BUSINESS PLANS

Turning Disability into Opportunity

From speech impediments to deafness, a growing number of people with disabilities are shunning the corporate world and starting their own companies.
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After a battle with sinus cancer, Dawn Hampton was wary of re-entering the workforce. The eye patch and dental prosthesis she was forced to wear -- the disease claimed an eye, cheekbone, and several teeth -- left her self-conscious about her appearance and speech.

"I thought no one would hire me because of what I look like," Hampton says.

So she decided to become an entrepreneur.

Hampton, who had worked in hairdressing, retail, and construction prior to her diagnosis, used her first-hand knowledge of insurance claims to launch Ph.D. Organizational Services, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based firm that processes reimbursements for patients and physicians.

Concerned about corporate hiring practices and the potential for career advancement, Americans with speech impediments, hearing impairments, and other disabilities are opting to go into business for themselves.

When people with communication challenges "feel there are no options for career advancement, they have to pioneer," says Sue Pressman, founder of Pressman Consulting, an Arlington, Va.-based corporate-development firm.

But the decision to branch out as an entrepreneur brings its own challenges, of course. "I would always avoid speaking situations and get around using the phone and giving talks," says Mike Helmig, a chronic stutterer and founder of ProductionLine Testers, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based firm that manufactures semiconductor-testing equipment. "When you start a company, one of the things you learn is you have to do those things."

Experience as an entrepreneur -- Helmig founded two unsuccessful ventures in the 1980s -- eventually taught him to focus on sales and other day-to-day areas of his company. Success, he says, boosts his confidence, which in turn decreases his stutter. He's even found that his stutter gives him a competitive edge in China. "People have told me they like the way I talk," he says. "It's slow for them and they can understand me better."

Ross Bowring, another entrepreneur whose stutter was detected during childhood, once lost a quarter-sized patch of hair from the crown of his head in anticipation of a school presentation. "All purely out of worry at having to face an audience," he says. "I'd rather have encountered a snake on a plane than get up in public and give a speech."

Eventually facing his fears, Bowring began volunteering at a radio station in high school, where he learned to control his stutter by being aware of his breathing and "trying to keep an easy-going mindset." After a decade spent as a radio commentator and host, Bowring capitalized on his experience by starting PublicSpeakingSucker.com, a blog dedicated to tips and advice on public speaking  and presentations. He now has plans to launch his own coaching business.

Indeed, the marketplace is impatient and often will not slow for the entrepreneur who needs extra time to communicate. "People don't want to take the time to do business with you if you have to repeat yourself," says Marjorie Whittaker, a Boston-based speech consultant and founder of The Whittaker Group, which focuses on accent modification and corporate communications. "Our culture is fast-paced and wants things quickly."

That's a fact that many entrepreneurs say they recognize -- and are simply forced to confront head-on. Bowring says his stutter resurfaces often, especially under anxiety, stress, and fatigue.

"It's always in the back of your mind. Will today be the day when it plays up in front of an important client?" Bowring says. There will be times when "the server is down. The designs aren't on time. These aren't business problems that can wait for you to feel good about getting on the phone. You've just got to do it."

Last updated: Jun 15, 2007




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