HandyCapable puts people with disabilities to work

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Carl, a man in his mid-30s, has a severe case of cerebral palsy, a condition that makes it difficult for him to control the use of his arms, legs and parts of his speech.

In his job as a volunteer computer technician, he must be lifted from his electric-powered wheelchair onto a floor mat, where he lies using a headpointer to load software onto refurbished computers and to work as his employer’s webmaster.

His employer is HandyCapable Network, a Greensboro nonprofit that has refurbished over 3,500 computers since it was formed in 2006 to provide computer training for people with developmental disabilities.

Operating with an annual budget of $180,000 and a staff of two people working full-time and three working part-time, the agency works with eight volunteer “HandyTechs” who refurbish used and donated computers that HandyCapable distributes to low-income families and to nonprofits, churches and other groups.

In 2012, with those volunteers contributing over 4,000 hours, HandyCapable placed nearly 500 refurbished computers with low-income families, and refurbished another 400 that were awaiting distribution.

HandyCapable, for example, has distributed over 1,100 computers to the homes of children who are students in six elementary and middle schools  in Guilford County.

Each family that gets a computer also takes part in a 45-minute training session from HandyCapable on how to hook up their computer, use educational software, anti-virus software and open-source office software that is loaded into the computer, and understand internet safety.

HandyCapable was founded by Barbara Davis, who serves as executive director.

In 2000, after managing group homes for people with developmental disabilities, she became “disillusioned and a little sad” that group homes had lost their focus on their clients and had become “more about the money” and about “government regulations in a corporate-like atmosphere,” Davis says.

“It was not leading people with developmental disabilities to become productive members of society,” she says.

Having begun at that time to learn about computers herself, she contracted with The Arc of North Carolina to develop four computer learning centers in the Triad that would provide computer training for people with developmental disabilities.

In addition to four centers she got started at nonprofits and churches in Burlington, Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem, Davis started seven other centers at organizations that served low-income people, at-risk kids and senior citizens.

And needing computers for the center, she looked for donated and used computers, learned how to fix them, and began to teach people with disabilities how to fix them.

So when her contract with The Arc ended, she founded HandyCapable.

HandyCapable counts on grants and donations from individuals, foundations and corporations for 75 percent of its revenue, and generates the remainder through earned income.

The Weaver Foundation and the Mary Lynn Richardson Foundation made grants of $7,500 and $5,000, respectively, making it possible for HandyCapable to distribute over 200 computers to low-income families for the most recent holiday season.

And HandyCapable generates revenue from dismantling unusable computers and selling their parts to Powerhouse Recycling in Salisbury.

“We give people with disabilities a place where they can show their abilities,” Davis says, “and find fulfilling work in the community.”