Blind-EntrepreneursMost of my current research is about building knowledge of processes of opportunity formation among physically and mentally  disabled entrepreneurs. Why am I interested in this research? Principally because of a brother, recently deceased, who became paraplegic towards the end of his life. My brother set up several successful social & commercial ventures because of his appalling experiences as a paraplegic who lived and worked in one of the most glamorous, high-rolling city-states in the world.

I have researched, and continue to research, a number of physically & mentally disabled entrepreneurs and their ventures in Europe and the USA. I focus on entrepreneurs with late-onset impairments who have become impaired following their teen years either from a congenital issue that has flared up, or more often, from ad hoc illnesses or injuries. By contrast, the entrepreneurs I also research with early-onset impairments have inherited their condition, which showed up at or soon after birth.

I focus on entrepreneurs with late-onset impairments because I was intrigued why, like my brother, many of these entrepreneurs appear to create ventures following, or consequent upon, their impairments. From internet searches of “blind” entrepreneurs, it seems that there were notable entrepreneurs who set up a number of ventures following their late-onset sight loss. What are these ventures, and how are they related with the entrepreneurs’ early or late-onset impairments?

Principally I found that much like my brother, a number of the late-onset entrepreneurs whom I have researched created successful ventures by exploiting- as opposed to seeking to immediately change- western social perceptions of their “disability” (Ng & Arndt, 2019). This exploitation took place for commercial or social purposes, socially to highlight the effects of common mis-perceptions of “disabled” people.

The most visible outcome of an uninformed public perception of “disabled” people is the extremely poor employment level of people worldwide who are regarded by employers and others as “disabled”. Here, disability is viewed as the polar opposite of everyone else who is “able”. Thanks to this pejorative view, disability is often also regarded as a condition from which there is at best limited recovery- because, like a malfunctioning light switch, “disabled” people can also be thought to be permanently switched off- unable to work and therefore economically and socially burdensome.

Interestingly, this tendency to exploit prevalent attitudes of disability appeared whether or not impaired entrepreneurs in my sample suffered early-onset or late-onset impairments. In terms of their proficiency in forming opportunities and to then create ventures, entrepreneurs with late-onset impairments often indulged in a flurry of new ventures that they created following their late-onset impairments.

What were common perceptions that impaired entrepreneurs exploited? An example of a common public perception of disability is that people with impairments cannot perform most occupations to the same standards as non-impaired employees. Paradoxically, however, we celebrate the artistry of sight-impaired performers-cum-entrepreneurs such as Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli, two of a number of “disabled” performers who established successful enterprises based on their music. Furthermore, we bid up the work of Claude Monet and other artists following their late-onset blindness and other “disabilities”.

I have published several journal articles on the opportunity formation processes of  “disabled” individuals, including entrepreneurs with severe sight loss, whose impairment(s) are often imperceptible to sighted people (Ng & Arndt, 2019; Ng, 2018).

I’ve written a chapter titled “Disabled Entrepreneurs: Leveraging Extreme Challenges for Successful Venture Creation” (Ng, 2020a) for Léo Dana’s new edition of his World Encyclopedia of Entrepreneurship, which is expected to be published in 2020.

To address the question of learning from disabled entrepreneurs, I’m co-editing a book on the intersectionality between disability and entrepreneurship. This work is under preparation and will be published by Edward Elgar (Yousafzai et al., 2020).

My work begins by exploring the effects on physically impaired entrepreneurs of a number of popular myths. For example, people with sight loss do not have to go around poking white sticks and wearing shades! We already know that with well-developed hearing and other senses, visually impaired people can behave no differently from sighted people. This “normality” of behavior among many visually impaired people can puzzle sighted people, which can then give rise to further sighted prejudices, for example in presuming that blind people cannot really be blind when they do not fit popular stereotypes.

You may therefore find a person who is registered blind looking at her mobile, in the same way as sighted people might be looking at their mobiles. But appearances deceive, as blind people often look at and look for things in their mobiles very differently from sighted people.

To whom does it matter what blind people do? My intuition, which I explored in Ng & Arndt (2019), is that sight-impaired people, specifically those who become entrepreneurs, may be able to illuminate a number of important questions in entrepreneurship research and practice. Chiefly, the question persists of where successful ideas come from and how they may be selected. Why are researchers and managers interested in this question? Because we know that people with sight loss, as well as those with severe physical impairments, need to manage their impairments just to survive.

Many sighted people regard blindness as the most extreme impairment of any kind. Yet, ironically, despite their sight loss- or because of their sight loss, as my preliminary findings have suggested, visually impaired entrepreneurs not only survive but thrive in a sighted world (Ng & Arndt, 2019). How so? My research is about addressing this “How” question. Specifically, I’m interested in how blind entrepreneurs use mobile technology, for example, in new venture creation.

This research has potentially significant research & commercial impact. For example, I have applied for research & commercial funding to establish the world’s first enterprise and research center for physically and mentally impaired entrepreneurs. This project is conducted in collaboration with Dianne Welsh from the University of North Carolina Greensboro (https://bryan.uncg.edu/faculty-and-staff/welsh-dr-dianne/) & Dr. André Slowak from the University of Roehampton in London (https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4644-5019/).

Among various direct outcomes of my research is to educate popular mis-conceptions of the limited capabilities of visually impaired and other “disabled” people (Ng, 2020b, in Yousafzai et al., 2020). Firstly, “disability” is a pernicious & wholly inaccurate description of physically & mentally impaired people that continues to be mis-used, often intentionally, to condemn people to a whole-term life sentence of dependency. The pernicious nature of this word is now exposed with a large & growing population worldwide with a serious, personal impairment that is officially recognized.

How many physically & mentally impaired people are registered worldwide? Over a billion, & these are just folk who are registered with severe impairments (http://www.binc.global). This number is likely to be under-represented as many employees with a mental or other invisible impairment do not speak up. For good reason, as the employment of people with any kind of significant impairment is shockingly poor in every sector of every economy worldwide (Jones & Latreille, 2011). This poor perception of the abilities of impaired people among most firms is reflected in the damning English word, disability.

So, in the first instance, I suggest why all of us who think we are not disabled need to banish the English word “disability” from our vocabularies, permanently. The principal reason- which might surprise you- is for your survival as a non-disabled person & not at all about political correctness. Principally, as every organization needs to survive & thrive, an obvious way of doing so is by employing the 15% of our global population who know quite a bit about surviving & thriving, on their own, & often against the social prejudices of an ignorant majority of people, who harm themselves by their persistent ignorance. How organizations may draw on the creativity & problem-solving skills of a number of physically & mentally impaired entrepreneurs is the point of the enterprise & research center that I am setting up.

If you are a researcher or (especially!) a potential funder who is interested in this research and/or in the development of the proposed enterprise & research center, please email me with a few lines describing your interest. I or one of my colleagues will respond: <NgW@regents.ac.uk>.

References:

Jones, M. & Latreille, P. (2011). Disability and Self-employment: Evidence from the UK. Applied Economics, 43(27), pp. 4161-4178.

Ng, W. & Arndt, F. (2019). “I never needed eyes to see”: Leveraging Extreme Challenges for Successful Venture Creation, Journal of Business Venturing Insights, 11(June), pp. 1-10. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbvi.2019.e00125.

Ng, W. (2018). “Underdog” Entrepreneurs? Processes of Opportunity Creation among Visually-impaired Founders of New Ventures, British Academy of Management Annual Conference, Entrepreneurship Track, Bristol Business School, University of the West of England, 4-6 September. Best Development Paper Award in Entrepreneurship Track. Copy on request from the author (NgW@regents.ac.uk).

Ng, W. (2020a, forthcoming). Disabled Entrepreneurs: Leveraging Extreme Challenges for Successful Venture Creation, in Dana, L-P (Ed.). World Encyclopedia of Entrepreneurship. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Ng, W. (2020b, in preparation). Extreme Disability and Entrepreneurial Creativity: New Venture Creation by Visually-impaired Entrepreneurs, in Yousafzai, S., Ng, W., Coogan, T., & Sheikh, S. (Eds.) Exploring the Intersectionality between Disability and Entrepreneurship. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Yousafzai, S., Ng, W., Coogan, T., & Sheikh, S. (Eds.) (2020, in preparation). Exploring the Intersectionality between Disability and Entrepreneurship. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.