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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the August 7, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Unsheltering the Disability Market

Way back when, somebody invented a squeeze ball as a

tool for physical therapists. If you had lost the use of your hand

from a stroke or an operation, you squeezed this special appliance

to gain strength. Now these squeeze devices are sold everywhere —

in gift stores, toy stores, and drug stores — for stress relief.

In just that way, many inventors for the disability market have moved

into the mainstream.

That idea gives Cori C. DiBiase great hope. He directs two shared

office spaces, called Daily Plan-Its, for Community Options, the Farber

Road-based nonprofit that has community-based services for those with

severe developmental disabilities (609-951-9900; fax, 609-951-9112

www.comop.org).

COINet, Community Options Incubation Network, is the first incubator

in the nation to specifically focus on this market. It has incubator

space and services for entrepreneurs with disabilities and entrepreneurs

who want to produce products for the disability market. It may help

bring Community Options out of its hard times. The nonprofit organization

had even explored the possibility of selling the Daily Plan-It facility

on Alexander Road as part of an overall restructuring.

"Things are going really well and we are back on track," says

Robert Stack, founder and CEO of Community Options. "We have been

able to rework some of our numbers and are not going to have to sell

the shared office property."

"Through relationships in the business community we look to provide

more services — to move away from the more traditional sheltered

workshop in an institutionalized setting. That’s what drives us,"

says Will Abrams, executive director of Community Options Enterprises,

all the vocational services for New Jersey. A graduate of Indiana

University at Bloomington, Class of 1994, he has an MBA from the University

of San Francisco.

DiBiase left a job as executive director of an independent living

center on the West Coast to join Community Options because, he says,

"it is on the cutting edge of services for people with disabilities.

We promote community integration through these businesses and the

other services we provide. Our organization is not comfortable with

providing services in a sheltered workshop situation."

A handful of businesses offer mainstream opportunities. Working at

Tennyson’s Florist, for instance, give those with disabilities the

training needed for a job in the "real" world. This New Brunswick-based

Teleflora florist does both retail and corporate accounts. A corporate

cleaning service and jobs at the Daily Plan-Its offer similar opportunities.

Between 20 and 40 percent of the space at both Daily Plan-It locations

is being set aside for disability-related clients of the incubator.

The incubator provides below-market cost office space, specialized

support services, and computer training to entrepreneurs disadvantaged

by income, status, or disability who are interested in starting or

growing a technology-related business.

DiBiase also offers these services virtually. "Of the 10 applicants,

only two have wanted our space," he says. "The others wanted

fast track loans, mentorship, contacts, training seminars, availability

of conference rooms and virtual phone receptionists, and pro bono

legal and accounting services."

COINet is supported by the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology,

the New Jersey Technology Council, the Rothman Institute for Entrepreneurial

Studies at Fairleigh Dickinson, the New Jersey Division of Vocational

Rehabilitation and the Division of Developmental Disabilities, and

Microsoft.

Microsoft is donating software that facilitates computer training

and support services for those with and without disabilities. "We

are pleased to collaborate in this dynamic enterprise to maximize

the power of technology to close the digital divide and enable a new

class of entrepreneurs," says Janice Hertz, director of the Microsoft

Corporation’s accessibility technology group.

Another supporter is the New Jersey Community Loan Fund (NJCLF), which

has a disability-oriented loan fund to encourage entrepreneurship.

Brian Keenan, an officer of the NJCLF, is on the Daily Plan-It’s board.

"Many of our incubator tenants will depend on the Community Loan

Fund, and we want to see they have a fast track to get loans,"

DiBiase says.

So far DiBiase has located two clients for the Morristown office and

three for the Princeton Daily Plan-It on Alexander Road, plus some

virtual clients. "We are showing pretty strong growth," says

DiBiase. Contact him if you believe your business qualifies for the

incubator — or if you can use florist or cleaning services provided

by the other Community Options businesses: E-mail: cori.dibiase@comop.org,

or call 973-644-4835.

"Any young business can use a helping hand, but we are looking

at a market that is widely underpublicized," he says. "The

products or services that constitute this market are thought to be

so specialized as to not be a part of the larger market. But we operate

against that assumption."

"Our idea is that what starts out as a product for the disabled

can make an easy transition into the wider market," says DiBiase.

For example, he cites the voice recognition and speech software —

Dragon, Naturally Speaking, for instance — that were originally

meant to help those with visual impairments to operate a PC.

"This market is not growing at the pace that it should, because

it needs a lot more attention from the market at large. It needs to

have a public face," says DiBiase, "so that everyone knows

that what might begin as a product for the disability market can easily

become a timesaving innovation for the mainstream."

DiBiase grew up in Allegheny County, on the New York/Pennsylvania

border, where both of his parents were teachers. He went to Simons

Rock College and SUNY at Purchase and after graduating in 1992, he

did sales and marketing for various technology firms. "I enjoyed

the work but I didn’t feel my work was contributing to any larger

purpose," he says frankly, "and now I am trying to bring the

skills and acuity from the profit world into the nonprofit world.

"I am still doing sales and program development but the end purpose

is much more fulfilling," he says. "When we make the general

marketplace more inclusive of the disability market, we therefore

make our society and our economy more inclusive of individuals with

disabilities."

Says Stack: "We’re trying to create an atmosphere like Cheers

where `everybody knows your name and they are all so glad you came’

so that people with disabilities can get jobs in mainstream society.

We want the business community realize that they offer value-based

services, that they are good workers, reliable, and honest."

— Barbara Fox

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Corporate Angels

The Merck Company Foundation is funding the Merck

Series performing arts program at the Theater at Raritan Valley Community

College.

The Merck Series begins in November with In the Mood, a musical review

of tunes from the 1940s. There will be performances of the Nutcracker

in December, a Celtic Love Fest on Valentine’s Day, and a performance

by the Peking Acrobats in mid-March.

Verizon Wireless’ Lawrenceville Communications Store

has donated 12 digital wireless phones to the Meals on Wheels program

in Washington Township. Volunteers now have a wireless phone in hand

in case of an emergency situation arises during food delivery.

Meals on Wheels director Nicole Fehn says "some of our clients

have medical conditions and others do not have phones. Our volunteers

will now be able to contact the proper authorities immediately at

the push of a button.

Roma Federal Savings Bank has "graduated" the

first member of its First Home Club program. Through this program,

first time home owners earn a $5,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan

Bank of New York, earmarked toward the purchase of a home. In addition,

participants receive a lower mortgage rate from Roma, help with closing

costs, and free financial education.

To qualify for the First Home Club, individuals must have an income

of less than $56,880, and families must have an annual household income

of less than $65,412.

The club encourages participants to save toward a down payment, and

provides grants of $6 for every $2 saved up to $5,000. Call 609-585-6300,

extension 149.

The Department of Transportation , led by Devon Brown,

raised $15,000 for this year’s Relay for Life, an event that raises

money for the American Cancer Society in Mercer County. The Pennington

Quality Market raised and contributed more than $12,000. Other

major sponsors were PSE&G, Panera Bread, Yardville

National Bank, and Mercer County Community College. The event

raised more than $52,000.

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital has announced

plans to build a Ronald McDonald House on the campus of the Robert

Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. The new facility

will accommodate overnight stays to help offset the burden an extended

hospital visit can place on the families of seriously ill children.

Johnson & Johnson has awarded a $100,000 grant to the

Foundation of the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey

(UMDNJ) so that it can add 20 new students to its nursing program

in the spring of 2003. This grant comes in response to a national

nursing shortage, with New Jersey alone expected to have almost 14,000

fewer nurses than needed by 2006, an 18 percent shortfall. The nursing

program is operated jointly by Middlesex County College and UMDNJ.

Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare is providing free

counseling services designed to increase coping skills needed because

of the continuing threat of terrorism. Formerly known as the Greater

Trenton Community Mental Health Center, Greater Trenton Behavioral

Healthcare is a mental health and substance abuse provider offering

a wide range of home-based, school-based, and community-based treatment

options in Mercer County. For more information regarding these services

call 888-866-9565.

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Please Donate

The Princeton Nursery School, located on Leigh

Avenue, is asking for community support in closing the gap in its

operating budget. For over seven decades, the Princeton Nursery School

has provided early childhood education and day care to 50 preschoolers

from low-income families. Sixty percent of the children live in homes

with an annual income of less than $25,000. A main goal of the school

is to provide a nursery school experience that will enable these youngsters

to participate effectively with their peers in the Princeton public

schools. Increased funding will ensure this continuing mission through

scholarships. Call 609-921-8606.


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