Raymond Rodgers communicates with many of his clients through interpreters, just one of the ways his disability costs his company more than the average business. “English [is] my second language,” he says. “My native language is American Sign Language.” Photo by Jason Reblando.

The phrase, “business owned by a person with a disability,” may bring to mind a particular image—a small business whose owner is disabled. That describes Raymond Rodgers, who runs Deaf Communication by Innovation, a company that provides sign language interpreting, captioning and sign language instruction.

Rodgers, a former social worker, had a friend tell him he’d make a great businessman. But having good business sense hasn’t always made running his business easy, especially as a person with a disability.

“Usually, deaf and disabled people aren’t given the opportunity to show and prove they can do it,” Rodgers said. “It’s pretty tough to compete with big corporations and small businesses [that] are run by ‘abled’ people, who have much more advantages over disabled people.”

Under Illinois’ Business Enterprise Program, which aims to award government contracts to businesses owned by minorities, women and people with a disability, the vast majority of state money marked for going to disabled business owners isn’t going to people like Rodgers.

Instead, 98 percent of that money goes to “sheltered workshops”—a group operation usually run by a nonprofit where disabled people can work in a supervised setting.

Some advocates think these sheltered workshops offer people with disability the chance to work in a setting that’s less stressful and more structured than the average workplace.

“Historically, they’ve been more of a default option,” said Mark Williams, director at Disabilityworks, a branch of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce. “There are employees that want to be there. They like the support that they get. They’re not interested in going out in the community and fending for themselves.”

But others think more money under the Business Enterprise Program should be going to actual business owners and not sheltered workshops. Robin Jones, director of the Great Lakes Americans with Disabilities Act Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she’s uncomfortable with sheltered workshops because they pay their workers less than minimum wage.

“The [Business Enterprise Program] was meant to be an enterprise program for people with disabilities who own their own businesses,” Jones said. “I’ve met individuals who are working in sheltered workshop settings who have never been given an opportunity to look at what their options might be in competitive employment.”

Rodgers said he didn’t realize how much state money was going to sheltered workshops under the Business Enterprise Program.
“I don’t think that is fulfilling the spirit of the law,” he said. “They should be empowering the disabled people by letting them take over and run businesses themselves, rather than sheltering them to do their jobs.”