If you’re reading this you already know that running a small business is hard. When you throw in a chronic illness, neurodivergence or disability you’ve got a whole world of other issues to deal with.
Despite that, entrepreneurship is still a great option…a better option in a lot of cases.
Only 53% of disabled people participate in employment and not for the reason you might think. It’s simply because a lot of employers are unwilling to make necessary accommodations like work-from-home arrangements, providing additional space for assistive equipment and access ramps, or offering flexible hours (if you’re not customer-facing, does it really matter if you work in the middle of the night?). A lot of these things are thrown into the “too hard” basket or it’s because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”
In fact, at the Royal Commission into the NDIS, 2022 Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott spoke about having a job interview cancelled because the employer learned he was a wheelchair user!
It’s wild out there!
Starting a small business offers the flexibility to rest when you need it, to work from your bed or the lounge when it’s necessary and to take time out for things like doctor’s appointments or just a nice nap. You can take on as much work as you want and work at times that suit you – one of my most productive times doesn’t start until 11 p.m.
Expectations out of line with reality lead to stress and stress leads to flair-ups which – at best – is unpleasant, so making sure your clients understand your limitations is key to providing a solid, enjoyable working relationship.
I don’t mean you need to lay it all out on the table for them to see, your health is your business, what I mean is that you need to give yourself enough time to produce client work without feeling stressed about looming or missed deadlines.
Be wary of people pleasing and over-promising. Build a buffer into your timelines to make sure if that if you do have a day when you just can’t work you’re not going to find yourself dealing with a cranky client.
A chronically ill copywriter I worked with, once told me she adds an extra week into her project timelines. If she finishes early she’ll go back to the client asking if they want to continue with the next step now or if they’d prefer to follow the original timeline.
Managing expectations is about more than just what your clients are expecting. The honest truth is, if you have a chronic illness of any kind you are probably not going to be able to meet business milestones as quickly as healthy, neurotypical business owners do.
It sucks, but it’s reality. If you’re expecting anything different you’re going to be disappointed.
Small business works best when you have a support network.
Whether it’s a network that starts at home with a supportive partner and family or not, finding other business owners that you can trust will do wonders for your mental health.
Small masterminds, Facebook groups and private communities where you can share your successes, vent your stresses and share your failures help you stay on track and realise that you’re not the only one going through whatever difficulty you’re facing.
Communicating your needs
Being open about what I need from people hasn’t always been easy for me. It took me a long time to realise that I was allowed to have needs and to have them met. Even now I’ll occasionally have to remind myself that something that seems perfectly obvious to me isn’t necessarily obvious to others.
Two things I’ve done to help me get my needs met are…
- I use a Google calendar to list meetings, projects, webinars and anything else that I’m going to need quiet for. This calendar is accessible to my family so they also get reminders of when I’ve got stuff on.
- I use a family group in the messages app on my phone. This way I can let them know when I’m busy without having to repeat myself to each individual in my home.
It’s not a perfect system and it doesn’t take into account the times when I’m particularly struggling with noise (even when it’s just reasonable levels). To help combat those times I’ve bought a pair of noise-reduction headphones as well as a pair of earplugs that block out most noise.
That way I can choose to listen to music, white noise or have silence, depending on what I need at the time.
I know that having a self-care section in a list like this is kind of cliche, but it’s also necessary. The truth is there’s still a lot of stigma around looking after yourself if your idea of self-care isn’t a spa day.
Don’t let society fool you into believing that it’s lazy or selfish to take care of your needs, no matter what that may look like. With the exception of making sure you get enough rest, there’s no hard and fast way to live your life or run your business as a chronically ill person.
For me, self-care means making sure I have a least one or two days each week away from work – even when I’m feeling super motivated. It’s been about learning the difference between riding the wave and overworking myself.
Without that break, I end up wearing myself out.
This can be a hard one if you’re a bit of a people pleaser, but having your boundaries and sticking to them is one of the things that will keep you sane when you’re working for yourself.
Boundaries are another thing that looks totally different from one business owner to another. In one line of work, you may have strict hours and you never respond to client contact outside of those times. For another business, clients might have legitimate reasons to contact you in the middle of the night. Those businesses might implement an after-hours fee to prevent people from expecting non-emergency work over the weekend.
The key to getting your clients to respect those boundaries is to introduce them early.
Creating a client handbook that you give to new clients as part of your onboarding process is a great way to present those boundaries as standard business practices (which they are).
List your office hours, and any fees applicable to rush jobs and/or emergency jobs outside those times. If you only want clients contacting you via email don’t give them your phone number. These things should be in your email signature and on your website too.
Remember, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to say no to certain projects – even when you’ve worked with a client before.
Entrepreneurship is a challenging journey, but when you add all the complexities that come with chronic illness, neurodivergence or disability into the mix it can seem even more daunting. That said, for a lot of us, the potential for flexibility, control and understanding outweigh the difficulties that come with traditional employment.