Tish Scolnik is an advocate for the disabled.
The 20-year-old junior, who recently spent several weeks in Tanzania designing wheelchairs, has dreamed up a way to put the disabled to work.
Employers discriminate against the 20 million disabled people in developing countries, she says. Office buildings aren’t wheelchair accessible. And drivers won’t allow wheelchair users on a bus because the chair takes too much space.
“So forget that,” says Scolnik, whose idea is for the disabled to simply become entrepreneurs. “Let’s just help them start their own businesses — and let’s make it a small business that literally can be run from the seat of their wheelchair.”
Scolnik designed a wheelchair that can double as a portable office. The chair has a big colorful umbrella to shield workers from the sun, drawers under the seat to keep supplies, and a worktable that flips down to double as a sign, advertising the business.
“If you’re just sitting in a wheelchair on the side of the road holding a screwdriver, no one’s going to take you seriously. We wanted it to look like a legitimate business,” she says.
So far, she has put to work a man who makes beaded jewelry, another who shines and repairs shoes, a man who repairs radios and electronic devices, and a woman who batiks cloth and sews garments, then sells the garments on the road.
Scolnik directed the entrepreneurs to wheel themselves each morning into towns near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, where there is much foot traffic. “It’s also a huge safari destination, the starting-off point for the Serengeti,” she says.
The entrepreneurs speak only Swahili. Scolnik communicates through a translator. She tells them: “I believe in you. You’re smart and determined. You know how to do this.” One replies: “Bless you. I never, ever believed this was possible.”
Scolnik’s current UROP project is to design a microfinance system for the entrepreneurs in Tanzania. She already has opened for them bank accounts. And another part of her UROP project is to design new attachments to facilitate the businesses. For example, the woman who sells the garments wants a way to display the clothes, hanging them up instead of carrying them in a bag. Long-term, Scolnik plans to take the project to other countries.
“I love that UROP is so flexible, and has allowed me to find a supervisor and design my own project. I’ve laid out my goals and have figured out my own way. I love not having someone looking over my shoulder.”