Disabled entrepreneurs have told the government’s business department that it is not doing enough to make its programmes accessible.
In a meeting of the all-party parliamentary disability group, a senior civil servant listened as disabled entrepreneurs lined up to express their concerns at his department’s lack of support for them.
Jacqueline Winstanley, who runs consultancy Universal Inclusion and chairs Fluidity, a charity which facilitates inclusive self-employment, told the meeting that there needed to be a “paradigm shift” from “seeing disabled people as a care burden to seeing them as innovators and contributors to the economy”.
Winstanley (pictured), who set up her own business because she lost her job after developing a health condition, appealed to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to open up its programmes to disabled people, and ensure they had the support needed to be entrepreneurs, including “equitable access to finance”.
She said BIS offered disabled people a route to “achieving their aspirations” as “contributing citizens who will grow our economy”.
She was among those who raised concerns about the Access to Work (AtW) programme, which is run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and pointed out that if disabled entrepreneurs are not able to prove their business is viable within two years they are not able to claim AtW and cannot reapply for another five years.
Lord Addington, who chairs the assistive technology experts Microlink, and uses assistive technology himself, said there needed to be a “massive” cultural shift.
He said that only half of government websites are compatible with assistive technology, while disabled users of assistive technology often find themselves “stranded in the middle of a process” because of these compatibility problems.
Gary McFarlane, a disabled entrepreneur and co-founder of the mobility assistance app assist-Mi, said he had been repeatedly let down by UK Trade and Investment – the government body which works with UK businesses to ensure export success – which had failed to make its events accessible for disabled people.
He called for more expertise on disability in BIS, and for it to employ more disabled people, and provide more support for disabled entrepreneurs both domestically and with the export market.
Another disabled entrepreneur told the meeting about the “absolutely ridiculous hoops I have had to jump through” to continue her AtW support after moving from being an employee to setting up her own business.
She set up the business at the start of the year, but was told by DWP that she had to show she would make a profit of £5,500 in the first year in order to receive AtW.
She said DWP had forced her to draw up extensive business plans that were “much more than a bank would want” in order to claim AtW as a disabled entrepreneur, while she was forced to pretend to carry out interviews with a support worker who had been working with her for years.
She said: “I don’t know why they are running it in this way. It’s really poor. Why put so many barriers up? I almost feel I am being accused of lying.”
Philip Connolly, policy and development manager for Disability Rights UK, which runs the secretariat for the all-party group, said the meeting’s focus was on how disabled people “create wealth and opportunity for themselves and other people” and on looking at how government spending can influence that.
He said the government spent between £90 and £180 billion in direct support to the private sector every year, and it was important to ask how to ensure that reaches “disabled entrepreneurs starting businesses, running businesses and getting access to research and development grants so they can bring products and services to the market that will enable them and many others to work”.
A senior BIS civil servant, who was standing in for business and enterprise minister Anna Soubry – who had to cancel her attendance because of the crisis in the steel industry – said BIS had no specific schemes for disabled entrepreneurs, but did “try and monitor” how many disabled people took part in its programmes.
He said: “I take away a lot of messages that services are not consistent or good enough. We are trying to make sure services are fully accessible.
“You heard Lord Addington say sometimes processes lead you to a certain point and leave you stuck – that is clearly not good enough.”
He said it was clear that the government, the private sector and disability organisations needed to work together, but that the problems were “not going to be solved overnight”, and he committed BIS to “listen and to engage”.
He added: “On Access to Work I will take it back to the minister. I heard someone say if you don’t prove your business is viable in two years you are locked out of the scheme for five years.
“That is news to me. That is clearly something I would want to explore.”