Supporting the Entrepreneurial Goals of College Students With Disabilities

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According to recent data, one in five enrolled undergraduate students (and 12 percent of enrolled graduate students) in the United States reports having a disability. However, that number is likely higher, as a 2022 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that a majority of college students with disabilities do not inform their school of their disability. The statistics illustrate a disconnect between the disabled student community and college administrative services, widening the gap between the services that are available—and the services that should be available—and who can access them.

The issue is compounded when we consider the challenges faced by disabled college students with entrepreneurial goals. An survey reported that 60 percent of 2022 college graduates either plan to launch or are already running their own businesses.

And for many people with disabilities, starting their own business, while an ambitious goal, is the most feasible pathway toward a meaningful career, due to ongoing workplace accessibility issues and a disability employment gap that remains dire. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, just 19.1 percent of persons with disabilities were employed, compared to 63.7 percent of persons without a disability.

So, the key question to be addressed is this: How can college administrative offices work more effectively and closely with disabled students to support their entrepreneurial goals? Based on my personal experiences as a person with a disability who has been running a nonprofit start-up accelerator while simultaneously earning my undergraduate degree, I recommend:

  1. Letting them know you’re here.

For college and university disability service offices, the task here comes down to raising awareness and implementing impactful marketing that removes any potential perceived stigma. There should be a call to action for students with disabilities, communicating why it’s important they report their disability. State the importance of reporting clearly, such as so they can be accounted for, advocated for and represented. Broadcast the on- and off-campus services that are available and that the potential results can uplift their academic path.

  1. Involving local vocational rehabilitation services.

Supporting students with disabilities, especially those looking to start their own businesses, is at its best, a collaborative effort. That’s why it’s crucial for college disability service offices to also be aware of, and work with, the local government-run vocational rehabilitation services office, which typically assists individuals with disabilities in finding employment and provides support through training, education, rehabilitation and career development. These offices may also offer tuition and other forms of financial support, which when managed accordingly can not only help with day-to-day expenses, but also can help launch a business. When I first started as an undergrad, my college’s administration didn’t have a plan of action for connecting me with the area vocational rehabilitation agency; fortunately, I was able to figure it out, but a more informed and active college office would have saved me a great deal of time and bandwidth.

  1. Developing real-world integrations.

Learning happens both inside and outside the classroom, so it’s extremely valuable to connect academia to real-world professional experiences. In fact, my best experiences as an undergraduate student have been whenever I was able to apply what I was learning in school to career-focused endeavors.

I urge administrators to present opportunities for students—both with and without disabilities—to take their skills beyond the classroom and earn college credits along the way.

One of the challenges I’ve encountered as an entrepreneur attending college has been that the stringent schedule would at times interfere with my professional journey. But when I opted to be a nondegree student, without all the traditional requirements of someone working toward a bachelor’s degree, I had more freedom to take the classes that addressed and taught solutions for the challenges I was facing in the business world. I could apply what I learned in the classroom to my business. I encourage our academic leaders to facilitate courses that complement professional goals rather than take students away from their core focus.

Entrepreneurship is becoming an increasingly attractive and promising pathway for college students, especially those with cognitive and/or physical disabilities. Students with disabilities tend to be tenacious, but just because they are used to getting things done without a lot of help doesn’t mean they should have to. There are both practical and intangible ways for student service departments to support these individuals, and through engagement and collaboration we can work together toward a more fulfilling and inclusive academic experience.

Diego Mariscal is the founder, CEO and chief disabled officer of 2Gether-International, an accelerator supporting entrepreneurs with disabilities. His work has included collaborations with the U.S. Department of State and corporations like Comcast NBC Universal and Google. Born with cerebral palsy and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, Mariscal has represented Nuevo Leon in the Mexican National Paralympics.