By Dawn M Sanders
I am a single mum, severely visually impaired and have a son who is hearing impaired/partially sighted. Throughout my life I have always aspired big. I wanted to be good at something, whether it was contributing to society by helping to break down endless social barriers or being somehow in the public sphere.
After many colourful highs and lows, having my son, completing an international politics degree and other skill-building manoeuvres, I knew I wanted to be an independent advocate for others in similar circumstances to myself. Advocacy provides a voice to those less confident, less able to articulate themselves, or those who do not know their rights when facing barriers due to circumstance.
I had faced countless barriers with no choice but to self-advocate from an early age. Every time I moved to a different area since coming to the UK, I was faced with over-reactions and downright hostilities from local authorities, often mirrored within communities. I encountered shockingly blatant instances of discrimination, even within the voluntary sector. When I tried making advocacy available directly to disadvantaged people through various organisations, it was impossible to bypass co-ordinators who supposedly knew best.
Once successfully completing an eight-week business course, I began building my social enterprise, Barriers to Bridges. I knew that as an independent advocate, I wanted a not-for-profit framework, but I needed to earn a wage.
It must be pointed out how many people with additional needs opt for self-employment due to discrimination remaining so rife in this country. Government statistics say there are 11 million adults in the UK living with a disability. With rates of unemployment among people with additional needs double that of those with no significant additional needs, self-employment can provide alternative avenues for our population to enter the workplace or forge a satisfying and financially rewarding career.
Note that I have changed the wording of the above paragraph from the subordinating language of ‘disabled’ versus ‘non disabled’. There are volumes to be said on the use of more empowering language and associated implications.
Despite people with additional needs often turning to self-employment, it still must be highlighted how self-employment is twice as challenging if one needs additional support or resources.
Access to Work (AtW) is a wing of the Department for Work and Pensions providing assistive technology, personal assistants and some aspects of work-related travel to employees and entrepreneurs with additional support needs. When I was awarded help from AtW it gave me the vital ingredient to take on a part-time assistant to help with admin and other visual tasks.
Everything was going well, apart from the fact that I hadn’t made any revenue or sustainable income. In fact I had made losses, because any expenses came from my personal budget, which I was no longer able to afford.
My AtW adviser had originally stated there would be a review at the end of a year, which was standard practice for the scheme and, “all being well”, it could continue. But what he failed to tell me was that the fact I am receiving Employment Support Allowance (ESA) was a defining factor in whether or not I could continue to receive AtW. Within the space of a week, my crucial additional support was gone. The ruling surrounding AtW support was straight from government policy. I had not made an income in order to get off benefits, so nothing could be challenged. Having been rejected twice by project funders for my one-to-one advocacy project, everything has now come to a halt.
Naturally I was devastated and demoralised after all the hard work I had put into the business. Even a business starting up as a sole trader is not guaranteed to break even within one year. The government’s fixation with people coming off benefits has no sense of logic, certainly not for entrepreneurs facing a mountain of obstacles. I needed more time to build a client base and a track record.
In ‘daring to dream’ – not just the romantic ideals which mushroom in your head, but putting those dreams into pragmatic motion – you risk everything, including your integrity. You need guts and determination of steel.
I am exploring alternative directions to take the enterprise, cautiously hoping for a community media presence and other creative outlets, but I need collaboration with like-minded individuals and organisations. I am determined to provide a platform for marginalised communities in Sheffield.