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For Those With Disabilities, A New Entrepreneurial Spirit

If you think the job market is tough for the able-bodied, consider the case for those with disabilities.

In Florida, estimates of the jobless rate among disabled, working-age adults -- including large numbers of young, severely injured soldiers returning to civilian life -- run as high as 50 percent.

To address the problem, nonprofit organizations and government agencies recently have begun pushing an option that many with disabilities may have once thought unlikely: becoming entrepreneurs.

"We're seeing a major influx of people saying, 'What I really want is to start my own business,' " said Rogue Gallart, president of the Central Florida Disability Chamber, a nonprofit created in 2009. "We work with clients across the board to help them write their business plans and then assist them in finding the funding they need.

"Essentially, we're a business incubator."

With expert advice and grant money available for startups, the chamber already has helped write 17 business plans and has 20 more in the works. As the only organization of its kind in the state -- and one of the few in the country -- it now handles referrals from throughout Florida.

Businesses run the gamut from Internet-based companies to street-corner food carts to construction companies.

"They are wonderful," said Ayla Topgul, an expert seamstress and designer. After more than 40 years in the industry, she couldn't find work because shoulder, back and foot problems limited her mobility -- and her job options.

"I am happy now."

Topgul lost her home and car during the years she spent trying to get someone else to hire her. Turned down on her initial application for federal disability payments -- a relatively common occurrence -- Topgul didn't bother appealing.

"What she really wanted was to work," said her daughter, Aydan Topgul. "She said to me, 'What am I supposed to do? I can't just sit around all day.' And she can't. She always has to be doing something."

The 63-year-old Topgul went first to Workforce Central Florida, which sent her to the state's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which ultimately referred her to the Central Florida Disability Chamber. There, the two-person staff analyzed her notion of starting her own business, wrote a business plan, secured a state grant of $85,000 for industrial sewing machines and other startup costs, and helped her find a storefront.

Opened last year, Angora Design Studio in Winter Park is still trying to make a name for itself, and it is just now at the break-even point. But Ayla Topgul is thrilled.

"I know I do good work for people," she said, pointing out meticulous alterations, handmade lace and a series of custom and intricate wedding gowns. Adds her daughter: "If you show her a picture, she can make it."

Keys to success

Family support is often critical to the success of a business venture, Gallart said. New businesses typically lack the means to hire outsiders, so having someone who will either pitch in for free -- or help with living expenses while the entrepreneur is building a customer base -- can be the difference between making and breaking a young enterprise.

Although the chamber's track record is too short to be definitive, so far about 95 percent of the businesses launched are still open.

Peter Schoemann, a Central Florida attorney who created a National Chamber of Commerce for Persons With Disabilities before realizing the issue needed a more localized approach, said Gallart's organization is "a fantastic place." In fact, his group is now getting requests from New York; Washington, D.C.; and Texas to replicate the Central Florida model.

But entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart, he cautions.

"You have to have willpower," he said. "It's one thing to have a good idea. It's another to be willing to put in the effort 24-7 to run your own business."

And for those receiving government disability payments, there is a strong disincentive, Schoemann said.

"It blows my mind the way the current system is set up: The moment you earn more than the ridiculously low income allowed, you're going to risk getting kicked off. Yet that's long before a new business owner can make enough money to survive."

'More determined'

On the flip side, Schoemann said, many entrepreneurs with disabilities are more determined than their typical able-bodied counterparts. Often, they've spent years -- or even a lifetime -- overcoming barriers.

For Bill Miller, a 35-year-old Lake County quadriplegic, the inability to walk, sit up, move his arms or take care of his own physical needs has only magnified his drive to succeed. Injured in a freakish fall at age 20, he belatedly returned to college online, completed a bachelor's degree in business administration with a 4.0 grade-point average and is now working on his master's degree in entrepreneurship.

In the process, using a voice-activated computer, he also has worked as a movie reviewer for a Leesburg newspaper and helped to invent and market the IKAN Bowler -- a wheelchair-mounted device that allows quadriplegics to bowl. The invention, pronounced "I can," empowers even those who navigate with a sip-and-puff mouthpiece to aim and release a bowling ball, giving them a rare recreational outlet and much-needed fun.

"Right now it's an extremely tough market, and this is not a low-cost product," Miller said of the 30-pound bowler, which sells for $699. "Right before the recession hit, we were just starting to turn a profit."

Miller sees his future in teaching, both online and in a classroom. And his ultimate goal, he said, "is to be a contributing member of society. I don't want to be supported by taxpayers."

VA joins effort

Toward that end, the Department of Veterans Affairs also is pushing an agenda of self-employment for its disabled veterans. The National Science Foundation recently awarded a three-year, $100,000 grant to Maitland-based Blue Orb Inc., parent company of the keyless-computer-keyboard maker orbiTouch. The device allows those without fine-motor dexterity in their hands to easily navigate a desktop computer.

Partnering with the VA, orbiTouch is enlisting veterans and others with disabilities to foster their entry into the world of entrepreneurship.

For 42-year-old Rodney Cruce of Orlando, a service-disabled veteran, the efforts can't come quickly enough. After more than two decades in the Army and deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, he left in 2009 and soon discovered he lacked the connections and networking in civilian life to quickly grow his business, On Point Saliency.

The security and crisis-management company, which trains business personnel planning to travel or operate overseas, has impressive credentials and expertise. But Cruce still struggles to get face time with corporate decision-makers.

"Part of it is the recession," said Cruce, a former Army commander. "But that [lack of connections] really has been the hardest part.

"I don't want anybody to think I'm asking for a handout -- because I'm not -- but I just want to be as successful in the civilian sector as I was in the military."

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