Thinking Beyond the Job Title for Self-Employment With a Disability


Both job titles and job descriptions have been around for almost a century and yet have changed very little in the past few decades. In an ever-changing global market, anything that doesn’t change, quickly loses purpose and validity.

Companies survive largely on the framework and expectations a job title and job description provide both the employer and employee. But even that is changing. Recently, the CEO of Zappos abolished job descriptions all together, citing their stifling effect on the creativity and flexibility forward-thinking employees need to add value to the company.

What about self-employment for people with disabilities? When trying to come up with a business concept, many make the common mistake of thinking in terms of a “job description.” Instead, let’s focus on opportunities you have to do what is most effective, which is thinking beyond the job description.

Here are some ways you can do that:

Think in terms of interest, not jobs

Many interests fall short of a clear, definable role, job title or description. Does this mean the interest is unviable? Not at all. Take for instance a non-speaking young man with Down syndrome who kept sharing his idea of self-employment by way of Google images that repeatedly expressed his interest in sneakers and food trucks. One may disregard those interests altogether, assuming they were simply expressions of what someone wants to purchase. In this case, he clearly understood his business idea. He wanted to sell sneakers using a food truck. What job description would you assign that? None. You simply focus on the interest, connect it to a plan with income potential, and move forward. That is exactly what this young man and his family did, and soon thereafter launched “Sneakin’ Around,” a mobile sneaker store.

The point is, job descriptions play an important role in traditional employment, but have little value and hold little weight when exploring self-employment. Thinking in such terms is limiting when meaningful employment requires expansive thinking. Therefore, think interest, and that will lead you to a multitude of options for meaningful employment.

Think of what skills can be learned, instead of what skills exist

Job descriptions clearly communicate what an employee must already possess in order to properly fill the role in question. But this way of thinking for self-employment focuses too much on what the person lacks, instead of the potential for growth. Take for example a young man who is interested in LEGOs. His interest, with the help of his business support team, was converted into a business. At first, all he did was create LEGO art. Then he moved onto more complex LEGO designs, and then landed a contract with the LEGO Company to assemble pieces for display at LEGO stores. That simple interest allowed him to learn data entry — they used an Excel sheet, designed by him to keep track of each LEGO piece). They began selling that LEGO Mining service to other institutions who wanted to keep track of their Lego inventory. He slowly began learning sales, and learned financial literacy and scheduling, all by way of the business.

Self-employment starts with an interest, capitalizes on that interest and uses the business to foster countless other skills based on that interest and motivation. Hence, don’t let a “perceived” lack of skills lead you to assume no skills exist at all. Focus on interest and potential, then put both into action and let experience be the true teacher and developer of skills. No one can deny that learning by doing is the best way to learn and develop skills.

Think of flexibility

It is no secret that job titles and descriptions are limiting, box-like approaches to employment performance. Employees are expected to do one or maybe two things but are also reminded not to over-step their description by assuming roles, decisions and/or adding ideas where they are not wanted. This approach will not work for self-employment. On the contrary, ideas are welcome from anyone at any time. The individual with disabilities should not be expected to carry out one specific task until the end of time. This is not only limiting as it pertains to flexibility, it is most limiting in terms of skill acquisition and growth.

Take for example the aforementioned business, Sneakin’ Around. When the young man is interested in doing something different, other options are available. One day he may not feel like delivering the sneakers to his clients, but as a replacement task, he can be expected to partake in the invoicing, or photography of the sneakers. This business not only offers flexibility in regards to time, but more importantly, in  tasks that always lead to skill acquisition.

Think of “stretching” opportunities

Job descriptions, as valuable as they may be for organizational structure and resource allocation, stunt many “stretching” opportunities. What do we mean? Well, let’s say that you are in the sales department. How often would you be invited to a marketing meeting? Most likely not often, if at all. Thus, as an employee, you cannot offer your great marketing ideas, nor can the business benefit from them.

When exploring self-employment, you need to seek out ways to stretch into all aspects of the business. This aspect of “stretching” is a wonderful concept founded by Dr. Temple Grandin. How do you stretch someone via self-employment? Start off asking the individual to simply partake in the activity they enjoy the most. But with time, use the flexibility of the business to stretch the person into other activities less related to their direct interest. Does this mean they must sustain that activity? No. The key here is exposure. Exposing the individual to other aspects of the business will provide windows for stretching and growth.

Job titles and descriptions no doubt have their place in the corporate world, but not for #JobCreators with disabilities. In order for all of us to help in the creation of simple, sustainable and meaningful work for someone with developmental or intellectual disabilities, we must focus on their #UniqueAbilities and their interest and use that as the basis to #ThinkDifferently about employment! 

Image Credits: Boaz & Minerva Santiago

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