‘I am the boss down here,” Emilea Hillman declared one afternoon last week. “I have six employees. Ain’t it cool?”
But for a federal law passed two years after her birth, it’s doubtful Hillman would be working today, let alone running Em’s Coffee Co.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed 22 years ago today by President George H.W. Bush, extended civil rights protections to those with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.”
Ensuring a place in the mainstream of American life for those with disabilities meant a change in attitude that’s often taken for granted by a generation that grew up with the act.
“Try to imagine a world without ADA,” said Peter Blanck, chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University and a former University of Iowa law professor specializing in disability law. “There would be a less tolerant society. We have a generation of kids who are now part of the mainstream and expect to be treated just like anybody else.”
“The ADA really brought issues surrounding disability into the public consciousness,” said Mark Harris, director of UI Student Disability Services. “I’m not sure the average person really got it until the ADA was passed.”
Born without a corpus collosum — the nerve tissue connecting the right and left sides of the brain — Hillman faced a life in institutions, said her mother.
“She wasn’t supposed to walk, she wasn’t supposed to talk, she wasn’t supposed to do anything,” said Tami Fenner. “On the scale, she’s a very low-functioning person. They didn’t even consider her for employment.”
ADA guaranteed Hillman could attend Independence schools.
“Our school system has come a long way,” said Fenner. “She doesn’t learn a lot from books. She learns by doing, hands-on.”
Fenner said she pushed to keep Hillman in regular classrooms as much as possible.
After graduating in 2007, Hillman went to work at a sheltered workshop: $2.50 an hour hanging clothes in a backroom. With little opportunity to build new skills, she quit after what she calls “a bad day” in early 2009.
“They tried to shush her a little bit and keep her quiet,” Fenner said. “Em doesn’t respond well to that.”
Considering her options and her desire to work with the public, Hillman and her family realized Independence lacked a coffee shop. They researched the business, and Fenner and her husband, Gordy, bought a storefront building a few doors down from their hardware store.
“We are business owners and kind of live the ebb and flow of business,” Fenner said.
While the building was readied, Hillman and her mother learned about the business at barista school in Minneapolis. Em’s Coffee Co. opened in December 2009.
Two grants from Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services’ Iowa Self-Employment Program paid for equipment, training and some other business services. The program helps those with disabilities develop their own businesses.
“It’s kind of like a small-business development center,” said Kochell Ricklefs, business development specialist for the program. “We go A to Z, helping the person come up with a plan that works for them.”
Ricklefs said the 4-year-old program, built on experience from earlier efforts after ADA’s passage, has a 92 percent success rate.
“It’s high, but we hold hands for quite a long time with these clients,” she said.
The program has 140 clients statewide, 85 in Eastern Iowa.
“Instead of being tax-using citizens, they become taxpaying citizens, and there’s some self-worth in that,” said Ricklefs. “They’re providing for their own selves, rather than just trying to make ends meet.”
A few other programs continue to help Hillman and others. Social Security’s Work Incentive Planning and Assistance allows her to continue receiving benefits while running her own business, and Medicaid’s Consumer Choice Option allows recipients flexibility in spending their benefit.
“It allows families to go out and hire the people they think are qualified,” said Brian Wines, who manages the program for the state Department of Human Services. “You’re being efficient in using the dollars to meet your needs, and if there’s dollars left over, you can use them to meet other needs.”
Hillman and a few of her employees use their benefit to pay a job coach who keeps them on task and helps with unexpected complications.
Hillman’s coach, Mary Butler, took the job while on summer break from Wartburg College, where she’s majoring in English education and writing. She was two years behind Hillman at Independence High School.
“I walked past your classes on the way to French class,” Butler told Hillman during the after-lunch lull, “but I didn’t know you. I didn’t say, ‘That girl should own a coffee shop some day.’ I loved coffee shops, so I was excited we were getting one.”
Butler, 20, happens to live across the street from Hillman. So Butler picks her up at 6:20 a.m. weekdays. She helps her boss prepare to open at 7 and is around for her entire shift.
“I have to get the money,” said Hillman. “The ice, the ice cream.”
Hillman and her family developed a color code for the switches and knobs on the shop’s espresso and smoothie machines, and a simplified key pad for the cash register. Prices are set in 25-cent increments and include sales tax. Hillman or her employees may consult flash cards spelling out easy instructions for lattes, cappuccinos and other drinks.
Em’s Coffee is a financial success, with two other tenants in the building — a nail salon and masseuse — contributing rental income.
“It’s not a big income, but it does cash flow,” said Fenner.
After the morning coffee rush, Em’s Coffee does a solid trade in sandwiches and light lunches. In the afternoon, fruit smoothies and ice cream are the coffee alternatives. Hillman’s grandmother LaVon Lohmann bakes the shop’s pastries.
“This is Em’s Coffee,” Hillman said, answering the shop’s phone. “This is Em.”
UI’s Harris noted the ADA’s protections extend to purely physical limitations, including those that come with age.
“Disability is the one category of difference we could all eventually qualify for,” he said. “We’re all just one accident away or one illness away. A lot of the things we’ve done to help kids with disabilities is also going to help as our workforce ages.”
Fenner, 53, didn’t think much about the ADA when Hillman was young.
“I was pretty oblivious to it at the time,” she said. “I wasn’t even thinking about it like I should have.”
Now, Em’s Coffee has become a model for others with disabilities and their families. Hillman and her older sister, Ashlea Lantz, often travel across the country to tell their story at conventions and workshops for people with disabilities and those who provide services for them.
“I had no idea it was going to end up being my career,” said Lantz, 28, an employment coordinator for Candeo, a Johnston non-profit that helps the disabled find employment and other help to live as independently as they’re able.
“Em is an exceptional example, in the fact that she’s more confident,” said Ricklefs.
“I like to be the boss,” Hillman said.