In 2001, my mother Linda was the Vice President of Marketing for a Real Estate development company. She was also an amateur jewelry designer, and on weekends we would often sell her work at craft shows. That same year a recurrent spinal condition resurfaced, leading to a string of surgeries, painful rehabilitation, and more than a year of hospitalization. By late 2004, wheelchair-bound and unable to meet the physical demands of working outside the home, she left her real estate position and faced the frightening proposition of creating a career that was both rewarding and practical in the face of her circumstances.
Crafting professionally was the obvious solution. Designing and beading new pieces offered my mom both a therapeutic diversion and a source of supplemental income. But there were still logistical concerns — chronic pain and mobility issues made working shows and fairs difficult, if not impossible, for her. Eventually, I left my own career and became her partner, managing the grunt work of the operation. It wasn’t until we began selling online, however, that our business really began to thrive. We started dillondesigns.etsy.com. Working from home has provided my mom with the flexible workplace that she needs, and Etsy and other online marketplaces have given her the ability to connect with her customers and build a following in a way that wasn’t available to her before.
She’s not alone. It is estimated that about 10% of the US population have a work disability, a condition that limits the type or amount of work a person can do. The need for flexibility and freedom from fatigue, inaccessible work environments and transportation concerns has led disabled Americans into self-employment and entrepreneurship at nearly twice the rate of people without disabilities. According to John D. Kemp of HalfthePlanet.com, a website for the disabled community, "entrepreneurship has become a consequence of disability discrimination in the workforce."
Selling online can provide a perfect opportunity for the disabled. The Disabled Online Users Association (DOUA) was founded in 1998 to bring the online world of business to the disabled. DOUA founder Marjie Smith was one of the first to recognize the opportunity presented by online commerce to those with work disabilities — "to help the differently-abled become self-sufficient and independent."
Disabled artists and crafters have a strong presence on Etsy, and have formed a supportive community through the forums, though many are reluctant to speak publicly about their challenges. Gina of ModaDesigns Jewelry says participating on Etsy is like "having a social life without leaving the house." For her, the confidence that she has gained while running her Etsy shop has been as important as the income it has provided. Having had her own pain reduced by magnet therapy, she now makes bracelets with magnets as a means of sharing her relief.
WJ St. Christopher ( aka art166.etsy.com) is a digital artist who has been selling her work online on a number of sites for three years, after a respiratory dysfunction led her out of her career as a software trainer. Like Gina, she stresses the importance of creativity to her mental, not just financial, state:
"I’ve learned that the physical body lets me down all the time, but, in my dreams I’m always strong, capable and adventurous! So, I don’t believe that my physical condition is reflected in my art. However, my vivid, improbable DREAMS most certainly are!"
For my mom, selling her jewelry professionally has provided a silver lining to a particularly dismal black cloud — a strong push out of the comfort zone of 9-5 employment and into her lifelong dream of supporting herself as an artist. Selling online has provided the same opportunity for countless other disabled artisans, offering a renewed sense of purpose and self-confidence, as well as a chance to foster talents that might never have otherwise come to light. It’s exciting and vastly rewarding for us to be a part of it.
For more on crafting and disability, see Gingeroni1’s article.