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11 September 2018

#ThinkSelfEmployed blog: The highs and lows of being a disabled entrepreneur

Guest blog from FSB Member Dr Janet Rose

fullsizeoutput_16c3I have never once regretted the decision to become self-employed.  I may work longer hours than I ever did as an employee, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made.   I am a disabled entrepreneur, with a long-term health condition and physical restrictions on what I can do, so self-employment is realistically the best way for me to keep working.  We may have plenty of equal-opportunities legislation in the U.K. and there are good employers out there who are willing to make adaptions, but there are only so many times you can take time off for medical appointments, report in sick, or be late because you are no longer able to drive and your transport hasn’t turned up, before employers start to get fed up.

So, a few years ago I took a deep breath and set myself up as a self-employed History and English tutor, working from my home in Wiltshire.  I had been tutoring & teaching for many years, so I was doing something I loved and knew I was good at, but now I was doing it from home, working online with students across the U.K. and overseas.  For the first three years I worked alone, but I went on to establish The Tutor Team, an agency which introduces professional academic tutors to clients. Now I have a great team around me and could not be happier at work.

Has it all been plain sailing as a disabled entrepreneur? No, it certainly has not!  One thing that has been both a blessing and a curse is Access to Work.  This is a government scheme that can help disabled people stay in work by paying for a support worker to assist with admin, driving, or any task that disability makes difficult or impossible.  It is a fabulous idea and I am hugely grateful for the help I have received but it has also been one of the most stressful experiences of my self-employed work life.  This is because the Access to Work staff seem to have had little or no training in how to deal with self-employed workers. 

Over the past few years I have had to battle to make Access to Work understand that being self-employed is different to employment and sometimes needs a different approach.  For example, there was the time when they took away all my support because I had been ‘non-compliant’.  One member of staff treated me as if I was a fraud, because I couldn’t supply what he was demanding in the exact format he required.  What he needed was annual proof of earnings and according to his check list, for a self-employed person that meant the last self-assessment tax return.  I duly sent my most recent (and up to date) tax return but it was rejected as being from the previous tax year, April 2014 to April 2015 and not current i.e. January 2015 to December 2015.   My protests that I wasn’t due to submit the next self-assessment because it wasn’t yet the deadline and the tax year does not run from January to December anyway, met not only with deaf ears but with suspicion and rudeness.  Even after I supplied my full business accounts for the current year to date, my support was withdrawn.  I had to make an official complaint and threaten to get my MP involved before it was resolved. 

Then there was the time that my lovely support worker became suddenly ill.   She was unable to work and it was three weeks before she got a diagnosis and we realised she would not be coming back to work.  At the time I was a sole trader and I had to advertise, interview and recruit a new support worker, which is the responsibility of the business owner.  It takes time, of course, so it was a few weeks before I had a new person in place.  With a lot of generous help from family and friends I managed to hold the business together for those weeks, only to find that my support was suddenly reduced by Access to Work because I ‘obviously did not need the help.’  Ironically, they reduced the support just after I engaged the new support worker. 

I appealed the decision and once again faced total incomprehension about self-employment.  It went something like this...

ATW ‘We don’t understand why it was so difficult to find alternative help... you could have used someone else from within the company short term’. 

Me ‘But there is no one else - it’s just me, I’m a sole trader.’

ATW ‘Hmm, surely there was someone who could have supported you from within the business?’

Me ‘No - it’s just me, I’m a self-employed sole trader. 

ATW ‘So you clearly didn’t need support during that time!’

Me ‘Yes, I did, and that’s why my family gave up their evenings and weekends to help me.’

ATW ‘We will write to you...’.

They did - support reduced.  Another official complaint etc.  

So, whilst I would never willingly go back to being an employee, there have certainly been challenges.  This month I need to ask Access to Work to review my claim.  Wish me luck...