Give These People Jobs

Todd Stabelfeldt wants to put paralyzed people to work without threatening their disability benefits.

After three decades as a quadriplegic, completely paralyzed below his shoulders, Todd Stabelfeldt knows what independence means to someone with a severe disability. As a successful software developer and owner of C4 Database Management in Port Orchard, he also is keenly aware of the obstacles and opportunities businesses encounter in the quest for true universal design, where buildings, products and environments are accessible to all.

Stabelfeldt recognizes that what he and other quadriplegics need, an awful lot of able-bodied folks want. This reality is what makes universal design so, well, universal. An able-bodied tester will skip past things that someone with no functional movement of arms or hands simply cannot. Stabelfeldt asserts that quadriplegics tend to make the best testers of a product’s essential accessibility. “Speech recognition for the quad,” he points out, for example, “is speech recognition for the world.”

But product developers probably won’t hire a quadriplegic tester, and Stabelfeldt doesn’t blame them. Really. Because it’s not just about bias or unwillingness to make accommodations. “You can’t really hire us,” he admits. “That’s not an option. We’re not going out and doing interviews.”

Yet it’s a possibility Stabelfeldt wants to explore further. About one in 50 Americans lives with some degree of paralysis caused by stroke, disease or spinal cord injury. For noninstitutionalized, working-age adults, the total rate of disability is 10.7 percent, according to Cornell University researchers. This figure represents a significant customer base for accessible apps as well as a pool of potential employees, such as product testers.

But for every Todd Stabelfeldt with his own successful IT firm or Rob Hansen, founder and owner of Tukwila’s Bayview Limousine Service, who became a quadriplegic the same year as Stabelfeldt, there are a dozen others trapped not just by their physical injuries but by financial constraints that prevent them from getting a job. Working for a living, it turns out, is a luxury when you’re a quadriplegic.

Stabelfeldt didn’t realize this when he was starting out. He figured getting a job was the key to his independence.

“I knew the only way to make this disability work was to be wealthy,” he says, “so I had to get a job.”

The need for significant income can’t be overstated among quadriplegics and paraplegics. The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center estimates the costs associated with a high-level spinal cord injury like Stabelfeldt’s at $185,111 per year, every year. Without a lot of financial assistance, that’s an insurmountable expense. For some, a large legal settlement related to their injury or accident provides the needed cushion. For everyone else, government-funded services are the only way to survive.

Stabelfeldt’s latest business idea would provide a staffing service that enables companies to hire disabled workers without the workers risking the loss of the government assistance they rely upon. He knows companies need disabled testers. 

“Our goal is to connect with established entities and assist them in broadening their staffing capabilities,” he says. “We aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, but rather to aid those already spinning it and making it work better for a wider group of people.”

Companies all want to claim their products are accessible but don’t always have a great way of testing them. Stabelfeldt’s idea is to provide “boots on the ground” disabled testers while also handling the logistics of making sure no one works so many hours that they would lose disability benefits. 

“Give these people jobs,” he reasons. “Give a person purpose and respect and watch what happens.”

Stabelfeldt is a case in point. Having earned a college degree at 17, Stabelfeldt sent out hundreds of résumés and scored more than a dozen interviews with Seattle tech companies. None was ready for a teenage software developer, apparently, let alone one in a chair. (He became paralyzed at age 8, when a cousin accidentally shot him with an antique rifle.) 

“I look back now and just laugh,” Stabelfeldt says of the excuses he heard during his job search. “They told me my office skills weren’t what they needed. And it’s true. I can’t operate a stapler.”

Then he showed up for an interview with Stephen Steele at Cortex Medical Management Systems, which was situated on Bainbridge Island at the time. Steele asked how much money Stabelfeldt expected. Stabelfeldt told him his school had said he could expect $50,000 a year. Steele offered him half that amount.

Stabelfeldt accepted the offer. He commuted from Renton via wheelchair and ferry. His caregiver met him each day at Colman Dock in Seattle. He relied on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits for  medical expenses and his caregiver, who made more money than he did. It was an awkward arrangement but it worked for about two years.

“Then I got that damn letter,” he says. The letter informed him he had been receiving disability payments even though he was employed full time. Payments would stop immediately and his wages would be garnished to pay for $50,000 he had collected since getting a job.

As it turns out, his SSI caseworker had retired and it took the government two years to realize Stabelfeldt was working. If it had been caught immediately, that would be the end of the story. But Stabelfeldt now knew what it felt like to work and be independent. More important, Stephen Steele knew what kind of employee Stabelfeldt was.

“I went to Steve and said, ‘I have to quit. Social Services is pulling all my funding. I have to quit or you give me a raise,’” Stabelfeldt recalls. “So, he said, ‘I’ll give you a raise.’”

Steele more than doubled Stabelfeldt’s salary, but the raise didn’t change his lifestyle for the better.

“At the age of 20, I had no funding other than a very, very small monthly annuity. It was all about that W-2. I worked my ass off for the next 15 years. I had no money. Everything went to custodial care. I worked every damn day to pay for the right to get up and work every damn day.”

Stabelfeldt said his mother’s financial adviser questioned his decision. “He asked me, ‘Why do you even work? It’s pointless.’”

For Stabelfeldt, the answer was obvious. “Mobilitywise, I’m screwed,” he admits, “But I’m not screwed cognitively.” 

By 2011, Stabelfeldt was VP of operations at Cortex. He wanted to own his own business, so he quit in 2012. It was a bold move. He had $30,000 in savings. His custodial care cost $12,000 a month.

He was saved by love. He met Karen Little, now his wife, and became a military dependent because Karen was a naval officer. Most of Stabelfeldt’s medical and care needs were once again covered and he could concentrate on growing his new business. At first, he thought he’d be a writer. Or a not-quite-standup comedian. But his former Cortex clients started calling. At Cortex, even as a VP, people teased him for spending time on database management. His reply was always the same: “Do you know how much money these people pay us every month? We should be treating them like kings and queens.”

Now those clients were seeking him out. “I’m a digital plumber,” he says. “Nobody wants to take care of databases. Almost every vendor in this country, they excuse themselves from database administration.” 

With a subscription-based service, C4 Database Management — named for the level of his spinal cord injury — provides round-the-clock database administration for more than 10 million patient records on 70 servers across the country. It’s the closest he figures he’ll get to an old dream he had of becoming a psychiatrist or a Navy SEAL.

“It meets my need to serve others,” he says. “I get to take care of so many people and what I love is they don’t even know it. It’s not data to me; it’s stories. Millions and millions of stories.”

Stabelfeldt’s work gives him purpose, something he says he and his peers desperately need. By Stabelfeldt’s reckoning, businesses producing new products need quadriplegics and other disabled workers as well. 

“Computers are a great equalizer,” he says. “We have a weird way of approaching a keyboard and a mouse, but screw it. Now, we’re all contenders.” 

Building a ‘Quadthedral’ for ‘The Quadfather’

More than a million adults in Washington live with some form of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Of those, 188,000 report that they are not able to dress or bathe without assistance, according to the CDC. And it’s a population that’s growing, not shrinking.

After searching for a home that could meet his needs and the needs of his database management company, Todd Stabelfeldt, who calls himself “The Quadfather,” and his wife realized they would have to build it. He didn’t want to settle for the basic no-stairs version of accessibility; he wanted a home where he could feel truly in control, not dependent upon his wife or a caregiver.

Todd Stabelfeldt uses Apple’s Switch Control, an accessibility feature that lets him employ his iPhone and other devices to control electrical systems in his home.

Essentially, he wanted a home automation system, but he couldn’t find anyone willing to help him design it. That was three years ago.

The only company to return his call was Theater One Inc. in Puyallup ( Owner Jeff George agreed to take on the challenge of not only installing a comprehensive home automation system but also installing one that worked with the Apple Switch Control system, which allows quadriplegics and paraplegics to control a complex system without having to push a lot of buttons. The result is a home in which Stabelfeldt can live and work and never feel helpless. He calls it “the Quadthedral.”

George says he didn’t make any money on the Quadthedral project, but he acquired a lot of knowledge that he uses in installing high-end automation systems in other homes.

George’s company had installed plenty of high-tech devices, but never something as comprehensive or as simple to operate. “Solving situations like this wasn’t really something I’d ever had to work with,” he notes. “It just wasn’t on my radar.” He says the challenge was basic: “How do you create a program so someone can control their entire house with the simple step commands of ‘next’ and ‘select’ when no manufacturer has anything like that?”

It took hours of programming and effort. Today, systems like Apple HomeKit and Google Home can replicate many of the features George installed in the Quadthedral. Stabelfeldt is such a fan of Apple products that he accepted an invitation to speak at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference earlier this year.

Stabelfeldt also “stars” in an Apple-produced video titled The Quadfather, which demonstrates how he uses Apple technology in his home.  — C.R.-S.

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