Breaking down walls

Jan 5, 2000 at 12:00 am

The problem? A mentally retarded man on Detroit's west side was being tormented by neighbors.

The solution? Bring in the clowns.

Tommy Meadows took part of his clown troupe to the man's home for a neighborhood party laced with consciousness-raising about disabilities. And what better entertainers than Meadows' C.B. Fun Time Clowning, a team of merrymakers with handicaps of their own.

"We made the young man feel comfortable around us," says Meadows, who is blind and uses a wheelchair. "Some kids from the neighborhood showed up — I think with the intention of harassing the party — but they ended up joining us."

Clowning may be an unusual business, but Meadows is an unusual entrepreneur. He and his clowns count among the small, but growing, number of people with disabilities who've decided the best way to get jobs is to create their own.

While the state and federal governments may brag about low jobless rates, the employment boom has bypassed the handicapper community. Census Bureau statistics show that at least 70 percent of the disabled adults in the United States remain unemployed, nearly a decade after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"The ADA works for some people. It works for people who were employed and became disabled after the act passed," says RoseAnne Herzog, author of Unlikely Entrepreneurs, a handbook for handicappers considering self-employment. "For people with disabilities looking for jobs, there's no more incentive for them to be hired than there was before the ADA."

Fifteen years ago, Dennis Figiel and his brother put together $15,000 and started a cabinet-making firm. Today, Figiel oversees 15 employees and is pushing to make National Millwork the nation's top producer of the small bank offices popping up in malls and grocery stores. Figiel commands the Clawson-based company from a wheelchair.

"Disabled people have to get out there and show what they can do," says the 49-year-old Figiel, a staunch defender of self-employment. "My experience has been that the biggest problem a disabled person faces is people looking at you and thinking what you can't do, rather than what you can do."

For her book, Herzog interviewed handicappers-turned-entrepreneurs, including a paraplegic travel agency owner and a deaf manufacturing firm owner — both in southeastern Michigan. She found that self-employment allows individuals with disabilities to accommodate their health problems. Those with home-based offices also skirt the thorny problem of public transportation in metro Detroit. And for business start-ups in a techno-savvy world, computers and assistive technology compensate for physical shortfalls.

At National Millwork, exterior doors can be opened with wrists, as well as hands, and interior doors with handles difficult to grasp from a wheelchair are propped ajar. Stairs are conspicuously absent, halls and passages are wide, bathrooms are handicapper accessible.

However, the physical layout of a workplace is the least of the battle.

"It's not easy," explains Herzog, who works for the Traverse City-based Project Invest, a program aimed at helping disabled entrepreneurs. "People I work with have physical limitations that they can deal with. But out in the world, they're confronted with attitudinal barriers.

"At the same time, you have to make sure you have a marketable product or service. And there are obstacles — even with government programs for self-employment. Those include the need to give people with disabilities the opportunity to work without losing their benefits, especially medical coverage."

In mid-December, President Clinton signed a law allowing disabled Americans to retain their Medicaid and Medicare benefits — through a buy-in procedure — when they take a job. The law complements an earlier overhaul that let handicappers hang onto some of their Social Security benefits while they set up their own companies.

The latest law also increased to 550,000 the number of disabled people in line to receive rehabilitation and training services over the next decade.

Since April, the Small Business Administration office in Detroit has included disabled business owners in a financing program that previously prequalified only women and minority business owners. The SBA also works with Project Invest and with the Disability Community Small Business Development Center at the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, clearinghouses for disabled persons considering self-employment.

Handicappers also can take classes through the Detroit Entrepreneurship Institute, an SBA-affiliated program set up with an eye on helping women get off public assistance and into the work force.

But even the programs designed to assist handicappers can sometimes present problems, as Tommy Meadows found when he and his partners tapped into the Michigan Works! training program.

"I'm the first visually impaired person who ever went to a Michigan Works! program, and I was quite surprised by how much they did not know about people with visual handicaps," notes Meadows, 49. "I read Braille. I use a computer with a voice synthesizer. But they handed me a binder with printed material and said, 'Read this.'" Meadows took a slate and stylus and wrote "Can you read this?" in Braille, then handed it back to the teacher.

But for Meadows and his six-member clown crew, it was self-employment — or no employment.

"We would not have been able to get jobs as clowns with existing companies," says Charles Stedman, another member of C.B. Fun Times Clowning. "Most of these companies have never had to deal with people with disabilities who want to be clowns. They wouldn't take the chance."

Since the clowns launched their company last June, they've been busy, not just with block parties, but with school events and even corporate fetes. Unlike their nonhandicapped counterparts, they can perform using sign language. And, Meadows points out, "we're comfortable around children and adults with disabilities. Other clowns seem afraid of them, but we really connect."

Leslie Thomas, at the Great Lakes Center for Independent Living, a Detroit nonprofit that serves as a resource facility for people with disabilities, says much more can — and should — be done to encourage self-employment.

"There is a need for more support of people with disabilities to venture out on their own, just like any other minority," says Thomas, the ADA specialist at the center. "I think there should be set-asides to assist those people with disabilities to go into business for themselves if they so choose."

For example, he suggests that Detroit's Empowerment Zone assist business owners in making their facilities wheelchair-accessible, which in turn could lead to the hiring of people with disabilities.

"But there is not going to be a windfall of jobs," he says, adding that disabled people in the workforce are often relegated to minimum wage jobs. "They don't earn enough to support themselves or their families and they face losing other benefits. Sometimes, then, they choose not to work." Therefore, he points to self-employment as a logical alternative.

Figiel's advice is "get out there and make things happen." And, he says, handicappers don't have to go it alone. "If they can't do it by themselves, they can partner up with an able-bodied person."