|Dusty Dutton, a 30-year-old Larkspur woman with Down syndrome, is a successful and self-supporting puppeteer whose shows delight visitors to local farmers markets and children throughout the area. John Coleman, 45, of Oakland, disabled since undergoing knee surgeries a couple of years ago, cannot get the funding to start his high-tech manufacturing business from the state agency charged with rehabilitating the disabled.Besides the vast differences in complexity of their business plans, Dutton and Coleman are different in two other ways — Dutton has had the full support of her parents in navigating the state’s agency for the severely developmentally disabled, the Department of Developmental Services.Coleman, on the other hand, stands alone before the Department of Rehabilitation, a state agency critics say is ill-equipped to help the disabled achieve self-sufficiency through self-employment.Eight million disabled people live in California; a large proportion of them are children and others who either cannot or do not want to work for themselves.Still, a huge population of adults who yearn to work falls through the cracks of the two state agencies charged with helping them obtain self-sufficiency, according to those familiar with the challenges of helping the disabled obtain their own businesses.In California, the disabled are served primarily by the Department of Rehabilitation and the regional centers, a network of 21 nonprofits that serves clients of the Department of Developmental Services.Officials with those agencies say they work hard on scant resources to provide comprehensive services. Still, they only receive enough money to serve about 300,000 adults combined — less than 4 percent of state’s disabled.Those who are overlooked could be more independent, find more satisfaction in their lives, participate in the larger community and contribute to the tax base, their supporters say.Increasingly, people in the field of rehabilitation are learning that self-employment and entrepreneurship can be excellent work solutions for people with physical or mental limitations. These adults have often been assigned to workshops where they receive low wages, are isolated from the mainstream working world and don’t use their talents to their full capacities. In the worst cases, they are sequestered at home or in institutions.”Until employers eliminate architectural, attitudinal and cultural barriers to hiring, training and sustaining people with all types of abilities in their workplace, many people — even those with the most severe disabilities — have found self-employment to be a viable option,” said Mindy Oppenheim, president of San Francisco-based SEED — Supported Employment Education Designs — which provides training and technical assistance for supported employment.Overlooked opportunities The 1990 Census revealed that disabled people have a higher rate of self-employment and small-business experience than the able-bodied, according to information on the Web site of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.”Even so,” the Web site said, “entrepreneurship for people with disabilities is often overlooked by government programs and by many people with disabilities as an avenue from the public rolls to self-sufficiency.”
And data suggests that many disabled people are eager to start their own businesses.
The Rehabilitation Services Administration, which funds state vocational rehabilitation programs, said 20 percent to 30 percent of its vocational rehabilitation clients would prefer self-employment, yet only 2.7 percent of successful cases end in new businesses.
There is no record of what becomes of the remaining clients.
The state Department of Rehabilitation serves about 100,000 clients annually. Last year, the agency successfully closed 80 business plans, meaning those clients’ business plans were funded and materialized into sole proprietorships, said Lana Fraser, assistant deputy director for work force development. But the agency keeps no figures on how many people requested that service.
Self-employment opportunities for people with disabilities are still overlooked by state-funded programs.
The funds the state Department of Developmental Services pays vendors haven’t changed since 2002, when a freeze was enforced for the kinds of programs that would support entrepreneurs, said Rocio Smith, executive director of Developmental Disabilities Area Board V, which monitors the services provided by the regional centers in the Bay Area.
In 2006, a minor cost of living adjustment boosted payments to service vendors by 3 percent — or about $142,000 to the clients in Smith’s territory.
Some of that money, Smith said, will help support those who want to open small businesses.
But the freeze still exists. Why is this option so poorly funded?
“We do not see people with disabilities as capable of giving us value,” Smith said. “When they do anything, we say ‘amazing’ when they are just regular folks doing regular things. It’s a civil rights issue that has kept people with disabilities from being integral parts of our society.”
The rehabilitation department and the regional centers serve different populations and have different standards of acceptance.
The Department of Rehabilitation serves only the most severely disabled, as defined by a rigid set of criteria. The department requires clients who wish to start a business to develop a cogent business plan and have skills adequate to the task. The department will provide some business consultation.
Gary Karp, 52, of San Rafael is one of the rehabilitation department’s success stories. He was already in a wheelchair from a spinal cord injury when he developed chronic tendinitis in 1992 that interrupted his career in computer graphics. The rehabilitation department procured a computer and other equipment for him to start his new business as an ergonomics consultant. It did not offer him any startup money for operations.
“I had to write a business plan, which they approved, and they paid for me to meet with a business consultant two or three times,” said Karp. He received $2,000 to $3,000 between 1992 and 1993 for his equipment and the consultant.
Today, his clients are large corporations and he works from his home office. He’s also developed a public speaking and literary sideline focusing on disability resources at http://www.garykarpspeaks.com.
A tough road
Other department clients have not been so fortunate, however.
Coleman, the Oakland man with the knee trauma, wants to start a technically ambitious business involving a manufacturing process that uses nanotechnology. He said the rehabilitation department has not given him consultation equal to the demands of his project, and complained the agency offered him only $4,000 to start a business.
“I couldn’t start a hot dog stand with that,” he said.
Officials with the rehabilitation department won’t comment on the particulars of its cases.
But Fraser said the department has no ceiling on the amount it will fund new business enterprises, which are financed based on their merits. In fact, she said the department has been criticized for undertaking projects that were overly ambitious.
Still, the work pays off: The government receives $6 back in taxes on every $1 it spends to support employment of the disabled, including through self-employment, Fraser said.
Michelle Alford-Williams, the department’s manager of work force development, said that two years ago the agency convened a working group to look at regulations on self-employment. Until that point, self-employment “was never seen as an option for people with disabilities before because of the stigma of disability or because of their lack of credit history,” she said.
But under new regulations soon to be implemented, “We are going to be giving additional support (for coaching for self-employment) by adding counselors and giving our clients a new way to report back to us with the online tools,” she said.
A supportive network
Regional centers are the state’s second service option for the disabled.
These 21 nonprofit private corporations contract with the Department of Developmental Services to provide or coordinate services for the developmentally disabled, including those with Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. The centers serve about 220,000 people in California.
One of the regional centers’ star entrepreneurs is Dutton, the Larkspur puppeteer. She received support services from San Rafael’s Casa Allegra, a vendor to the Golden Gate Regional Center in San Francisco. Her father, Dale Dutton, said Casa Allegra greatly supported Dusty in starting her puppetry business, dustyspuppets.com.
Alan Kerzin, executive director of the State Council on Developmental Disabilities, said the regional centers have “made self-employment a priority.”
Kerzin said the regional centers are more flexible and more consumer-oriented than the rehabilitation department. “Grass-roots advocacy is structured into the program and parents are very active,” he said.
Legislation passed last year, Senate Bill 1270, will give disabled clients many more options — including self-employment, than the workshops and day programs they were so often shunted to, Kerzin said. The law asks the State Council on Developmental Disabilities to convene work groups to discuss ways the disabled can better spend their time in paid work and other activities.
Even if the rehabilitation department and the regional centers could fully support every client who wants to be self-employed, the agencies serve only a portion of the state’s disabled.
A number of other agencies, such as East Bay Innovations in Oakland, also support self-sufficiency among the disabled. Innovations Executive Director Thomas Heinz would like to offer services for self-employment as well, but he said the agency hasn’t been funded to support such an endeavor.
Other organizations have sought grant funding to provide their clients with self-employment services.
Cerebral Palsy Center in Oakland received a grant from the UPS Foundation to provide business consultation and technical support for 15 of its adult clients to start their own computer-based businesses. Some run their own eBay businesses, while others are artists, writers or publishers.
While these individuals master their adaptive technology and learn to run their own enterprises, they also struggle with a world that really doesn’t want to let them in.
One Cerebral Palsy Center client, Vanessa Coveau, has run a successful eBay business for years despite her profound cerebral palsy. But the challenges she faced in filing the fictitious business name statement to open her venture are indicative of the problems many disabled people face in pursuing self-employment, said her job coach, Aram Attarian.
Attarian, who carries a notified stamp bearing Coveau’s signature and is legally able to conduct business on her behalf, said he faced roadblock after roadblock in trying to file Coveau’s paperwork at the Alameda County Courthouse.
A clerk there asked, “If she can’t sign it, then how could she run a business?” Attarian recounted.
“That is the mentality that you’re dealing with — warehousing people with disabilities,” Attarian said. “But you don’t have to be mainstream to do things.”
Not just do things, but have a career.