SFDBA is Paving the Way for Disability Entrepreneurship in San Francisco

By Mikena Richards

Peter DeHaas, founder of the San Francisco Disability Business Alliance.

I recently interviewed Peter DeHaas from the San Francisco Disability Business Alliance (SFDBA) for Disability Employment Awareness Month. The SFDBA provides access to business development support and helps folks with disabilities nurture entrepreneurial opportunities. The SFDBA’s promise is “to ensure that individuals with disabilities have an equal and inclusive opportunity to make their mark in the business world and ensure that San Francisco benefits fully from the expertise, diversity, and innovation these businesses and individuals have to offer.” I quickly noticed how impressive Peter’s Equity Fluent Leadership trajectory has been thus far and asked how he landed in the field. “I was born with a seizure disorder that, fortunately, I outgrew,” Peter explained, “but I was kind of thrust into the realm of understanding that there was something unique about me, I guess.” Despite Peter’s uniqueness, he was born into a family that helped him feel a sense of belonging early on — his grandmother and sisters were all educators, and his two sisters both worked in special education. Peter’s adolescent sense of self-awareness led him to fall into a community of deaf students, where at the middle school he attended, several of his friends were deaf. “I started trying to communicate with them with the little finger spelling that I knew and lip reading and writing notes and calling them on their TTY devices,” he told me. Peter didn’t focus on Disability Studies in college. Instead, it was his sister who later gave him the nudge to pursue disability work academically. After finishing his undergraduate degree, he told me, “I ended up in Colorado at a grocery store where I was sacking groceries. There was a group that came through every day from their cleaning responsibilities at a restaurant across the street. And I immediately was like, oh, I know these folks. Like, I get these folks. And then I started asking questions of the staff and becoming curious.” Seeing what kind of tasks were delineated to the folks that came into the grocery story got Peter thinking more about the relationship that disabled folks have to work and employment, and some wheels in his head started turning.

“Everybody has a responsibility to contribute to the world. Whether they have a trust fund or are in a wheelchair. Everybody has something to share.”

Peter’s curiosity led him to a position in a non-profit Supported Employment program in Lafayette, Colorado called Imagine, where he supported individuals deemed unemployable by the state of Colorado. He improved his sign language skills and exceeded the finger spelling he used to communicate with his deaf friends in middle school. Then he got his Master’s Degree in Linguistics from the University of Colorado, Boulder. During this stint, Peter went on to start the first deaf “group home” in Colorado. “Not group home,” he corrected himself, “but more like PCA [Personal Care Assistance], which is a more intimate environment with a focus on access to communication.” Everyone at the residential program Peter directed had developmental disabilities or struggled with mental illness, along with other physical disabilities or underlying health conditions. As he learned how to facilitate programming for people with disabilities, he learned how to advocate for them, too. He pivoted to the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition (CCDC), where he described, “I was suddenly advocating for people’s civil rights, for Medicaid, for Social Security, for fair housing as a non-attorney advocate. I was doing the very hands-on piece.” There, Peter also oversaw and further developed their non-attorney advocacy program through a partnership developed with the University of Denver.

Peter became increasingly curious about applying his skills toward a career in education. At the same time that he began doing advocacy work, he started teaching. Ten years ago, Peter moved from Colorado to San Francisco to work for the Parks and Recreation Inclusion Program. Before he knew it, he had two other positions in education: he lectured and taught American Sign Language at SFSU, then acquired another position at Golden Gate University, where he coordinated their Disability Resource Program and brought accessibility to the forefront of the university through education and advocacy. When he became the Director of Disability Resources at Golden Gate, he faced a challenge: despite the incredible wealth and education he knew existed in San Francisco, he still felt that disability was taking the backseat. “It was curious to me,” Peter pondered, “because the independent living movement started in Berkeley with Section 504. Protests were right here in San Francisco, which was kind of the precursor to The ADA. I was like, well, what gives?” It bothered him to notice the uptick in conversations about diversity knowing that people with disabilities were still being excluded. Peter began bringing the issue up in conversations with colleagues and members of his network. He wanted to know: why wasn’t anybody talking about disability in businesses or entrepreneurs with disabilities? “Frequently when I would ask people, ‘What do you think about this?’” Peter explained, “They would say, ‘Well, does this mean we’re gonna have to make our business accessible?’ And after my head exploded, I would say, ‘yeah.’”

Peter was frustrated. The responses he was often met with revealed that people were afraid they would lose money by investing in accessibility efforts — paying for things like interpreters wasn’t as exciting to business owners as it was to him. But with the help of some “seed-planting” money from Kaiser, Peter was able to start growing sprouts, and the SFDBA launched in March 2020. Despite the pandemic, the launch brought in over 100 participants. The event reigned in not just small business owners with disabilities, but advocates, educators, and local disability rights leaders. He took the innovative energy of San Francisco into his own hands and pivoted accordingly throughout the pandemic, helping businesses access PPP and reassess their strategy. “We’ve kind of come out on the other side,” Peter told me. “We’ve developed a partnership with The Arc of San Francisco and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development and recently launched our first entrepreneurship cohort for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We also provide technical assistance, networking opportunities, and advocacy. I get calls from people and they’ll say, ‘Hey, so and so’s not returning my emails from such and such agency. So I’ll email their representative and say, ‘Hey, so and so’s on your caseload,’ and, you know, try to bridge the gap. I build a lot of relationships.” At San Francisco State University, Peter now has a partnership with the Institute for Community and Civic Engagement. SFDBA is receiving a Community Partnership award this fall that will celebrate internship opportunities that the SFDBA has created. “We’re starting to turn the corner,” he says. “We have 501C-3 status now, which is the next step in our organization’s evolution.”

“The folks that I work with, historically, they celebrate disability. They don’t shy away from it.”

As we continued talking, Peter explained how the disability community, from his point of view, is changing. “I’m not aspiring to be all things to all people,” Peter says, “but I am trying to get a sense of like, who’s this audience going to be? Because if you look at the neuro-diverse community — who I am trying to collaborate with — some consider themselves to be in the disability group, and some consider themselves to be neurodiverse. And they don’t really see the benefit of the community being one. And I would say through my experience with the deaf community in particular, I’ve seen that come full circle.” When Peter first started working with the deaf community, he got a resounding sense that they didn’t see themselves as disabled, but rather as a “linguistic minority.” When he explained why he believed things have come “full circle,” he named a few reasons — namely that he thinks it’s a matter of strength in numbers. Thirty years ago, when he first became a part of the deaf community, he found their experience to be siloed. Now, he says, there are a greater number of deaf folks with a general awareness of their crossover with other people, in some cases realizing that members of their own community have developmental disabilities, or deal with mental illness, too. Peter believes the net has been cast wider, and the strength in numbers has increased individual and communal flexibility in how we define disability.

The SFDBA helped small business owner Cesar Ramos secure $35,000 to fulfill his dream of opening his own barbershop. Photographed is Peter and Ramos at the Beautiful Losers barbershop grand opening in San Francisco, October 2023.

As we rounded out our conversation, Peter remembered that I’d originally asked him how he started the SFDBA and wanted to make something known about the title. “I wanted to keep disability specifically in the title,” he said. “That’s my community. That’s who I work with. The folks that I work with, historically, they celebrate disability. They don’t shy away from it.” He felt that by including the word disability in the title of his organization, he’d prompt non-disabled people to embrace some of the discomforts it brought on for them. Now that accessibility has increasingly become a part of the inclusivity conversation, Peter just wants people to be thinking about it for the right reasons. “It’s to everybody’s benefit if people with disabilities are gainfully employed,” Peter says, “and frequently, entrepreneurship and small business ownership is a pathway to self-employment or the next gig.”

While Peter recognizes that there are still important strides to be made for disability awareness and accessibility, his personal impact thus far is palpable. The SFDBA has sole proprietors and small business owners that range from individuals who are teaching English as a second language to folks who are trying to start their own accessibility consulting businesses to real estate agents. There are roughly 100 of them, but Peter believes that those numbers will keep growing. Over time, he’s noticed an influx of people reaching out in solidarity and fellowship, explaining that they never knew an organization like SFDBA existed. In November, SFDBA will be hosting its third annual Bay Area disability entrepreneurship event featuring a live panel discussion with local leaders and artwork on display made by people with disabilities. Starting last year, they began giving an Inclusive Business Award to a business in the Bay Area community that, “does good by folks with disabilities,” (in Peter’s words). When we ended our interview, I asked Peter if there was anything he’d like readers to take away from our conversation. He thought for a moment. “Everybody has a gift to share,” he said finally. “Everybody has a responsibility to contribute to the world. Whether they have a trust fund or are in a wheelchair. Everybody has something to share.”

Attend the SFDBA’s third annual Bay Area disability entrepreneurship event on November 9th at The Elks #3, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, from 5pm-9pm! This event will include a diverse panel of disability entrepreneurs sharing their experiences as seasoned business owners, networking, and the Bay Area Inclusive Business Award.

Register for the event here.

The SFDBA is a fiscally sponsored project of Social Good Fund, a California nonprofit corporation and registered 501(c)(3) organization, Tax ID (EIN) 46–1323531. The SFDBA thrives off the generous support of its donors and strategic partners. Consider making a donation to allow the SFDBA to continue flourishing!

Check out the San Francisco Disability Business Alliance website.



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