A group of Memorial University students and alumnae and a College of the North Atlantic graduate are using their experiences with physical disabilities to help make life easier for others.
Twin sisters Mandy and Megan Penney, 27, along with Stephanie Evans, 24, and Katie Cashin, 30, are developing unique social enterprises that recently won them Youth Social Innovator Awards at Social Innovation Challenges in St. John’s and Corner Brook.
Mandy and Ms. Evans are working together to develop a clothing alteration business called ProAccessible. Megan and Ms. Cashin are creating an affordable and accessible transportation company called Access for All.
‘A common issue’
“Stephanie and I both have cerebral palsy, which impacts our balance and some daily living activities,” said Mandy, who uses a walker to help with movement.
Conversations with Ms. Evans and other friends who have disabilities revealed some common challenges with certain articles of clothing – dresses with long zippers in the back, for example.
“You can purchase adaptable clothing, but the options that currently exist seem to be advertised towards older people,” Mandy added. “This is frustrating to younger, professional women with disabilities, because we don’t want to wear something different than our peers.”
Launching socially responsible businesses
The Social Innovation Challenge is a national competition hosted by the United Church of Canada.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s run in partnership with Memorial’s Centre for Social Enterprise and the First Light Centre for Performance and Creativity in St. John’s and the Navigate Entrepreneurship Centre in Corner Brook.
“We met so many passionate entrepreneurs and business mentors, which was the real prize.”
The goal is to help local social innovators pitch and launch socially responsible business ideas as well as provide opportunities to learn, gain mentorship and find collaborators.
Mandy and Ms. Evans participated in the Social Innovation Challenge on the St. John’s campus along with other social-minded students and members of the community. In St. John’s, 18 people pitched 12 socially innovative ideas.
“Stephanie and I are so excited that people thought our pitches and business idea were good enough to deserve an award!” said Mandy. “We met so many passionate entrepreneurs and business mentors, which was the real prize.”
In Corner Brook, Megan and Ms. Cashin pitched their idea for Access for All, which aims to provide both employment and transportation to people with disabilities.
Megan, who also has cerebral palsy, and Ms. Cashin, who has proteus type syndrome, both use mobility aids such as powered wheelchairs, walkers and crutches.
“To receive the positive feedback in the form of the award on top of everything else was great.”
Without accessible transportation or the ability to drive themselves to school, work or other activities, “it can be quite debilitating to figure out a plan for a ride,” said Megan.
“Individuals with disabilities are stuck inside their homes for the most part. They often must rely on others for rides or ask others to run errands for them as they cannot get out themselves.”
The women hope that by offering affordable, accessible transportation, they can improve the visibility of individuals in the community so that businesses and organizations can see there is a need to be accessible.
‘Most innovative ideas’
In Corner Brook, 12 people pitched 10 business ideas.
Both duos are in the early stages of business development, but are encouraged by the feedback and support they’ve received thus far.
“The Social Innovation Challenge gave us the opportunity to receive feedback from experienced mentors in what we need to do to make our project a reality,” said Megan.
“The ideas we learned about were some of the most innovative ideas we had ever seen. To receive the positive feedback in the form of the award on top of everything else was great.”
Mandy has two degrees from Memorial: a bachelor of arts in psychology (honours) and a bachelor of social work. She plans to apply to Memorial’s master of business administration in social enterprise and entrepreneurship next year.
Ms. Evans has been studying at Memorial for the past four years and hopes to enter the social work program this year.
Megan holds a bachelor of arts in psychology and is also working towards a bachelor of business administration degree in Corner Brook.
Ms. Cashin is a graduate of the community studies program at College of the North Atlantic.