State agency helps people with disabilities enter workforce
BY KYLE ARNOLD World Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2012
12/23/12 at 3:28 AM
Christie Knipp is legally blind, but her mother never let her make excuses.
Knipp, owner of the new Oh My Coffee! shop in Bixby, said she's trying to teach her two daughters the same thing despite a hereditary visual disability that renders the three of them legally blind.
And although blending a foamy cappuccino or mixing a chocolate peanut latte can be treacherous even with perfect vision, Knipp isn't letting a permanent lifelong disability stop her from her dream.
"I started making coffee through a work-study in college, and I just loved doing it," the mother of three said. "I guess I loved it because of the people you meet, and I really wanted to create a community coffee shop where people can come together."
Knipp suffers from aniridia, a disorder that involves the absence of irises. Her limited vision allows her to see people at close range as "a big blur," and she can sometimes read larger print if she holds the text a few inches from her face and concentrates.
‘It would be easy for me to just sit at home
and draw SSI (Social Security’s Supplemental
Security Income), but I want to
contribute and show my daughters
that they don’t have an excuse.’
"I really like to sometimes pretend I can't see at all because most of the time that's what I have to rely on," said Knipp, who acknowledged her poor vision is also deteriorating due to glaucoma.
, owner of Oh My Coffee! shop in Bixby, on owning a business despite being legally blind
But apart from memorizing the location of flavored syrups and coffee-cup sizes, Knipp is enduring the same trials as any other small business owner. She's trying to get the word out about her establishment and learning about ordering, pricing, taxes and marketing.
She is one of thousands of disabled Oklahomans every year who participate in employment assistance programs through the state's Department of Rehabilitation Services. Many have to adjust to new-found obstacles, and others are trying to cope with life-long issues.
Some, like Knipp, even opt for the arduous and uncertain task of business ownership.
It's a family affair
Nearly 1 in 6 Oklahomans are classified as disabled, more than 576,000 people in all in the state, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
That's greater than the entire population of Oklahoma City.
Statistics also show that about a quarter of disabled individuals older than 16 are employed and nearly 70 percent do not participate in the workforce at all, according to DRS.
Those people are also disproportionately poorer than the population at large.
"It would be easy for me to just sit at home and draw SSI (Social Security's Supplemental Security Income), but I want to contribute and show my daughters that they don't have an excuse," Knipp said. "It's a big risk, but it's worth it."
Knipp opened the coffee shop in November after volunteering at a church-based cafe for a few months and then finding a former house at 13160 S. Memorial Drive that served as the perfect location for a new business.
The big shop has turned into a family gathering place because it's within blocks of the local YMCA and close to her home. Her 17-year-old daughter Sarah, also legally blind, took food handling classes to help out after school, and husband Phillip does much of the prep work at night for the shop's sandwiches and salad menu.
Knipp received help in starting the business through a DRS program, which required her to write a business plan and present it to staff. DRS gave Knipp a grant to buy the espresso machine and some other equipment for the shop.
DRS spokeswoman Jody Harlan said the agency awards business grants to save taxpayer dollars in the long run by providing startup funds.
"We are trying to get people back out in the workforce so that they can be regular taxpayers instead of taking disability payments," she said. "It's really an investment."
Rob Brown, who runs a snack shop and restaurant inside the Tulsa County Courthouse, took a series of classes 14 years ago after being laid off as an IT professional at a local oil firm.
Brown, too, is legally blind and has only limited peripheral vision.
"I have a business degree and always wanted to run my own business and have that freedom," Brown said. "But most of all I just needed a way to provide for my children."
Brown started a snack shop at Claremore Veterans Center before buying out the business at the Tulsa County Courthouse six years ago.
A federal program gives preference to blind individuals to run a courthouse vending operations, but Brown said his contract can be cut at any time.
At first the business included some obstacles.
"There are people that would steal from me because I was blind, and they did on a few occasions," he said.
His staff of five now handles most of the day-to-day operations, and Brown runs the business end.
Brown is now applying for a food vending contract at Fort Sill in Lawton and plans to apply for another contract at a U.S. Air Force base in the coming months.
Tulsa's Gayle Nottingham found herself confined to a wheelchair and unable to work as a restaurant hostess after experiencing what she referred to as a botched knee surgery in 2008.
"I went into work, and it hurt so bad I had to quit right then," she said.
Nottingham looked for work for months, but her skills as a restaurant hostess didn't find her many opportunities in the midst of a tough recession.
She was finally inspired by a struggle from being wheelchair-bound.
"My purse was always getting caught and ripped apart when I went through doors," she said.
She started sewing wheelchair-friendly bags, water bottle holders and cellphone totes out of recycled denim and immediately found a market.
A grant through DRS helped her purchase a sewing machine, a serger and this year an embroidery machine to customize her products.
Nottingham also began crossing over to other areas, such as a wrist tote for canes used by the blind.
She sells the products as part of her company, Gayle's Smart Pouches, at local craft shows and flea markets. She now has a website and puts many of her products on eBay and Craigslist.
"Right now I've put more of my own money into the business than I've made out of it," said the 62-year-old. "But my hope is that this summer I can really get out there and this just takes off."
Working with disabilities in Oklahoma
Total disabled individuals
Percent of overall population
Number of those who are working age (16-64)
Employment rate among disabled (16 and over)
Employment rate for people without disabilities
Source: Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services and U.S. Census Bureau
Original Print Headline: Enabling site
Kyle Arnold 918-581-8380
Christie Knipp, the owner of Oh My Coffee!, makes a drink at the coffee shop in Bixby on Tuesday. Knipp, who is legally blind, offers drinks and food at her shop. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World