Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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Independent Living Center Succeeds at Providing Temporary Business Employees

By Kaye Beneke
ILRU NetWork Newsletter
September 1999

Looking back on it, Susan Webb sees the loss of a major contract as one of the best business opportunities Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL) has ever had. Webb, the center's executive director, and her staff were sent scrambling when the county pulled the plug on a major personal assistance services contract in 1993.

That contract was a major piece of ABIL's business plan and approximately 40 percent of its revenue. Without that funding, ABIL needed to find something else to do with the staff and service system they'd put together to support the county contract not to mention something that could replace the lost revenue.

To ABIL, the structure left behind by the PAS contract most closely resembled a temporary staffing agency. So they started one. The new business, modeled after a California program, connects people with disabilities with employers who have temporary jobs to fill.

Beyond meeting an immediate business need, Webb says the temp agency also provided ABIL the opportunity to educate a whole new segment of the community. ABIL joined the Arizona Association of Temporary and Staffing Services. "They taught us about the temp industry," Webb says. "They enabled ABIL to serve people better."

But the real important thing, according to Webb, who now serves as association president, is what ABIL brought to AATSS. "As an association," she says, "one of the biggest things they do is legislation."

With its strong background in legislative advocacy, ABIL had something to offer the association. "We brought value to them," Webb remarks. "That raised our status in their eyes as a professional organization. Because we're in their business, we're their equal."

Seeing people with disabilities as competent, professional business people was a new experience for many of the association members a worthwhile payoff, Webb says. Another payoff is the contact with people and businesses who have helped place people into jobs.

In return, ABIL routinely provides association members with advice on such things as work place accessibility, interpreters, assistive technology and accommodations.

ABIL's success as a temp agency with expertise in serving people with disabilities has caught the eye of other industries and allowed the center to expand its business in a big way. Fortis Benefits, representing the Arizona State Retirement System, is referring long-term disability claimants to ABIL. For $65 per hour, center staff provides services to help claimants return to work. "Our experience and understanding of disability," Webb offers, "makes us uniquely qualified for the job."

It turns out the county must think so, too. The PAS contract, the loss of which prompted ABIL to seek new business territory, is back in the hands of the CIL. The center is also a Projects With Industry site and continues working on the pilot project with Fortis.

Does all this focus on business distract from the main purpose of the center? Does the funding relationship with entities such as the county put the CIL at risk of compromise?

Webb's response is simply "no." "CILs can do very good advocacy and do services," she claims. "Our business activities enhance our advocacy and it doesn't prevent us from doing what we need to do."

Webb points to a current advocacy campaign focused on a county assisted living program. She says the county doesn't expect the center to drop its advocacy role just because it has the big PAS contract.

"You don't have to be co-opted," she says. "Just as there are certain contributions we won't go after or accept, there are certain business relationships we won't pursue if they might require us to compromise our philosophy."

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