Disabled seek cut of contracts; city certification program to help level playing field

By Lorna Collier
Published November 11, 2002 (Crain's Chicago Business)

Twelve years ago, Tom Prinske's Elmhurst-based produce distribution business was in deep trouble.

He had become legally blind because of a genetic disease also affecting his partner in the business, his uncle Tom Castro. Mr. Prinske could no longer drive delivery trucks or easily manage day-to-day operations. Customers were leaving and the business appeared headed for failure.

Then one night, Mr. Prinske says, he had a dream, which persuaded him to turn his blindness into an asset, rather than a liability.

He began lobbying state legislators to provide disabled business owners with the same minority business certification awarded to women and ethnic minorities.

In 1992, two years after he began his efforts, the amendment became reality.

As a result, Mr. Prinske's business, T. Castro Produce Inc., found itself with a new slate of potential customers, eager to fulfill minority procurement goals.

The company was able to expand, jumping from about $200,000 in annual sales in 1991 to $6 million today.

"What (the minority certification) did was open up doors," says Mr. Prinske.

What it didn't do was drop business into his lap with no effort or work required.

"You still needed to bring product and service in at fair market value," he says. As customers realized his company could handle their jobs at a reasonable price, repeat business came his way.

This fall, Chicago is seeking to echo the state program, creating a minority certification program for business people with disabilities and encouraging the awarding of city contracts to them.

A city ordinance introducing the program is expected by yearend.

David Hanson, commissioner of the Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities, says the ordinance won't specify a percentage goal for disabled contracts, as it does for minority- or women-owned businesses.

"If we do our job right by creating opportunities, we won't need to put a number on it," Mr. Hanson says.

Reversing 65% jobless rate

Instead, he says, the city will work to increase opportunities by creating a database of certified disabled-owned businesses, which will be available to procurement officers from the city of Chicago and other municipal agencies, as well as private business.

The ordinance is part of a comprehensive city plan aimed at reversing the 65% unemployment rate among people with disabilities, Mr. Hanson says.

In October, Mayor Richard M. Daley created a public-private task force also charged with this goal. The task force and Mr. Hanson's office are working to correct a variety of accessibility obstacles, as well as discriminatory attitudes, facing people with disabilities in Chicago.

For many business owners with disabilities, the changes can't come too soon.

"I don't like to say I've been discriminated against, yet I would probably be a much larger firm at this point, if there wasn't some of that," says Jim Panebianco, president of Panebianco Design Inc., a 20-year-old graphic design firm.

He suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, for which he uses a wheelchair. The disease also affects his speech and the ability to work with his hands.

"Many times, when you're developing a business, you do a lot of networking, but it's difficult when you're sitting in a chair when everyone else is standing," says Mr. Panebianco, citing one example of the type of difficulties he encounters.

Brad Saul, another Chicago businessman who uses a wheelchair, has faced what he calls "insidious discrimination " since being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1991.

Still, he has run three enterprises: Matrix Media Inc., a radio syndication company; the Radio Center for the Disabled, which trains people with disabilities to work in radio, and Chicago Disability Transit, which is working to increase handicapped-accessible transportation in the Chicago area.

Defusing discrimination

Mr. Saul believes the city ordinance will help give disabled business people a chance to "even the playing field."

"This kind of discrimination will be defused if the city were to recognize business owners with disabilities," says Mr. Saul. "It might encourage people who otherwise might not be able to make the leap into the business world."

Jim Kesteloot, president of the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, says people with disabilities desperately need jobs, but "a lot of times, because they have a disability, people giving the contract think the people can't deliver, which is not the truth."

Mr. Kesteloot says the city's plans to create business procurement preferences — as well as other efforts — to help people with disabilities should be celebrated.

"I don't know any other city in the nation that has given it a priority like this and is actually doing something about it," he says.

Nature photographer David Farber of Carpentersville, a quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident 21 years ago, appreciates the city and state procurement initiatives, but doesn't want to attract customers strictly to meet a quota.

"I do not want anyone to buy my work because of a quota system, or because it's 'good for someone who is disabled.' I only want my work purchased because of its excellent quality," says Mr. Farber, a former engineer who takes pictures of birds, animals and nature with a variety of self-devised modifications to his camera and wheelchair.

On the other hand, Mr. Farber says he experiences obstacles as a disabled small businessman, including Medicaid restrictions on his income and a lack of funds to promote his business.

"Although I do not want my work purchased just because I'm disabled, some government assistance, if it would help me get the word out and or get more exposure, would be greatly appreciated," says Mr. Farber.

He jokes: "Every time I try to get my foot in the door, my wheels get caught on the threshold."

© Copyright 2002

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