Disability no barrier to success

Looking from the eucalyptus tree-lined street in the Perth Hills, racks of signature black, white and grey t-shirts fill one window of the Pavlovic home. There is no denying this is the heart of the daniel (ink.) brand. Behind the house stands an old horse float bursting at the seams with t-shirts adorned with 25-year-old Daniel Pavlovic’s unique artwork, ready for next weekend’s market.

Clad in one of Daniel’s original designs, his father Ivan picks a certificate from the Belmont Small Business Awards off their personal gallery of artwork in the family kitchen. He places it on the dining room table next to a crystal plaque from the Mundaring Chamber of Commerce, that glistens in the afternoon sun. Daniel’s designs have touched down in Melbourne, Hong Kong and the epicentre of creativity, New York City. Yet, despite his success, Daniel remains humble: “Do what you love to do and don’t give up on it and make sure you have good people supporting you as well, or working for you.”

Daniel (ink.) sells 17 original designs. Image: Daniel Ink.

Being your own boss is a dream possessed by many Australians. More often than not, however, cultivating that seedling of an idea into a blooming business is just a dream. It takes vision, courage and resilience for business success. In Australia, small business ownership and entrepreneurship is currently more common amongst people living with disability. Rates of entrepreneurship amongst people with a disability are at 13 per cent compared to 10 per cent amongst people without a disability, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Self employment, small business and entrepreneurial ventures provide an opportunity for some of the 4.3 million Australians living with disability to define their own successful career path in the face of persistent inequality in Australian workplaces.

International research reveals similar insights. According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, people with disability in the US are twice as likely to be self employed in small businesses.

University of Technology Sydney professor of Social Inclusion Simon Darcy is midway through a three-year study to better understand why people with a disability are choosing to pursue self employment and entrepreneurship. The study aims to understand the lived experiences of people with disability who are self-employed or identify as entrepreneurs so barriers can be challenged through enabling practices. “What self employment and entrepreneurship also builds on are the wonderful abilities of people with disability that are sometimes overlooked by employers,” Professor Darcy explains. “So for all people with disabilities that have an opportunity to develop their self-employment or entrepreneurial start ups what they are doing is utilising their abilities and channeling their efforts into developing a viable business.”

Ask anyone who’s done it and they’ll tell you starting a business from scratch is no easy feat and it’s certainly not suited to everyone. One motivator for people with a disability is having the freedom to adapt the business to their own mobility, sensory or intellectual needs. Self-employment allows them to work to their often considerable strengths. Professor Darcy says: “Being your own boss means you’re able to create a workplace that is inclusive of your support needs so in that sense, you enable your own work universe.”

Designer Daniel Pavlovic, who has cerebral palsy, began his business in 2013. Returning from TAFE with a t-shirt design that generated instant orders from his mates he turned to his father Ivan for advice who has experience running his own design and project management business. Then daniel (ink.) was born. “And we haven’t looked back since,” he reflects. The business grew quickly from individual orders to taking over the front room of the family home in preparation for markets and online sales. They are currently gearing up for the Melbourne Finders Keepers Markets, one of the year’s biggest events. His illustrations have been spotted on actors, musicians and comedians, yet giving back to the community is always a priority for Dan. “I thought if I was going to support a charity it would be the Ability Centre because they have helped me out since I was two and I thought it was my way to give back. So, we give them 10 per cent of all our profits annually, which is getting up there now,” Daniel says with a smile. Daniel sketches each design which he transfers onto t-shirts from Melbourne using local screen printers. Then he and his grandmother hand stitch a label onto each t-shirt before they are packaged and sent to customers.

Ivan and Daniel Pavlovic started their t-shirt business in 2013. Image: Daniel Ink.

A pairing of Daniel’s artistic skills and his father’s business mentorship has made for a level of success in their local community that neither expected when they printed their first round of 30 shirts five years ago. Ivan reflects: “You really have to believe in what you do and if you don’t why are you doing it? It’s just hard work and you have to stick with it. We actually get lots of emails with lots of people thanking him, saying what a great thing he is doing

Daniel (ink.) is just one of many successful businesses owned and operated by a person with a disability. Yet other Australians are still facing obstacles that impact their choice of career. One in five people had a disability in 2015 according to the ABS. Of those of working age, the workforce participation rates were at 53.4 per cent compared to 83.2 per cent of people without a disability according to the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers. People with disability want to work but the variety of obstacles to employment, different for each person, are not their responsibility to change. Equality of access to transport, technology and public spaces present barriers to employment that need to be addressed by workplaces. Professor Darcy recounts his own experience accessing public transport as a power wheelchair user: “For people like me accessing public transport is an issue and if getting public transport’s an issue or you are unable to drive yourself, then you’re always going to have access issues with either employment or training opportunities.”

Andrew Fairbairn confronts barriers to employment for other people with disability everyday through his work as a diversity field officer at People with Disabilities WA. Educating employers on the benefits of employing people with disabilities shows the opportunities that come with making workplaces accessible for everyone. “I think a lot of people make an assumption that people with a disability need something special or changed to make them employable,” Mr Fairbairn says.

Research indicates that bias held by employers is based on myth. Employees with disability record above average rates of attendance, fewer scheduled absences and no added cost to employers according to the Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations. Workplace compensation incidents are in fact four times lower than the average employee, according to The Australian Employers’ Network on Disability. Mr Fairbairn says: “If a person with a disability wants to work and is passionate about something, they should be given that opportunity within businesses that are already out there.,It is also about protection, it’s about safety. It’s about whether a person with a disability is comfortable as well. Not all people with disability are going to be comfortable working in an open employment situation. But they want to work. Given the opportunity to start their own business maybe that’s a viable alternative.”

Geraldine Maddrell sits at a café in Fremantle, her eyes gentle yet determined behind bold purple frames. Geraldine is a community support worker at peer led support organisation, Valued Lives. Valued Lives is growing a new employment project by creating micro-enterprises operated by people with disability. Geraldine discovered that opportunities for meaningful employment for young people living with disability can be limited whilst looking for work for her daughter Sophie,19, who has down syndrome and autism. “We need to think outside the box and I think people with disabilities are used to doing that. Certainly families and support people are used to fighting. You got to fight, you know?

Sophie designs her own socks. Image: Geraldine Maddrell.

“I think we are looking at it the wrong way, let’s not try and fit the person with disability into the system. Let’s have a look at this person, what are their passions, what do they really enjoy doing and let’s make employment come around them.”

A year ago, Geraldine helped Sophie establish her first micro-enterprise. Sophie’s Sox offers a range of funky, ethically crafted socks that can be spotted on the feet of many Freo locals: “I’ve become Sophie’s mum rather than Geraldine, so lots of people know about her and are supportive,” she laughs.

Sophie works on her socks daily. At first, she packaged orders and wrote thank you notes for customers to accompany each pair of socks. Within a year she has started designing and dying her own range. The profits help to fuel Sophie’s adventurous spirit. Earlier this year she bought herself a helicopter ride. “It is to her ability but as time goes on she has just developed more skills so she’s more and more involved. Her self-confidence and self-esteem has really changed and she is growing in all sorts of areas,” Geraldine says.

Geraldine and Sophie Maddrell. Image: Geraldine Maddrell.

After noticing the growth in her own daughter Geraldine realised that the potential for small business to empower young people with disabilities was something needing to be shared. She started a national online directory for enterprises like Sophie’s with a goal in the near future to secure spaces for young creatives wanting to work on their own businesses. “It’s the process of going into the community and being with other people and then cross pollination happens and you are becoming alive,” she says.

Business success is achievable to everyone when the right tools and support are accessible. Despite workplaces lagging behind by missing obvious steps towards accessibility, young people with disabilities are paving their own career paths with great success. As Ms Maddrell says: “We want to see people actually running their own businesses and taking charge of their own lives, to whatever degree that suits them.”