Helping overcome barriers of disability

Seminar to offer advice, push self-employment

Small business

October 21, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Mark Schlossberg was doing great operating his Ellicott City flooring company, but in the early 1990s when multiple sclerosis made him unable to walk, he had to decide whether to continue in the business that required him to make calls to customers' homes, and how to do so in a scooter.

"When I became disabled to the point where I couldn't move, that became a new barrier, and you had to come up with new ideas to get around that," he said. "I had to face the [question] how was I going to run a business?"

Schlossberg, chairman of Howard County's Commission on Disability Issues, is one of several speakers who will address aspiring entrepreneurs who have disabilities and their families tomorrow at a statewide conference to encourage disabled people to start their own businesses.

The conference, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center in Ellicott City, will focus on overcoming fears, and will touch on the basics for would-be business owners - such as a business plan and marketing advice - as well as resources from the state and federal governments available specifically for the disabled, such as grants and technical assistance.

The state Division of Rehabilitation Services, which is sponsoring the conference along with the county Economic Development Authority, has helped fund about 70 businesses around the state that are owned by disabled people through its RISE program - Reach Independence through Self Employment. The agency provides assistance and work training for people who have become disabled.

"The goal is to promote self-employment as a real option for people with disabilities," said Morris L. Tranen, director of RISE. "We need to promote this option because it has a lot of tremendous advantages for people with disabilities, and it's often overlooked."

According to the 2000 census, 18 percent of the U.S. population is disabled; the figure is 17 percent in Maryland. But, only 32 percent of disabled people of working age are employed, compared with 81 percent of the rest of the population, according the National Organization on Disability.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, 12.7 percent of disabled Americans owned a business in 1990 (the most recent date for which data was available), compared with 8.6 percent of able-bodied Americans who owned a business.

W. Roy Grizzard, assistant secretary of disability employment policy for the Labor Department, said improved technology and the Internet likely have helped increase the number of disabled business owners, and that disabled people also may find self-employment an attractive option because of the flexibility it offers.

"People with disabilities often have barriers related to transportation. When you're self-employed, you bring the work to you, rather than go to work," he said. "It also gives that person an opportunity to work at their own pace and set their own hours. They might not have some of the restrictions [with self-employment] that might be brought on by an 8-to-5 type of job."

Such is the case with Schlossberg, owner of A&J Floor Coverings. Although the company has a small showroom in Ellicott City, Schlossberg said he needs to visit only a few times a week. He has brought in a partner and sales force to handle the sales, and handles more of the company's paperwork, which he is able to do from his wheelchair-accessible home in Ellicott City.

"My barrier was not being able to do the day-to-day leg work. I had to do more with the buying of the materials, negotiating with suppliers, and bring in partners who would do more of the sales work. I overcame that barrier," he said. "I'm very encouraged about this conference. I think there's a lot of resources people don't know about. I'm a big advocate of the idea that we need to give people with disabilities opportunities."

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