We are pleased to take this opportunity to respond to the provincial government's consultation on developing the small business success strategy for Ontario. There are approximately 681,000 Ontarians living with sight loss. Additionally, one in every six working-age Canadians – who are blind or partially sighted –are self-employed. This move toward self-employment is sometimes out of passion, but often a necessity for our community. According to Statistics Canada's 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, 22 per cent of Canadians living with severe or very severe sight loss are considered low income, according to the Market Basket Measure (MBM), compared to 8.7 per cent of the general population who are considered low income.
Entrepreneurs face unique challenges, and entrepreneurs with sight loss face can face additional barriers. Our response highlights the barriers that many of our community members face and provides recommendations for the provincial government. During our consultation, many of the issues we heard were recurring among self-employed individuals with sight loss, but this should not be taken as comprehensive exploration of the challenges faced by small-business owners who are blind or partially sighted.
Background: Sight Loss and Entrepreneurship
- One in every six of working age blind and partially sighted Canadians are self-employed. This is double the Canadian national average for self-employment.
- Self-employed Canadians with sight loss earn a household income that is $7,600 (on average) less compared to those who are working but not self-employed ($61,200, compared to $68,800).
Our response focuses on five key areas:
Area One: Funding
When asked about government funding opportunities that they had engaged with, the majority of participants said they were not aware of existing business funding through the government (e.g. grants and loans). Furthermore, they did not know where to find and apply for said opportunities. Those who were aware said they found the applications to be an arduous and complicated, or the criteria was too narrow, and they were not eligible. Therefore, many felt it was easier to apply for a bank loan, even if the terms were less favourable. Regarding shipping, curbside delivery — which has increased in popularity due to COVID-19 — can be challenging for individuals with sight loss.
- Grant and loan applications should be streamlined - the language should be clear and concise.
- There should be a focus on promoting existing funding opportunities, whether it's social media, ad campaigns, announcements or other forms of marketing.
- Many of our respondents said they didn't require larger loan programs due to the smaller size of their businesses. The number of available microloans should be increased and prioritized over a small number of larger loans. These microloans can be used as a “top-up” for necessary expenses that small business owners may not be able to afford and there should have fewer eligibility requirements.
- Small business owners with sight loss may benefit from financial support, including (but not limited to):
- Breaks on shipping costs
- Discounts on certain business and professional licenses
Area Two: Accessibility
Participants said website inaccessibility creates a barrier. For instance, some individuals felt navigating government websites and clicking links to third-party sites led to pages that were not accessible or were questionable in terms of legitimacy. In addition, individuals with sight are often required to assist with certain business-related tasks such as website visuals and professional photography. However, hiring this type of help adds an extra financial burden to entrepreneurs with sight loss, whereas entrepreneurs with sight do not necessarily have this extra cost. Finally, participants said registering for a business number can be too complex to apply for. One person said she needed her accountant to apply for her HST number since she felt the process was inaccessible.
- Ensure all information on the Government of Ontario website is accessible and indicate if sites that are hyperlinked or endorsed on the government website are third-party websites.
- Ensure security features like CAPTCHA (human verification systems that often involve reading and typing random letter and number combinations) are accessible – the accompanying audio feature should be clear and easy to use. All images and logos should be tagged with descriptions in the form of alt text and/or captions; all text, images and other aspects of webpages should be fully accessible with screen readers and magnifiers.
- Make accessibility audits free or offer them at a reduced rate to small business owners. This would aid small businesses in becoming more accessible without the added financial burden.
- Create a fund for small businesses to hire talent in the disability community to diversify their teams and give individuals with disabilities an opportunity to work in all areas of the economy.
- Reduce red tape by streamlining the application process for HST numbers.
Area Three: Education
Participants also shared they did not know where to find business centres near them, consultants or mentors, or where to find information about the various regulations, licenses, and processes to be aware of when launching their business in the province.
- In addition to promoting resources and events to prospective applicants, the provincial government should share them to organizations like CNIB, so we can be pass them along to our participants.
- When self-employed individuals receive their business number, an information package should be included with it. This package may include examples such as: resources for licensing; selling shares and other financial matters; tax information; transitioning to a new owner; contract basics and types of contracts; legal matters; information about hiring and retaining diverse talent, such as professionals with disabilities; and access to free courses or materials about business basics.
- Offer a financial safeguard for entrepreneurs who wish to keep the previous business owner on board as an advisor, staff member or mentor.
Area Four: Competitiveness
Entrepreneurs said they felt disadvantaged compared to larger businesses when bidding for contracts, due to brand recognition. This includes bidding for contracts with government entities. Next, many business owners with sight loss are passionate about making their own workplaces accessible, but they can't afford certain accessibility measures. This includes accessibility audits for their company or investing in recruitment efforts to bring talented individuals with diverse abilities in board and providing accommodations for them. Lastly, those living outside large cities like Toronto and Ottawa felt that potential clients often have a “small town” preconception about their business.
- Offer financial assistance for the hiring of professionals to help with visual aspects of businesses or outsourcing support for other disability-related barriers. For example, offering a subsidy to hire a delivery driver or photographer.
- Review tendering and RFP practices so small businesses have an equal change when it comes to bidding for government contracts.
- Provide resources that may not be available in smaller communities, but that exist in larger cities. For example, discounted costs for transportation to business centres.
Area Five: Technology
Some participants faced barriers when adopting new technology, either in the form of software and hardware, or device updates. For instance, one individual needed to learn new keyboard commands after a computer update, which resulted in lost time on their business because they didn't have an IT department.
- Provide funding for technology training for individuals with disabilities, including sight loss, who are opening or running a business.
- Offer discounts on services such as accessible website production services.
We would like to thank the provincial government for conducting these consultations and striving to make the province a more supportive environment for small business owners. By increasing opportunities for a diverse range of small business owners, including those who are blind or partially sighted, Ontario will ensure it is fully open for business.
Manager, Advocacy and Government Affairs
CNIB Foundation (Ontario & Quebec)
Share your feedback! The consultations are a way for you to directly share what matters most to you as a business owner, and what steps the government can take to help your business succeed. There are multiple ways to participate online or in person. The closing date is September 1, 2020.