Breaking into the workforce is a common challenge among people with disabilities. Some find their best prospects in self-employment.

Cary Griffin has shepherded many on that path. His Montana-based consulting firm, Griffin-Hammis Associates LLC, has provided services and supports to job seekers since 2000. In a recent interview with us, Griffin said families often feel stuck when it comes time for a child with disabilities to earn a living because of gaps that exist between special education programs and adult life. The expectation that students will not further their education or be able to work is prevalent. Parents also fear that by working, their adult children will lose Social Security and Medicaid benefits.

Yet Griffin and his staff see hope in such circumstances. A number of their clients throughout the United States have become successful business owners despite profound personal challenges and a system that appears to encourage dependency. One shining example is Joe Steffy, 28, whose eponymous Poppin’ Joe’s Kettle Korn became a sole proprietorship in 2005. Joe is non-verbal and has used Tobii Dynavox devices for communication since early childhood.

Like many small businesses, Poppin’ Joe’s was not an overnight success but the culmination of resourcefulness, good mentorship and unwavering family support that gelled into a rewarding venture over time. There were reservations early on. Some saw Joe as better suited for joining a day program or sheltered workshop than running a business because of his Down syndrome, autism and epilepsy. While his high school transition plan reflected that, Joe’s parents, Ray and Janet, knew their youngest son as a hands-on learner who thrived on having a variety of things to do.  They nurtured those qualities, as Griffin and his late business partner Dave Hammis saw. “You knew there was no way Joe was not going to succeed. They’re the kind of parents you want behind you,” Griffin said.

During high school, Joe accomplished much outside the classroom. His work experiences included caring for some 30 horses and their stables, performing maintenance tasks at a community center, and setting up for conferences at the financial services office his brother managed.

Ray Steffy coincidentally met a kettle corn vendor during an Alaskan vacation and a revelation came: My son would be good at this, he thought.  He didn’t second-guess it. “We give no consideration to low expectations,” Ray Steffy said.

Eventually, Ray and Janet Steffy met Hammis at separate conferences.  Hammis helped the Steffys write a business plan and secure start-up funding for Joe’s business from the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities and Kansas Vocational Rehabilitation Services. Joe bought a new kettle, booth equipment, a computer and printer, and inventory for 18 months.  This factored into the written Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) Joe followed. The PASS is a work incentive allowing Social Security beneficiaries with disabilities to set aside money and/or possessions to pay for items or services including training required to reach a specific work goal. Click here to learn more.

“Unfortunately, a lot of families don’t know that these resources are available and the schools don’t know that they’re available, just because of the overwhelming task they’ve already got,” Griffin said.

In 2008, a few years after he went into business, Joe’s earnings were high enough that he stopped collecting Supplemental Security Income cash benefits but still qualified for health care under Medicaid.

Now, as then, Joe enjoys his work.  “I love being Poppin’ Joe,” he said using the Maestro in an interview. ”People know me and smile when they see me. My business has many parts. I quickly finish one task and go to the next.”

Joe’s employees include his father, and individuals hired through networking and careful screening that his parents coordinate. The Poppin’ Joe’s team prepares and sells kettle corn at numerous festivals in warmer weather months.  Workers drive him to retail outlets that distribute the product. Joe also has a substantial mail-order business. For Joe, it is being in charge that makes gainful and meaningful employment possible. He says he couldn’t do it without his team.  “They make me successful.”

The Steffys probably would start planning sooner if they had to return to square one, but they’re delighted with how things have turned out. “Give your son or daughter total ownership and he or she will totally amaze you,” Ray Steffy said.

Joe lives on his own with assistance from a hired caregiver. He gives presentations about his experience to audiences around the country. His free time is also filled with activities from taking piano lessons to participating in multiple sports.

Many others with disabilities aspire to similar independence through self-employment as the national unemployment rate for people with disabilities hovers around 80 percent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2009 that 11% of workers with disabilities were self-employed versus 7 percent of workers overall.

That career path, as the Steffys know, is often about keeping an open mind.

“The argument from the system to stay poor, to stay in poverty, wasn’t OK with Ray and Janet, and I know it wasn’t OK with Joe.”

Learn more about Griffin-Hammis Associates LLC and its work on self-employment at:

Learn more about Poppin’ Joe’s Kettle Korn at

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