Entrepreneurs with disabilities find their own path to success

On a national scale, people with disabilities are twice as likely to be self-employed or launch their own businesses. These three entrepreneurs in Memphis have found success in forging their own path. 

Diane Grover never felt she had a disability or was different from her classmates growing up. She did have a learning disability and was in and out of special programs at school, but she functioned in society pretty well.

But she also couldn’t hear well. In fact, she always thought she had a gravelly voice. Now 51 and the mother of five children, in June 2016 her husband convinced Grover to have her hearing checked. She agreed, but also assumed she would return home to her husband with results that proved him wrong. She even laughed when he suggested it.

On that June 6 visit last year what she actually found out was she had lived her life severely hearing impaired. The doctor discovered a genetic disorder that has caused Grover to be deaf in both ears.

She was fitted with hearing aids within the week and immediately realized her “gravelly voice” in fact was a sweet, pretty voice. She realized her childhood learning disability was simply the fact she couldn’t learn because she couldn’t hear.

Grover is part of what the U.S. Census Bureau says is a trend of people with disabilities who are nearly twice as likely to be self-employed as the general population, 14.7 percent compared to 8 percent.

Of course, when she started her own company, Dreamers Merchants-Coffee Company, two years ago, she didn’t realize she had a disability. Grover started her own business in relation to her youngest child, who is now 12 and was born with Down syndrome.

Diane Grover with her daughter MaryEllen and Dreamers coffee beans.When her daughter was born the scene in the delivery room was different than the previous four births. Instead of celebration, there was worry and sadness as everyone in the room realized the baby had Down’s. Grover found herself comforting those in the room. She started a blog to write about that experience. The blog became an organization that connected other families to local services.

After eight years she took a break and waited for what came along. To celebrate World Down Syndrome Day that March 21, she gave out jars of jam as gifts. The jam was made by a company that hires individuals with disabilities to work alongside those who aren’t disabled. It turned into gift baskets of jams and coffees, which eventually turned into creating her own coffee blend.

“The jam name is Steamers and I’m dreaming that one day people of all abilities will work together in an inclusive environment,” she said. “What if we opened our own coffee shop? I said we’re dreaming of it so why don’t we call it Dreamers?”

Today, more than 38 online store owners sell Dreamers coffee independently and Dreamers products are available in stores across the nation. The company has three lead teams located in Memphis, Michigan and Texas to walk interested entrepreneurs through the steps to create their own Dreamers coffee business.

Dreamers coffee productsGrover said she’s excited to know she has created a business where her daughter can one day work. Many Dreamers entrepreneurs have disabilities of some type, but not all do.

“We don’t want to just be a company that hires people with disabilities,” she said. “We want to hire everyone so they can learn from everyone.”

Grover is quick to point out Dreamers only employs two people. Everyone else is an entrepreneur. She’s happy to provide that opportunity to others who want to operate their own business.

“We didn’t want it to be a burden for families,” she said. “So if we say you need to set up a brick-and-mortar store and buy a franchise, who can afford that? We want families to benefit from the opportunity.”

There are programs that mandate people with disabilities have the opportunity to work. SRVS is a Memphis organization that provides services for people with disabilities, including helping them find employment.

But finding jobs isn’t always easy.

“It’s quite difficult and mostly because the general employer community doesn’t really know much about people with disabilities,” said Troy Allen, director of community employment with SRVS. “Some are reluctant because they think they’ll take on additional liability by having a person with a disability. So we have to educate employers.”

Individuals who decide on the self-employment route can eliminate that employer reluctance. Alec Wilson created his own business, Memphicity Design, in 2010. His previous career was in the restaurant industry, but an injury 13 years ago when he was 20 changed his life.

Alec Wilson and a popular Memphis Grizzlies T-shirt print.As he walked to his car Wilson was approached by two men who pulled guns to rob him. He ran and was shot three times in the back. One bullet grazed the bottom of his spinal cord.

Wilson does have some feeling and movement in his legs, but he has extensive nerve damage that keeps him from walking normally. He has leg braces, but with no function in his feet he now spends the majority of his days in a wheelchair.

That made returning to the restaurant business difficult, so he instead went back to school for graphic design. After doing ad design Wilson decided to start his own business. He started with basic designs such as business cards and it eventually grew into special T-shirt designs.

In fact, Wilson’s designs are a big part of the Grizzlies T-shirt craze that has swept the city. Much of his business today is centered on screen-print orders for custom T-shirts.

The minimum number of shirts for a bulk screen-print order is 20 because of the set up involved for the press. That equipment, actually, is part of the main challenge Wilson faces because of his disability.

A screen printing machine works with Wilson's limited mobility.

Before a recent upgrade to automated equipment, it was difficult to pull the squeegee across the screen to evenly apply the thick ink. It required more pressure, something that was hard for him to do sitting lower in his chair.

“I may not work quite as fast but we do get things done pretty quickly,” he said. “One of the biggest issues is space. At one point when I started in my garage everywhere I turned I ran into something. I needed more space.”

Wilson eventually moved the business from his home garage to a larger shop located at 3579 Commerce Circle off Winchester Road between Perkins and Goodlett roads.

Wilson said he’s never let his disability get in his way, other than the growth of his business that made maneuvering in his former shop around the equipment in his chair a little burdensome.

Memphicity takes orders, but he often is seen around the city at various festivals selling his shirt designs.

Wilson loading in a T-shirt to be printed.

Michael Williams has a disability that makes his chosen profession seem difficult. He has Stargardt disease, a progressive degradation in the retinas of his eyes. He’s legally blind. And he’s a painter.

He’s had the condition since birth. The good thing is it’s not getting worse. The bad is it’s inoperable and while he was prescribed glasses as a child, it didn’t really help.

Williams needs a strong magnifying glass and bright lights to see the canvas. He paints in acrylics and oils. His favorite subjects are architecture, automobiles, seascapes, ships and space. He sometimes uses pen and ink because that was his first medium.

“My mother got suspicious and wondering why I couldn’t read and get around like other kids,” he said of his childhood. “She took me to Southern College of Optometry where they discovered it. To me it was like I was the main attraction. They had other doctors from other floors come around to look.

“I knew I was different because I couldn’t see at night or read like everyone else.”

"Winter Wanderland", a painting by Michael Williams, who is a vision-impaired artist. He tried to pursue interests of other kids but as he realized he couldn’t keep up he began to isolate himself from others. And in that isolation, he developed his love for art.

“When I started wearing glasses I was depressed,” he said. “I wanted to do things normal boys did and I couldn’t. I had to help myself at being vision impaired. It was in my mid-20s to accept the fact I was vision impaired.

I wanted to do things, go places but when you have this impairment there is only so much you can do. I’d go back into my art and paint. That was my comfort zone.”

Williams gets ideas for his subjects online. He has software that enlarges the images on the computer screen and enables him to see images better. And what he can’t see he improvises.

Williams sells his art through two websites, www.brightpointgalleries.com and www.zingarttgallery.com. He will do commissioned pieces, although his preference is to create whatever he’s inspired to do in a given moment. His work has won competitions, and a couple of pieces are in President Obama’s collection.

He also started a nonprofit foundation in 2012 that encourages others who are vision impaired to keep moving. The International Association for Sight Impaired Artists is for artists and performers who deal with vision problems.

“The dream is to globalize this and to raise funding for people to pursue their interests in art despite being vision impaired,” he said. “I like to set myself as the prime example of being able to pursue your interests and accomplishing your goals.”

"Full Sail Sunset", a painting by Michael Williams, who is a visual-impaired artist.Williams faces challenges, but he said people often don’t even realize he’s blind. He does use a cane to get around.

He does find people are hesitant to take vision-impaired artists seriously.

“Just because we’re vision impaired doesn’t mean we’re not creative,” he said. “The problem is when individuals see that you’re vision impaired they feel like you’re just into being creative for the fad. There are many of us out there who do this for a living.

We take our art seriously just like a person with sight. Society finds it hard to believe that you can paint. You don’t have to have great sight to create. You can have great insight to be creative. We improvise the best way we can.”

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Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.