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Some in disabled community find independence in entrepreneurship

New Mexico Business Weekly 2009Oct01_NewMexicoBusinessWeekly or online article– Updated: Oct 1, 2009, 3:59pm MDT – Staffing & recruiting – Megan Kamerick NMBW Staff

Some in disabled community find independence in entrepreneurship

David Shunkey doesn’t talk, but he communicates in other ways and loves to interact with people.

His business, David’s Peanut Butter Puppy Bites, is just about breaking even and allows him to pay himself a minimum wage.

Shunkey, who is severely autistic, was institutionalized as a teenager. He tried to work in a sheltered job environment inside a building, but it wasn’t clicking, said Steve Scarton, guardianship coordinator with The Arc of New Mexico, which advocates for those with developmental disabilities.

One of Shunkey’s therapists suggested he might like cooking, and the gourmet dog biscuit business was born. Shunkey makes the dog biscuits in his residence under a therapist’s supervision. Each week, he makes the rounds of pet stores and other outlets delivering his canine treats.

A job coach goes with Shunkey, and he has a device with recorded messages to help him communicate with buyers. He got assistance in creating a business plan and a grant from the New Mexico Employment Institute. Community Options, which has helped about 20 people with disabilities launch small businesses nationwide, has helped him implement the plan.

Entrepreneurship can be a good option for people with developmental disabilities, said Maralie Waterman-BeLonge, executive director of Community Options’ New Mexico office.

“Self-employment increases in recession, and it’s the same for people with disabilities,” she said. “They ask, ‘What can I do to make some money?’ Or they’re unhappy with what’s out there [for jobs], and they’re looking for a different model.”

There are still many barriers to employment, said Denise Tierney, president of the board of directors of Yes We Can New Mexico, a cooperative of entrepreneurs with disabilities. Some people just don’t want to work for other people, she added, and the nature of some disabilities makes it difficult to work 40 hours a week, or work a typical shift.

“I have worked with people who can’t sleep at night because of pain, so they’ll work at night and sleep during the day,” she said. “Sometimes working for themselves is a better option.”

Some 40 percent of the estimated 20 million home-based businesses in the country are owned by people with disabilities, according to the group.

Microlenders WESST, The Loan Fund and ACCIÓN New Mexico Arizona Colorado did a joint campaign several years ago to reach out to those with disabilities. WESST is working with the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services to look for ways to collaborate, said Agnes Noonan, executive director. It plans to hold a meeting soon at its incubator, the WESST Enterprise Center, to recruit disabled veteran-owned businesses.

There are many set-asides in federal procurement programs for these business owners, Noonan said, but they need procedures in place to compete for them, and WESST can help get them to that level.

While the microlenders can help disabled entrepreneurs with loans that must be repaid, the New Mexico Division of Vocational Rehabilitation can also assist with grants, which don’t need to be repaid.

New Mexico Business Weekly article .pdf