O.K., Back To Work

Susan Webb's staffing services carve out a unique niche by helping people with disabilities find jobs

In 1975, When she was 22, Susan Webb was riding on the back of a friend's motorcycle when, in a flash, everything changed. One minute, she was savoring the rush of the wind in her hair; the next, she was lying unconscious in a ravine with a broken back. Webb woke in a hospital to find she had lost the use of her legs. She has been in a wheelchair ever since.

Now 47, Webb doesn't ask for sympathy, and she doesn't grant much, either. A disability doesn't have to slow you down, Webb believes. In fact, that's the proposition behind her new company--Webb Transitions Inc., a Phoenix consulting firm designed to help disabled people on welfare and state employees on disability find work. "I am no bleeding-heart liberal," Webb says. "I am absolutely adamant about people taking responsibility for themselves."

A growing number of state legislatures apparently agree. Some 2 million Americans receive disability-related benefits, yet such recipients have been exempt from welfare-to-work initiatives. Not anymore. Today, more than 30 states require the participation of certain individuals with disabilities. That, along with a growing trend among states to outsource administration of their welfare programs, is creating an unlikely niche for entrepreneurs like Webb.

Formed in March, Webb's six-person shop contracts with public agencies and private companies to consult with disabled enrollees, assess their abilities, and help remove any employment barriers that may exist, such as transportation and job training. Her caseload runs the gamut: the single mother who can't afford day care for her disabled child; the learning-disabled individual who needs counseling; the quadriplegic who requires voice-recognition technology to take a computer job. "She shows them the possibilities, helps them set goals, and works with them to achieve those goals," says Beth Hicks, a project manager at Maximus, in McLean, Va., the nation's leading contractor of privately managed welfare programs, and Webb's biggest client.

Webb may be her own best advertisement. After recovering from her accident, she entered the workforce, eventually becoming a senior executive at AT&T and earning an MBA. All the while, she was a vocal advocate for the disabled, serving on the government task forces that helped draft the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the Ticket-to-Work legislation signed into law by President Clinton in December. Most recently, she was executive director of Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), a nonprofit that works with the disabled.

But Webb grew frustrated with the slow pace and govern-by-consensus culture of the nonprofit world. As a for-profit contractor, she figured she would be able to help more people--and make a few bucks in the process. She expects Webb Transitions to generate sales of about $440,000 this year and grow by about 10% annually. In addition to welfare recipients, there are 4.5 million others receiving Social Security disability benefits who may soon be expected to return to the workforce. Add private-sector long-term disability cases to the mix, and Webb believes she has the makings of a multimillion-dollar business. "Welfare reform is just the tip of the iceberg," she says.

What's more, because the disabled historically have been exempt from work-participation programs, few placement agencies fully understand the range of special services they need. As a result, Webb has the market almost entirely to herself. She may be in a wheelchair, but when it comes to capitalizing on welfare reform, Webb is hardly the one who's handicapped.

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