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  • Angela Fox

Controlling the Challenge: Starting a Business with a Disability

Updated: Mar 26

Starting a business is never easy. Below are three lessons I learned when starting my business, Horizontal Houses. Horizontal Houses was created to bridge the gap between the housing industry agents and the disability community. Its motto is “lowering the kitchen sinks but raising the bars for disability homeownership.” The business provides training, real estate guidebooks, and Living-in-Place home assessments. I started my business because it was a natural extension of my published book, My Blue Front Door, and my podcast, Accessibility Is Home; both focusing on helping the disabled working class become successful homeowners.

#1: Find insights from all perspectives of your field of business

Researching your audience is important for a successful business. I started to connect to the disability community through a variety of Facebook groups. For example, I identified that Autism Speak Outs had successfully campaigned for housing in the state of Washington. I asked a wheelchair Facebook group if they had ever advocated for disability housing. The comments I received were alarming; I was accused of promoting group homes! It never occurred to me that my community’s framework for understanding disability housing was limited to group homes. I explained that group homes don’t represent disability housing; the Autism Speak Outs organization was providing housing to both disabled and non-disabled individuals. I learned that terminology is very important.

A white woman with long brown hair and glasses writing with a quill and a smile.

#2: Support for business growth starts by supporting yourself first

The summer before I started college, my father lost his job, along with medical insurance that would cover my wheelchair and medical expenses. Fortunately, I was able to apply for social security disability and Medicare. During my first college semester, I found out my part-time job would reduce the amount of social security I would receive. I applied to the then-new social security program, Ticket to Work, that allowed other sources of income to be used for career development. Every semester I provided receipts to this effect. I needed a Juris Doctorate to be a lawyer after college. Indiana’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services agreed to pay a portion of my law school tuition.

Participating in social security, Vocational Rehabilitation Services, and other disability programs gave me more than financial support. I learned the importance of record keeping, budgeting, working within the restrictions and requirements of said programs, and successfully communicating with bureaucrats. It was more valuable than any business class I took.

#3: As a disabled entrepreneur, advocacy must be built into your business model

Disability entrepreneurship has come a long way because others before us have made that fight, with or without receiving the benefit themselves. It is easy to gloss over this fact, especially if you become disabled much later in life. I learned the value of educating myself in the disability rights movement as a source of valuable pride I could pull from when things with my business (and life) weren't going as planned. For example, I learned that the 1970s Independent Living Movement was started by students at the University of California at Berkeley. Among many accomplishments, the students provided video evidence that both disabled and non-disabled people used the few sidewalk ramps around the campus. For my business, understanding how some of the first universal designed ramps became adopted by code is important.

Additionally, during COVID, many indoor activities were shut down and I started to see that the disabled community was not being included in the expanded outdoor recreational activity options. I began to volunteer with Team River Runner, Team Kennedy Krieger, Move Out, and many other disabled sports organizations. I particularly started advocating for more inclusion in kayaking piers after overcoming my fear of kayaking. I soon began to run into others who were both disabled and homeowners themselves; through this networking, my business grew. I learned advocating is not just important to give back, it can be part of your business model.

Angela Fox is a founder of Horizontal Houses company, a mediator, and an attorney. As a lifetime paraplegic, she advocates for accessible and affordable homeownership for the disability community in private sector housing.

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