Turning barriers into business: Four entrepreneurs with disabilities share how they did it

By Ishani Nath

Gwen Lim Brydson

Motion and Still Inc. ( https://www.motionandstill.com/ )

Gwen Lim Brydson’s resume is impressive. She’s always been a star student and was headhunted in her early 20s to work for banks in Europe, but not everything came easy. Brydson has Asperger syndrome, which means that she’s on the “high functioning” end of the autism spectrum. Growing up in Singapore, her mother had her tested as a child, but only told Brydson the diagnosis when she was 26—and it gave Brydson a new perspective on her experiences. 

“I was valedictorian, I was the debate captain, I was all of these things, but I literally had no friends until I had 18, and that’s because I just didn’t interact well with other people, I didn’t do well in group project situations and I would follow the rules, and this is what Aspergers is; we are very literal people,” says Brydson, who started a video and photo production company Motion and Still Inc. with the help of startup capital from Futupreneur. At the time, because Brydson was a new immigrant with no credit or banking history, she says Futurpreneur was the only place she could get funding. That capital not only helped start Motion and Still Inc., but Brydson has scaled her business from her couch to a thriving company with three Toronto studios and A-list clients, including Habitat for Humanity and the City of Toronto. All she needed was support. 

It’s estimated that one in five Canadians, or 6.2 million individuals, have at least one or more disabilities, according to data collected by Statistics Canada in 2017. These disabilities can be physical, sensory, cognitive or mental-health related and overall, individuals who identify as having a disability are statistically less likely to be employed than those without disabilities. Even though studies show that hiring individuals with disabilities also benefits businesses and the bottom line by for instance, lowering turnover and creating a more innovative workplace, this labour force remains largely untapped. As a result, individuals with disabilities, particularly those with severe disabilities, are statistically more at risk of living in poverty. Canada has recognized the need for work environments to be inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities, but entrepreneur Leah Riddell, an advocate for the deaf and American Sign Language community, says barriers still persist. 

Leah Riddell

SignABLE Vi5ion ( https://signablevi5ion.com/ )

Riddell, who identifies as Deaf, started her career in photography and graphic design, but recently began teaching American Sign Language. “As I was hired to teach, I learned some of my students who are parents of deaf children were facing the same struggles I had when growing up,” says Riddell. “Businesses, like movie theatres and restaurants with TVs, not providing closed captions, lack of knowledge about interpreters at the audiologist office and access for their children just about anywhere.” 

The lack of accommodation and resources for deaf individuals can also be limiting in the business world, says Riddell. For instance, she experienced difficulty finding interpreters for presentations, which on one occasion meant cancelling altogether. She’s also seen conferences about educating deaf children with no deaf presenters. There is major room for improvement so in response, Riddell launched her business, SignABLE Vi5ion, last year and provides customized educational workshops and tools on Deaf inclusion, culture and the ASL community. She also actively hires contractors who are Deaf, DeafBlind, deafened and hard of hearing. 

“The biggest problem non-deaf people seem to have with us is the fact that we don’t conform to the way they expect language and communication to happen. We communicate differently,” says Riddell, who has conducted training for local businesses and provided educational programming for organizations like the Collins Bay Institution and Kingston Unitarian Fellowship. “I wouldn’t be an entrepreneur if barriers didn’t exist today.” 

Eyra Abraham

Lisnen (http://www.lisnen.com/ )

Seeing barriers as potential opportunities for new services or products is also how Eyra Abraham started her business. For a long time, the 40-year-old computer science grad kept her hearing loss a secret, worrying that others would value her less because of it. But after sleeping through several fire alarms, Abraham realized that her skills and unique experience could make a difference. Existing assistive devices run from $600 to $1000 or aren’t built for travel, explains Abraham, so instead, she used her background in tech to develop Lisnen, a mobile app that detects alarms, sirens and other sounds and alerts the user by vibrating or using flashing lights. Since launching, the app now has garnered a community of more than 500 people, many of whom Abraham found by attending events, talking about her business and connecting with people online. 

“I learned a valuable lesson from the past, and that is to continue through, despite the obstacles. The obstacles are not dead-ends, but opportunities for growth and new learning,” says Abraham. Abraham invested in herself and received initial capital from the WomensNet Amber Grant and the accelerator program Founder Institute to help get Lisnen off the ground.

Stefani Blazevic

Inflo HR ( https://inflohr.com/ )

However, starting a business can be scary, especially if it means walking away from a corporate job with health benefits. Inflo HR founder Stefani Blazevic says that’s what kept her in her corporate job after being diagnosed with MS four years ago. She started her business in 2016 when, while working in corporate recruitment and HR, she noticed job candidates were submitting subpar resumes with grammatical mistakes or other issues. So, Blazevic began Inflo HR, a technology-driven approach to helping employers with talent attraction and job seekers improve their applications and prospects. 

She began the business part time, but since going full time Blazevic realized that entrepreneurship can offer certain advantages for people with disabilities, such as a flexible schedule and accommodating work environment. Managing her health is almost a part-time job, says Blazevic, and now she no longer has to explain her situation to employers or bosses. 

In addition, like Brydson, Riddell and Abraham, Blazevic found that what is perceived as her “disability” has helped her in her business. “I think having a diagnosis like MS at such a young age in my 20s, has made me much more empathetic. I also feel like I can connect with a lot more job candidates and potential clients as well because what I have learned is that everyone is secretly battling something — disability or not,” she says. 

In the same way, Brydson realized that understanding her Aspergers has also ultimately helped her business. “When you know that you have autism, you start watching and observing more,” she explains, so she is able to read situations and potential clients and better pitch her services. Her Aspergers also gives her intense focus and attention to detail, which she highlights as a strength of her company, Motion and Still Inc., helping her achieve success quickly. Brydson has grown her business around 25 per cent each year and now works with companies including Nestle, Porsche, and one that’s close to her heart, Kerry’s Place, Canada’s largest service provider to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families. She describes Asbergers as her superpower. 

“There are so called weakness that society hoists upon us, they call them weakness, but it can be a strength,”  she says. 

And, according to Abraham, that can be particularly true among the disabled community in entrepreneurship. “One of our advantages that I see that is common among us all, is that we are good at not hesitating to seek solutions or alternative routes when barriers are placed in front of us,” she says. “That’s what I think entrepreneurship is all about, and we are naturally doing it every day.”

This feature article is part of the Startup & Slay digital video series featuring six Canadian companies founded by diverse women entrepreneurs. Launched in October 2019, this special project is produced by How She Hustles, with proud sponsor CIBC in partnership with Futurpreneur Canada and Ryerson University. Help us share these stories online with hashtag #startupandslay and don’t forget to tag @howshehustles. We’d love to hear how you Startup & Slay, too!

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