CIMR Debate in Public Policy: Future directions for disability entrepreneurship research

Ning Baines, Helen Lawton Smith and Jacqueline Winstanley

Academic research plays two important roles in disability entrepreneurship research.  The first is that it collects, interprets and publishes data and thinking on different aspects of the challenges faced by disabled entrepreneurs.  The second is academic analysis it adds legitimacy to disabled entrepreneurs’ own work and of the organisations which represent them to wider publics including policy makers.

This two-way process was in action in the CIMR event held on Tuesday 6th December. The debate is part of an ongoing debate on how equality, diversity and inclusion overall could be improved through opportunities for disabled people to become entrepreneurs.  Self-initiation and independence from existing markets mean that entrepreneurship is subject to high hopes as a policy tool for reducing unemployment and alleviating poverty for those for whom the job market has failed.

The event aimed to share, debate and explore the underlying assumptions and to understand the current way of doing research in disability entrepreneurship in order better to inform policy and practice. Given the fundamental differences from ‘mainstream’ entrepreneurship, our current understanding of disability entrepreneurship leaves much to be desired. Disability entrepreneurship research is largely fragmented, descriptive and poorly represented in top-tier journals.

The panel which reflected different strands in academic analysis, was introduced by CIMR Deputy Director, Dr Marion Frenz.  The debate was kicked off by Jacqueline Winstanley, FRSA, CEO of Universal Inclusion and the Inclusive Entrepreneur network also provides the Secretariat for the All Party Parliamentary Group for Inclusive Entrepreneurship (APPGIE).

Jacqueline set the context by highlighting how academic research is moving things forward particularly in the area of influencing policy direction.  Jacqueline shared a little of what led to her interest in this field, particularly gaining academic validation whilst seeking to influence policy direction.  Jacqueline pointed to the earlier work of Rolle et al. (2020) and Lawton Smith (2022), as identifiers of the lack of academic research in this area, directing participants to further references within the abstract.  Recognising academic research into disability and the creation of enterprise is its infancy when compared to other marginalised groups such as women, minority ethnic groups and migrants. 

She argued that it is known from collaboration within the Inclusive Entrepreneur Network and other networks, as well as from the APPGIE and academia, that there is much anecdotal evidence in this field relating to the barriers faced by disabled people when creating enterprise. Early-stage research (included in the abstract) is giving clear insights into future strands, in particular in the problems of access to finance, combined bespoke business and health support, practical aids and adaptations, access to market, conflicting policy intent and administration, lack of role models, and a general perception of what a disabled entrepreneur may be able to do. These which will lead to much needed academic validation alongside recommendations which will lead to impactful changes in policy direction.  Jacqueline spoke to the importance of good practice examples and ethical collaboration for example by inviting disabled entrepreneurs to become Visiting Fellows and/or co-authors, thus reinforcing that future academic research cannot be something that is be done for or to but with disabled people.  Jacqueline shared examples which had been successful so far.

Dr Ning Baines and Dr Te Klangboonkrong at the University of Leicester shared the study, Essential competences for entrepreneurs with disability, based on interviews with 25 entrepreneurs with disability. They highlighted the barriers faced by entrepreneurs with disability: funding and investment, lack of support system, skills, social prejudices, network and connection, health, and physical access. A wide range of essential entrepreneurial skills are noted as: creativity, self-awareness, tenacity, opportunity sensing and seizing, coping with ambiguity, mobilising resources, planning and management, confidence and self-belief, and learning through experience. The key takeaway is that there remains a discrepancy between challenges and perceived solutions.

Professor Helen Lawton Smith, Birkbeck, University of London shared the background of her project Regional inequalities in innovation opportunities for ethnically diverse and disabled entrepreneurs: Theory and practice. The study in 2020 to 2021 was funded by the Regional Studies Association. It addressed analysed three questions:  How do regional contexts affect the ability of organisations which support disabled entrepreneurs to function? Do particular places facilitate activity or do they present particular challenges? How could UK national and regional policy be improved and, what can be learned from best practice in other countries? The evidence demonstrated that indeed regional contexts have a profound impact on the ability of local networks to deliver support for disabled entrepreneurs.  In turn this relates to the make-up of regional stakeholders within entrepreneurial ecosystems systems which have affected networks’ ability to function in different regional contexts

Professor Wilson Ng, IDRAC Business School and Professor Felix Arndt, University of Guelph, discussed fresh insights into the issue of challenged-based entrepreneurship by researching entrepreneurs who face one of the most extreme physical challenges of sight loss (“blindness”). While this condition carries social perceptions of extreme physical incapacity and performance limitations, there continue to be notable examples of entrepreneurs with permanent blindness. They asked, “How do blind entrepreneurs overcome barriers resulting from their impairment?” They discovered that blind entrepreneurs instrumentalized their impairments for commercial or social purposes by creating ventures that leveraged public perceptions of blindness and disability. Accordingly, in their ventures, these entrepreneurs drew on distinctive attributes of their physical and social challenges as a means of exploiting narrow conceptions of disabled people’s capabilities. These entrepreneurs therefore overcame their challenges by capitalizing on public conceptions of their limited capabilities.

Jacqueline then invited Dr Tom Coogan to chair the panel discussion and debate on ‘What are the future directions for research for disabled entrepreneurs?’

The speakers contributed to a lively and informed debate providing insight on how academic research in this field should be undertaken going forward, alongside positive engagement and questions from the audience.  The panel concluded with discussion on how to keep up the momentum and Professor Helen Lawton Smith reinforced the commitment from CIMR Birkbeck, University of London, to continuing the conversations.

We would like to thank our panellists and attendees for their contributions to the debate.

The recording of the event is available here.

Additional Resources 

Universal Inclusion

Link to APPGIE page

APPGIE Infographic – Our Year in Westminster 2020-21 Audio & BSL edit

The Inclusive Entrepreneur:

IE Showreel

Inclusion in Business Banking & Credit: disability and other access needs, report launched