Training the Blind to Run Businesses

Photograph by Peter Sherrard/Getty Images

Last fall, the Forsythe Center for Entrepreneurship launched an initiative aimed at providing entrepreneurship skills and training to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. With 200 students enrolled in the continuing education program at the Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka, Ill., the initiative is one of the largest in the U.S. dedicated solely to encouraging the visually impaired to launch and expand small businesses, says Urban Miyares, president of the Disabled Businesspersons Association in San Diego.

Miyares, a blind and hearing-impaired Vietnam veteran who serves as a content adviser for the program, says that while it is difficult for the disabled to compete in the able-bodied business world, it’s not impossible. The blind even have a few tricks and techniques they can use to gain advantage. He spoke recently to me; edited excerpts of our conversation follow.

Along with basic business courses, how does the Forsythe Center curriculum specifically help blind entrepreneurs compete in the business world?

We teach that success starts with personality, communications, and making changes in ourselves, along with persistence and passion for what we do. One of the requirements is that we can’t be passive. Vision is presumed to be required for business, so if we have to compete on the same level as the sighted, able-bodied world, that means working more aggressively—and longer hours.

You’ve been an entrepreneur for four decades. What kind of hours do you put in?

My average work week is 80 to 90 hours. It takes me an hour to read a Facebook page with voice-output software. But the alternative is staying home waiting to die, which is what I was told to do when I lost my sight. So entrepreneurship is a good choice, particularly because there are so few employment options for the disabled.

The Internet has allowed so many people to become self-employed and work from home. Has it helped the blind and visually impaired?

Actually, the Internet has created more work obligations for us. It’s very time-consuming because you have to listen to the computer talking. I get 200 to 300 e-mails a day, but I get through them because I have a program that’s taught me to listen to over 400 words a minute.

But work is a way of contributing back to society, and many of us are givers, not takers. We’re trying to change that perspective society has of the disabled being takers. Quite a few blind people are excited about this opportunity.

Visually impaired individuals are typically eligible for government assistance. Are those benefits jeopardized by working or running a business?

Yes, you can lose benefits by the mere act of working and many people are frightened about losing their benefits, so that’s one of the things we talk about in the course. We also talk about how to get into business and how to get out of business.

There are also some benefits that quite a few disabled people are not even aware of. For instance, a World War I law says disabled veterans in vending, peddling, or hawking businesses do not have to pay licensing or permit fees. Those laws are in every business and professional code in every state, but they’re not widely known. One vendor I met in California 14 years ago had been paying $900 a year and he blew a fuse when I told him he didn’t have to pay that fee.

Are there specific business types that are best for blind entrepreneurs to pursue?

It really doesn’t matter what kind of business you get into. I’ve owned a steel-welding company, an electronics company, and a printer-board company. There are blind people who own trucking companies; obviously they don’t drive, but they hire others to do that.

One myth is that blind people have better hearing than sighted people. So there’s a blind piano tuners’ association and blind people get jobs in the recording industry. But the truth is, our hearing isn’t any better—we just concentrate and focus on listening more. For instance, I can detect a person who’s lying. I’ll be in meetings where somebody gives a presentation and afterward people say, “Isn’t that a great program?” And I’ll say: “The guy’s lying through his teeth” because I am attuned to detect lies by listening to someone’s voice.

Blind entrepreneurs don’t seem to have high profiles in the business community, even though they could serve as terrific role models. Why is that?

When you’re disabled and you run a company, you have to put yourself in the background until you reach a certain level of business success. Because once people find out we’re disabled, it often hurts us.

For instance, if you were approached by a blind CPA, you’d be hesitant to have that person do your taxes. All sorts of questions would come up that don’t arise with people who have sight. But there are people who are totally blind who do tax returns successfully. It’s all about image and perception and getting people to give us a chance.

How do disabled people get around those perceptions and prejudices?

Often we will design an environment that suits us because we have control over it, like in business meetings. Other times there’s a shock factor we can use to our advantage. In the 1980s, my company did printer circuit boards and I was trying to get a big contract. I asked if I could come over to a potential client’s office and see the president.

I went in with my cane and the receptionist was shocked that I was blind and had traveled a distance to be there. There were a whole bunch of people in the waiting room, but I got in shown in first. And instead of 10 minutes, I got a half hour with the head of the company, who happened to have a family member who was blind. We got the contract and it saved our business at that time.

Do you expect all the students in the Forsythe program to become entrepreneurs?

Certainly not—and we’ve marketed it as a great course in self-awareness, even for those who are not immediately interested in opening businesses. But many people in the future may decide the job they have is not fulfilling or challenging or they can’t find work. That’s when they may expand a hobby or a passion into a business.

So many people at maturity are starting businesses now, as they’re being diagnosed with vision problems or degenerative disease. They know they’ll need to work for themselves because nobody will hire them. And so many veterans are coming back from wars with vision loss. It’s No. 1 of the most common disabilities in today’s veterans, after hearing loss and traumatic brain injury.