passed the certifications needed to be a Notary Public. We were concerned about having enough customers, so we surveyed the people who came to his party and asked if they would use Clint for their notary work. Just about everybody said “yes.” Since Clint had some history of making money, he is now a dual recipient from the Social Security Administration so we helped him submit a Plan for Achieving Self Support (PASS) to help with his business start-up costs. Traditional vocational rehabilitation self-employment policy proved to not fit Clint’s business model, so we asked his Vocational Rehabilitation counselor to fund some needed job coaching. Vocational Rehabilitation was very supportive of Clint’s business, helping improve the business plan, the PASS plan, and funding job coaching. Clint is also on schedule to receive follow-along job coaching from the county disability services.

From Hobby to Business: Neal’s Story

Neal has run a hobby lawn care and general labor business for most of his adult life, helping neighbors by mowing their lawns, assisting with preparation for moves and garage sales, and shoveling snow. Growing up on a farm prepared him well for jobs involving hard work and persistence. He also is pretty good with a table saw and sander!

By spending a bit of time with Neal and his support, we learned about his work with his neighbors. One described Neal as the very first person she met upon moving to her new home. After introducing himself, Neal offered to help move her belongings into her new home. She also said that Neal shoveled her walkway during a big snowstorm this past December – he asked her if she wanted him to shovel because he “didn’t have anything else to do.” Another neighbor has worked on several projects with Neal and has paid him to mow the lawns of his daughter, niece, and nephew. Additionally, one of Neal’s support staff is a partner in a local lawn care business.

We started the Discovery process with Neal, asking the questions to reveal more about who he is and possible employment options. We spoke with those who spent the most time with him, including his customers and others who knew him well. And, after a series of conversations, Neal decided to take his hobby business and, by using existing supports and relationships, turn it into a “proper” business. In his first season, Neal served over a dozen different customers and he is now looking to expand his business.


Embracing self-employment as a potential employment outcome for all job seekers will create additional work opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Being open to this option presents possibilities for career paths that are as diverse as the individuals with whom we work, and the communities in which they live. 

  • Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor. (2012). Entrepreneurship: A flexible route to economic independence for people with disabilities. Retrieved from

  • Yamamoto, S., Unruh, D., & Bullis, M. (2011). The viability of self-employment for individuals with disabilities in the United States: A synthesis of the empirical research literature. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 35(2), 117–127.