The number of peer-reviewed academic articles that are actually read by anyone other than reviewers, editors, and a small group of peers is often cited as being dismally low. This is depressing if you’ve ever gone through the back and forth editing process of an academic article. However, I understand this in many ways. Academic fields have their own jargon, approaches, and audience -- even in academic settings moving between (or drawing from) various disciplines is not always encouraged. Yet, in its best sense, the purpose of academic research is to contribute not only to a field of inquiry, but also to society as a whole. What is the point if this research and these articles exist in the obscurity of academic databases and libraries?

Over the past decade or more, a body of research rooted in various disciplines has emerged examining self-employment and small business options for people with disabilities, mostly in a U.S. context but also internationally. I am keenly aware that most of the JAN customers I consult with are not aware of its existence. I think this issue matters for a few reasons. First, I hear JAN customers express concern about whether these approaches can be successful in general, in their particular situation, or have worked for others. For many, self-employment feels like unchartered territory when in fact there is a growing research history out there that examines the core issues, studies programmatic approaches, and looks at best practices. It’s important for those pursuing self-employment to know this, especially when needing reassurances about its potential.   

Second, there really are individuals out there with a lot of knowledge to share. Journal articles are one way they do this. When I began consulting in this area in the late 90s, I went to my first self-employment conference at the University of Montana where trailblazers like Dave Hammis, Cary Griffin, Nancy Arnold, and others led the way in the area of self-employment. I was very much in listening and learning mode (still am), but all these years later have come to appreciate how important it is to know who these people are, not just for service providers or academics, but also for individuals with disabilities. While the cohort of people with this expertise has grown, it is still an area of specialized knowledge. Journal articles document how their dynamic, hands-on work in the field led to systems change and went on to influence employment policy. I’ll be looking at some of their articles in future blogs.

Third, knowledge is power. At JAN we receive inquiries from individuals who request research data they can use to bolster their case that self-employment can be a viable option for them. Unfortunately, customers sometimes need to make this case to small business counselors, microfinance organizations, and even vocational rehabilitation professionals. There is at times a disconnect between society’s conventional narrative of the “entrepreneur” versus the more grounded reality of a self-employed person or artisan. Unfortunately, these entrepreneur narratives influence the approach and systems aspiring business owners encounter for technical assistance, mentorship, funding opportunities, and training. Journal articles can be empowering as a way to offer a counter narrative. For some, citing research can be especially helpful and a component of one’s self-advocacy toolkit.

In future blogs, I’ll be highlighting recent articles that discuss self-employment options for people with disabilities. We are also working on an annotated bibliography of this literature that will be available on our website.

The first article we would like to highlight is:

Self-Employment for People with Psychiatric Disabilities: Advantages and Strategies, Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research, coauthored by Laysha Ostrow, PhD, Patricia B. Nemec, PsyD and Carina Smith, BS. (2018)

Outline of the article:

Introduction: The Option of Self-Employment

Advantages of Entry into Self-Employment

  • Recovery-oriented job creation
  • Financial security and self-sufficiency
  • Moderating the impact of inadequate work history and low educational attainment
  • Creating an accepting, supportive work environment
  • A healthy, trauma informed work environment
  • Schedule flexibility

Increasing Access to Self-Employment

  • Improvements to vocational rehabilitation 
  • Supporting risk taking
  • Identify motivations for self-employment
  • Developing training and resources

Implications for Behavioral Health

Summary and Conclusions

Five interesting points made in the article:

  1. While there is a growing body of literature about self-employment options for people with various disabilities, there are few that focus specifically on this choice for adults with mental health conditions. This article seeks to fill this gap.
  2. Self-employment fits well within a “recovery paradigm” because of the emphasis placed on consumer-driven choices and a holistic recovery process that includes engagement in work (e.g., self-employment), self-sufficiency, empowerment, and integration in the community.
  3. For individuals with psychiatric disabilities, accommodations having to do with flexibility such as changes to a work schedule, longer or more frequent breaks, or time off for appointments are common. JAN consultants hear these types of accommodation situations frequently as well. With self-employment, these types of accommodations can be integrated into the design of a business, including starting out part-time and growing as it makes sense for that individual.
  4. Challenging the definition of “success” – the authors make the argument that many people with psychiatric disabilities have lived in poverty for many years and tend to think in terms of day-to-day circumstances. Thinking in terms of a conventional small business discourse of success focusing on wealth, job creation, and growth potential may not resonate as desirable or achievable. The authors write, “Alternate definitions of ‘success’ for such individuals may be more relevant and meaningful, such as increases to self-sufficiency, reduction of dependence on systems, services, or even natural supports, as well as autonomy, freedom, and satisfaction, which are cited as reasons for self-employment in the general population even when weighing these advantages against lost wages.”
  5. Within behavioral health systems, there needs to be more attention to the possibilities self-employment offers to some people with psychiatric disabilities, even if this means service providers developing additional knowledge and skills in this area. Acknowledging that many employment programs fall short, they propose a focus on funding research and pilot programs at the national and local levels tailored to the specific needs of individuals with mental health conditions interested in self-employment.

This article is well worth reading! If your local library does not have access to a particular journal article, they typically can get it for you through interlibrary loan at no cost to you, including in alternative formats.


Live and Learn, Inc.
785 Quintana Road, #219
Morro Bay, CA 93442
Phone/Text: (805) 242-6147

Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment

Patricia B. Nemec

Laysha Ostrow

For more specific information on self-employment options for individuals with mental health conditions, please contact JAN directly for one-on-one assistance.