Numerous reasons exist for the unacceptably high unemployment rate for people with disabilities, ranging from the lack of accommodations to stereotypical assumptions by employers, but one potential solution may be right under our noses.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, self-employment is twice as likely in the disabled population. Owning your own business can have significant advantages, including creating flexible schedules and having a reduced need for transportation. Many entrepreneurs with disabilities have found that creating their own employment situations offers unique
opportunities and independence.
Stevie Hopkins didn’t know it at the time, but in 2004, when his sister Annie designed a T-shirt with a wheelchair heart logo in her University of Illinois dorm, she was launching a movement — but it nearly didn’t happen.
Annie boldly tattooed the symbol on the back of her shoulder in 2005. People immediately noticed. Soon family and friends were even getting their own inked version. The siblings, who both had spinal muscular atrophy, eventually realized the heart’s potential. “It took about a year until we realized how special the logo was,” Stevie says.
In 2007, Annie wanted to do something with the symbol, so she asked her brother to help. Stevie used his business background to incorporate 3E Love and trademark the symbol. They needed a physical product for the trademark process, so they put the design on T-shirts and began selling them.
Tragedy struck in January 2009 when Annie suddenly died from an infection after surgery. A devastated Hopkins took to Facebook, shared his feelings on his loss and also humorous memories of his feisty, unforgettable sister. His message went viral and words of encouragement flooded in from around the globe. The loss
motivated Hopkins. “I had a fire lit under my ass because I was really mad at how she had passed away and how she was treated in the hospital,” he says.
Hopkins quit his job and devoted his energy to keeping his sister’s dream alive. He set up a Facebook page for 3E Love in August 2009, and in three months the company had over 10,000 fans. Social media was key in spreading the company’s message, and orders began pouring in.
Hopkins says Annie’s goal was to sell merchandise to advocates and young people with disabilities. They bought shirts, but the symbol was even more irresistible to occupational and physical therapists, special education teachers, parents, grandparents and siblings.Hopkins knew the company would be huge when nondisabled customers became the primary buyers.
The LOVE shirt with the heart symbol was the first big seller but was soon eclipsed by the PROUD shirt, which was so popular that families bought them for each member. Some hospitals even purchased them for their nurses. “Those designs are what really helped us reach a larger audience than I ever expected,” says Hopkins.
Hopkins, 29, has seen his Chicago-based company soar. He says the company is like a big familywith six full-time and three part-time employees. Heavy demand prompted Hopkins to purchase a screen printing machine two years ago. Three employees run the in-house print shop, which has allowed the company to grow and provide reasonably priced custom printing.
Annie’s dream of promoting a positive image of disability is being realized every time someone dons a 3E Love shirt or buys merchandise emblazoned with the heart symbol. Hopkins says Annie was adamant the company and symbol would never be tied to a charity or any push for a cure. She felt compromising this principle would jeopardize 3E Love’s philosophy.
Hopkins will always miss his sister, but he has managed to turn the date of her death into a positive. He designated January 20 the International Day of Acceptance in 2010. He recognizes the day by offering special discounts and encouraging people to wear their 3E Love shirts. The day has helped many people discover the company and the movement, but more importantly, it has helped Hopkins begin to heal. “The saddest day of my life is now one of the most exciting and proudest days of my life,” he says.
Don’t Quit, Adapt
In 2002, Kathy Newman left a low paying job to pursue a career in the funeral industry. She was hired as a grief counselor and management trainee by a funeral corporation. Within six months she was working at a Omaha, Neb., funeral home.
Newman loved helping families through the grief process, but when stock prices fell, employees were pressured to increase sales. This was problematic for Newman. “I can’t look a family in the eye and upsell them on a casket simply because if I don’t, my boss is going to write me up,” Newman says.
She resigned in 2010 to open her own funeral home in Lincoln, Neb. Newman and her business partner began making plans, but Newman was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis in October of that year. She realized the uncertain future could concern her partner, but he turned out to be very understanding and had no hesitation in moving forward.
Lincoln Family Funeral Care opened in March 2012. The moment wouldn’t have happened without Voc Rehab’s help. The doors of the funeral home were 38 inches wide to accommodate caskets, but an automatic door opener was needed. The agency took care of that, along with van modifications that allowed Newman to drive. “I would not be able to do what I’m doing without Voc Rehab,” Newman says.
Newman, 46, began using a power wheelchair full-time last April. She says it has made her job of marketing and networking easier. “I’m the only one who shows up in a power wheelchair, so people don’t forget me,” she says.
Coping with fatigue has been difficult. “The biggest challenge has been disciplining myself to get the rest I need because I tend to want to keep doing everything the way I did before I got MS,” Newman says. She pushes herself during the week, but her body crashes when she has a day off or the weekend comes. There are difficult days, but Newman says it’s hard to have a pity party in a funeral home.
There’s a huge advantage for Newman in running her own business. When she needs an adaptation or accommodation, there are no hoops to jump through. When she began having trouble typing and needed special software, “We were able to install all the voice recognition stuff, and I didn’t have to ask someone as a special favor.”
Newman urges people to seek help when they experience disability-related complications. She has seen too many people with MS quit their jobs when their disease progresses. Often people don’t know they can request accommodation help from Voc Rehab. She adds these accommodations usually won’t cost their employer anything.
The dream of owning a funeral home has become a reality for Newman. It may not have gone exactly as she envisioned, but Newman says we have one life to live and need to make the most of it. “I think when we tell ourselves that we can’t do something, we miss out on a lot.”
Find Your Strength
Bert Burns’ life path was drastically changed in January 1982 when he was hit by a drunk driver. The accident left him a C6-7 quad and eventually led him to found UroMed, one of the nation’s largest urological supply companies.
During his rehabilitation at the Lucerne Spinal Center in Florida, recreational therapists introduced Burns to wheelchair sports. This motivated him to major in recreational therapy at the University of Florida. After graduating in 1988, Burns went to work for Atlanta’s Shepherd Center.
Shepherd hired Burns as a sports and fitness specialist to help newly injured individuals. Burns says it was a great job, but after four years it was time to move on. “I liked it a lot,” he says, “but I wasn’t making a whole lot of money.”
Burns went to work for a medical company in 1992 and learned all he could about the medical supply business. He says his wheelchair gave him an advantage over his competitors. “If I’m selling urological supplies and I can roll into a rehab center, I kind of get instant credibility,” Burns says. “They know I use the medical supplies and know how they work.”
Burns was confident he could provide urological supplies through his own company. In March 1996, UroMed opened its doors with four employees working out of a small office. It was an exciting time, but stressful. “The first year was scary,” Burns says. “We didn’t know if we were going to make it.” He wasn’t able to take a salary during the first year and relied on credit cards and his wife’s salary. After the first year, Burns soon drew his first paycheck.
UroMed’s success is built on making customers’ lives easier. Burns believes it’s a plus to employ many knowledgeable people with spinal cord injuries. “When a customer calls in, they’re usually talking to somebody who uses the same kind of supplies as they do.”
A challenge for UroMed is dealing with a growing number of insurance companies and helping customers deal with paperwork. Burns says billing correctly and getting customers what they need is another strength for UroMed.
Being an entrepreneur with a disability has its difficulties, but Burns, now 51, says you can’t let your chair get in the way. He suggests people find something where their wheelchair can be a strength. “There are a lot of things you can do from a chair just as easy as you can do standing,“ he says. He doesn’t advise an entrepreneurialventure if you don’t have tremendous passion for what you’re doing.
UroMed is located in Suwanee, Ga., and now has 100 employees in seven offices around the country. Burns has been fortunate to run one of the largest urological supply companies but says it wouldn’t be possible without great employees. “I’m just proud for all the people at UroMed who make it a great company to work for every day.”
Know Your Limits
Ethan Ruby was a day trader who started his own investment company. His future looked bright. Then in 2000 Ruby was hit by a car in New York City and was paralyzed from the chest down. The next two years were dark times, but getting back to work motivated Ruby. “Having a company that was my blood, sweat and tears, that I created with my two best friends gave me reason to come out of that darkness,“ Ruby says.
When Ruby returned, the day trading world had changed. “When stocks were no longer trading at $300, $400 or $500 a share, the amount of money to be made was very different,“ he says. He saw the writing on the wall when trading became less enjoyable.
Ruby, 37, has always had big ideas. He uses his business background to create entrepreneurial ventures that benefit society. The ideas flow from Ruby’s mind, but he says only a small percentage of them work because each detail must be well executed. One of Ruby’s strengths is acknowledging what he’s not good at. “Throughout the course of my different projects, I’ve contacted people who I know are good at stuff,” he says. This team approach has been the secret behind many projects.
Poker4Life is Ruby’s most successful venture. In its ninth year, the organization hosts poker tournaments on behalf of nonprofit organizations. Players donate a percentage of their winnings to charity. Each year Ruby hosts a large tournament in New York City where professional, celebrity and amateur poker players play for the Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis. Poker4Life has raised over $1
million with all the proceeds going to charity. “We’ve really attracted the right sponsors who understand what we’re trying to do and are very supportive of our cause,” Ruby says.
Another venture was born of necessity. When Ruby began using a wheelchair, his feet often fell off the footrests, causing cuts and scrapes. Ruby’s mother, a physical therapist, helped her son design padding for his metal footplates to help keep his feet from slipping off. Ruby then contacted Aspen Seating in Colorado and asked if they could come up with a mold and make the product. They perfected the design, and Wheel Comfort Padded Footplates were ready to hit the market.
Ruby received a patent after three years, and he took the product to a disabilities expo in Edison, N.J. He didn’t sell many but was able to get them in the hands of physical therapists. The affordable product has been well-received by wheelchair users. It has given relief to people who don’t wear shoes, has reduced potential for falls and in some cases, reduced spasms.
The footplates are the first product Ruby has invented and he feels good seeing his product make a difference. “I’m very proud of this patented idea, and I think it’s great I can die being called an inventor,” he says with a laugh.
Ruby’s busy life often requires a delicate balance. “I think it takes an ability to allow yourself to ebb and flow with different projects,” he says. Scheduling is sometimes difficult but essential to keep things moving. Ruby says he doesn’t want to be the roadblock for any project.
Ruby offers simple advice for potential entrepreneurs with disabilities. First, he says, surround yourself with good people. He adds that you must trust them because if you micromanage, it won’t work. Lastly, he advises people to never give up. “If you want your dream bad enough,” he says, “don’t ever take no for an answer.”