The turbulent 1980s – the very height of apartheid – were not only unkind to people of certain racial groups, but also people with disabilities who were looking for a job.
After realising that her disability, not her ability, was going to be a great obstacle to getting a job, Karen Smit started the country’s first recruitment agency for people with disabilities.
If Karen thought that self-employment was going to be her sanctuary, she was gravely mistaken. “As soon as my clients had to pay for my placement a service (which was agreed upon up front), they did not deem it necessary to pay me, because they felt that they did my disabled candidate “a favour” by employing them or they did me the favour,” she says.
When Karen insisted that they had to pay, they were not interested to take the candidate, even after being very happy with having selected the best candidate for the position.
Undeterred, she continued to place disabled candidates in positions, even though clients did not pay for her services. Justifying her decision she says: “I felt that I could not deprive a person with a disability of an opportunity to get a job.”
After a year, mounting hardships made her realise that she was running a business and not a charity organisation. “I continued to place disabled candidates in positions, even though clients did not pay for my services, as I felt that I could not deprive a person with a disability of an opportunity to get a job.”
Her business made little money or none at all. Compounding her dilemma was the fact that as a female was a disability, inexperienced in business, financial and negotiating skills.
Having dabbled in business and failed, Karen feels, there is no better teacher than experience. She offers invaluable counsel to aspiring enteprenuers: “Starting a business is initially mostly tough and one will sometimes fail, but then you learn from those mistakes and learn to do something differently. It is advisable to use a mentor that can guide one on starting your own business.”
Believing that her destiny lied elsewhere, Karin sought employment and there has not been turning back since. She is in the employ of Professional Disability Services where she has excelled. “I can now confidently say that because I consistently deliver, I am a performing employee with a disability, contributing to my employers bottom line – I am not a disabled employee.”