News

May 20, 2024

UK needs to “radically simplify” business support for disabled founders, says new report

Inaccessible business services and fundraising challenges are among the things hindering disabled entrepreneurs


Sarah Berthon, founder of Excel Against The Odds

Disabled founders need a “radical” overhaul of existing services to be able to flourish in the UK, finds an independent, government-backed review.

The Lilac Review, a two-year investigation into the challenges disabled entrepreneurs face, estimates that creating equal opportunities to start and grow businesses could unlock an additional £230bn in revenue across the UK.

Disabled entrepreneurs run 25% of the UK’s 5.5m small businesses, and contribute 8% of UK GDP, according to The Federation of Small Businesses.

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The Lilac Review’s interim findings have identified several areas for improvement in business support services — and called for them to be “radically simplified” to meet the needs of disabled founders.

The survey of 120 UK-based disabled entrepreneurs, which included those without obvious sensory or physical impairments, found that key challenges include accessing business support — key public services such as HMRC or Companies House are inaccessible, as are platforms to build a website — and financial services. There are currently low levels of disabled entrepreneurs applying for government grants due to lengthy application forms and inaccessible websites. 

It’s now more feasible than ever in history for a disabled entrepreneur to start a business, so having some support around that could be hugely beneficial.

“It’s now more feasible than ever in history for a disabled entrepreneur to start a business, so having some support around that could be hugely beneficial,” says Sarah Berthon, founder of Excel Against the Odds, which supports people with chronic illnesses with community and mentoring.

Excelling against the odds

Berthon, who herself lives with several chronic illnesses, knows the challenges faced by entrepreneurs with disabilities all too well.

When she founded her first business — which ran workshops for children’s parties making organic skincare products — she ended up working so hard that she ended up in hospital.

“I got into a cycle where I pushed myself… and then I’d have a real crash with my health and I’d have to take time out to recover, and then I was behind and would start pushing again,” she says.

“I got to a point where I ended up in hospital with neither shoulders working because my health issues affected my joints and I’d overdone it,” she says. “I promised myself that I wasn’t going to continue in that sort of vein again and get help on how to run a business with a chronic illness.”

But when Berthon looked for support, she couldn’t find resources or communities that suited her specific needs. So she set up a Facebook group to network with other entrepreneurs living with chronic illnesses. The group has now grown into her current business, Excel Against The Odds — a community for fellow disabled entrepreneurs, which has a newsletter and podcast to share advice about running a business. 

She says that having training programmes specifically tailored towards people with disabilities and a network that “understands what it’s like to run a business with long term health conditions and disabilities” is really important.

“Before I set up my group, I had joined lots of other communities around businesses, which are brilliant. It's amazing that they exist, but they're very much focused on the kind of the hustle and what you should be doing.”

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She adds that there are a lot of simple ways that business support can be made more accessible. For example, offering training courses online — instead of in person — that run for a few hours a day, rather than on a strict nine to five schedule, can help people who struggle with fatigue or other related illnesses. 

Also investors or potential business partners could offer entrepreneurs questions in advance when conducting interviews with them. This can give neurodivergent people a chance to prepare in advance, and answer questions in the best way possible.

Getting investment remains a significant challenge

Joseph Williams, cofounder of inclusive recruitment platform Clu, says the biggest challenge for disabled founders is accessing financial support and startup/scaleup capital.

Research from campaign group Access2Funding, which Williams cofounded, found that disabled entrepreneurs are 400x less likely to secure funding than their non-disabled counterparts. 

And that’s on top of higher costs of living. Households with at least one disabled adult or child need an additional £975 a month to have the same standard of living as non-disabled households, according to research by Scope, the disability equality charity, last year. 

“When 8% of UK GDP is already contributed by disabled-owned SMEs, it’s inexcusable that barriers like these persist,” says Williams. 

Hayley Kellard, founder of Dotty about Braille, a company specialising in braille greeting cards, labels and transcriptions, says that “disabled entrepreneurs can be seen as high risk (to investors), they can be seen as less capable as non-disabled entrepreneurs and this is what needs to change”.

She explains that investors often ask probing questions about the state of entrepreneurs’ health when meeting with them. “I'm assuming investors don't ask non-disabled entrepreneurs for their health records, what medication they may be taking, when they were last in hospital, so they shouldn't ask disabled people that either.”

Making business support more accessible

The Lilac Review has a few recommendations for the government to help UK entrepreneurs access business support:

  • Including disabled entrepreneurs in the development of government programmes, financial products and services will ensure that all access and support needs are considered.
  • It also calls for a “single reference location” to be created for disabled entrepreneurs — including information about business support, disabled entrepreneur-specific programmes, and links to other support across the government such as the UK’s Access To Work scheme.

Kellard, echoing Berthon, says she’d like to see more support and training offered to disabled entrepreneurs “that is tailored to their needs and catered for adaptations that may be required”. 

She’d also like to see more disabled entrepreneurs choosing self-employment to pursue their passions and interests, “rather than people being forced into it because employers aren’t willing to make adjustments” — as is often the case.  

Making adjustments for disabled people could also make things much more accessible for non-disabled people too, says Berthon. 

“There are lots of people who run businesses who are parents or who have limited time for other reasons. They might be carers for elderly parents, for example. (These adjustments) can make everybody's life a lot easier. There's no need for such complexity.”

Miriam Partington

Miriam Partington is a reporter at Sifted. She covers the DACH region and the future of work, and coauthors Startup Life , a weekly newsletter on what it takes to build a startup. Follow her on X and LinkedIn