Disability: How freelancing is restoring freedom

By Inna Yordanova
Research Correspondent

Inna is a Research Officer at IPSE

By Christina McLean
News Correspondent

More disabled people than ever before are choosing self-employment. In fact, the number of people with disabilities working for themselves has risen by 30 per cent in the last five years, according to new research.

For many of us, we don’t think twice about our daily office routine. We go in, make ourselves a coffee, chat to colleagues and simply get on with our work. But for others, a daily routine as such can be incredibly challenging.

Tom Fadden is a wheelchair user, who feels traditional methods of employment are not open to him. When looking for work, Tom said, that in interviews he could tell the employer was “thinking around the issues of making work accessible” for him.

After leaving his previous job due to a mental illness family bereavement, Tom decided the way forward was to become self-employed. He enrolled himself in the Princes Trust Enterprise programme, through which he was able to share his experience and get help putting together a business.

The programme also continues to provide Tom with a mentor, who supports him and offers advice on issues such as late payment. He added: “The knowledge gained on the enterprise programme, along with the guidance from my mentor was invaluable in getting my business off the ground.”

The self-employment sector in the UK has grown rapidly in the last 20 years and now stands at almost five million. The freedom and flexibility working for yourself is one of the biggest motivations behind this growth, particularly for those who have a disability.

Fourteen per cent of all solo self-employed people are classified as a disabled under the Equality Act 2010 – this accounts for 611,000 people. (Disability is defined, in law, as anyone with a physical or mental impairment which has a negative effect of their ability to do normal daily activities).

Almost half (44%) of disabled self-employed people have been working for themselves for 10 years or more

Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that the number of disabled people entering the self-employed workforce in increasing at a substantial rate. In fact, in the last five years there has been a 30 per cent rise.

But why are more and more people like Tom, looking to self-employment as the way forward for work?

A new report, titled Making self-employment work for disabled people’, by IPSE and Community (ComRes) looked into who the disabled self-employed are, their motivations, the key challenges they face and what government and other organisations can do to support them.

The research was based on relevant data analysis, interviews with experts from government, the charity sector and academia, as well as 15 interviews conducted by ComRes with the disabled self-employed themselves.


The most common reason for choosing self-employment is to get better work conditions, according to 1 in 5 disabled freelancers.

What do disabled people really think about self-employment?

Majority of the respondents had a positive view of self-employment. While they acknowledged the challenges they faced within it, they were broadly happy and satisfied with their quality of life as a self-employed person.

Despite the interviewees having different initial reasons for becoming self-employed, when reflecting, many said that working for themselves had a positive impact on their lifestyle.

Tom has been running his own disability consultancy firm since 2016. He helps businesses better understand disabilities by providing awareness training at universities.

With his disability, Tom said his energy levels can often fluctuate and therefore values the flexibility that self-employment provides. He also enjoys the autonomy of working for yourself and having control over the projects he takes on.

There is a lack of understanding around mental conditions and as a result, the benefits received through Universal Credit don’t often meet the financial needs of person.

Tom admits that there are some challenges he faces being self-employed such as not having certain skills. However, he is not sure he could ever go back into traditional employment.

Tom is just one example of someone who has a disability and self-employment means they can be independent and work in a way that suits their needs. And he is not the only one. In fact, the study showed that almost half (44%) of disabled self-employed people have been working for themselves for 10 years or more.

Key challenges in self-employment

Self-employment, however, doesn’t come without its challenges and that’s no different for people with disabilities. And many of these are largely similar and include:

  • Accessing start-up capital
  • Setting up your business
  • Setting up your finances
  • Complying with legal and tax laws
  • Establishing a client base and finding work

Tom, for instance, finds the seasonal aspect of the business challenging, as well as the constant work and communication with clients.

But one aspect that was found to be a particular challenge for self-employed people who are disabled was accessing welfare support, through the Work Capability Assessment. According to the report, there is a lack of understanding around mental conditions and as a result, the benefits received through Universal Credit don’t often meet the financial needs of person.

Jonathan Lima-Matthews, public affairs manager at IPSE, said: “As the number of disabled people in self-employment continues to rise, it is increasingly important to make sure we better understand their diverse needs, experiences and the challenges they face.

“While the government can work to reform the welfare system in order to better support this group, there is also space for charities, trade associations and trade unions to provide expert advice and tailored support for them.

“In a report to be released in summer, we lay out a series of practical recommendations for government and industry on how they can work towards solutions that can help ensure self-employment is a sustainable and rewarding way of work for disabled people.”