By Daniel J. Vance


  The idea has caught on like wildfire.

  The Abilities Fund of Centreville, Iowa, has had only a humble website the last two years, a lone flicker of light on the vast, global Internet. But that humble website has been attracting about six inquiries daily. Persons with disabilities have been asking—no, clamoring—for technical, advisory and financial assistance to start their own businesses.

  "Our goal is to encourage self-employment for Americans with disabilities," said Patti Lind, director of program services.

  The Abilities Fund claims to be "the first and only nationwide community developer and financial lending institution targeted exclusively to advancing entrepreneurial opportunities for Americans with disabilities."

  Lind was managing a similar Iowa-specific program when she took The Abilities Fund national about two years ago.

  "We now have enough funding to begin lending," she said. "The federal government recently earmarked a half million dollars for us, which we will soon leverage with other money to make loans."

  American Express sets aside a percentage of certain customer purchases for The Abilities Fund, and Nike, after realizing that its policy of being "inclusive" in choosing vendors also should include those with disabilities, decided to help, too.  

  At first glance statistics appear grim: only 30 percent of persons with disabilities are employed. However, about 15 percent of those employed run their own businesses. In other words, persons with disabilities are twice as likely to be self-employed as their "abled" peers.

  And that makes sense. Self-employment offers a person with a disability the flexibility to "work" around medical appointments, operations and conditions. Arranging for transportation isn't a problem when a person works at home. And self-employment doesn't require a job interview, which can lead to hiring discrimination when a potential employer becomes wary of incurring rising medical premiums, and possible accommodation or training costs.

  Lind said, "We are trying to get rehabilitation agencies and counselors nationwide to realize that self-employment is a viable vocational outcome for persons with disabilities."   

  She said her organization doesn't provide grants. And the relationship is strictly professional. They only partner with ventures likely to result in "sustainable financial self-sufficiency."

  "The best thing in the world for us would be to get some competition," she said. "That would mean we were not meeting demand."

  Judging by past response, about six email inquiries daily, she should be seeing plenty of competition soon. Learn more at www.abilitiesfund.org.

  [Contact Mr. Vance through www.danieljvance.com.]