Chicago entrepreneur Andre Johnson’s life changed after a paralysis injury, and now he sees an opportunity to help people with disabilities find supportive products.
Losing something we take for granted can suddenly raise that item to the utmost importance in our lives. For most of us, the pandemic has brought a loss of freedom to go about our daily lives as we please. But a loss of freedom started many years ago and has been felt even deeper for Andre Johnson.
The Chicago entrepreneur suffered a spinal cord injury when he was the innocent victim of gun violence during a carjacking in Chicago in 2004. He suffered a paralysis injury, and his friend was killed. That set him on a personal journey to learn about healthcare, figure out his needs, and determine how to move forward.
A setback required surgery and time in a nursing home. After that, Johnson returned to school for electronics engineering and earned his degree, then an advanced management certificate from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Johnson went to an event at Chicago’s 1871 incubator to network, but everything changed when he grabbed a bottle of water and tried to put it into the cup holder of his brand new wheelchair. “I hadn’t found a simple cup holder… to put on this chair. So when I put the bottle where I normally have the cup holder, it rolled across the floor,” he said.
That started him thinking about the difficulty people with disabilities face in searching for quality supportive equipment. At a hackathon, he pitched a solution: a startup dedicated to helping people with disabilities find the products they need. He eventually won a scholarship through 1871 to launch his startup.
“When I first got injured, my only tool was to go to Google and try to type as many relevant keywords to find the things that I needed or was curious about… Even if you search things now, you’re only going to get those who pay the most money for SEO,” he explained.
Johnson now is working to launch an online platform called LiveEquipd where people with disabilities, therapists, and caregivers can easily find and purchase quality supportive products.
“It’s innovating that space, because the whole e-commerce online model needs to change to really put patient consumers first,” he said. “I wanted to build a platform that provides three commonly needed things in this space: products, resources, and community.”
Generally speaking, Johnson believes that businesses are making some progress with paying attention to the needs of people with disabilities and “there are some gaps being filled with technology. But it’s not there yet. There’s still work to be done.”
He points to groups such as ADA 25 Advancing Leadership that help to place people with disabilities in companies’ leadership positions. Bringing in employees with different abilities means “decision makers can have a real seat at the table with someone who can help make a smart decision when it comes to diversity or accessibility” because they’re living it and can provide valuable insight on lagging areas, he said.
Johnson hopes to start testing LiveEquipd in the next few months. Eventually, he’d like to add a mobile app. As with most startups, developing the platform requires long hours and a constant eye toward future funding. But he said it will be worth it when the platform goes live.
“I know I’m not the only one dealing with this,” Johnson said. He wants others managing paralysis injuries to benefit as well, “particularly mothers dealing with this, whether it’s for an infant or an adult child… We’re trying to help them navigate that situation.”
Are there entrepreneurs in your community who are trying to make the world a better place? Let me know who they are so I can share their stories here, too. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @centereddottech.
Other stories we’re watching:
- Wisconsin leaders launched an “emergency internet” tool that is accessible via smartphone to help users find free broadband services during the pandemic. (Wisconsin State Journal)
- I Know I Can, a Columbus, Ohio, nonprofit that helps students pursue and complete college education, donated more than 500 wireless hotspots to local schools to help students who need technology for remote schooling. (Digital Journal)
- 3D printer vendor NovaStar Solutions in Livonia, Michigan, converted its demonstration lab into a ventilator parts manufacturing space. It’s making hose splitters so more than one patient can use a single ventilator at a time. (ClickOnDetroit)
- Indianapolis-based tech business My IT Indy is helping small- and medium-sized local businesses move their operations from the office to home for free. (RTV6)