New nonprofit to connect people with disabilities to colleges

Authored By chloe.morrison

Jean-Marie Lawrence, who won second place at the recent 48-Hour Launch business pitch competition, didn’t initially think of herself as an entrepreneur. 

She has two degrees from UTC-a bachelor’s in political science and a master’s in public administration. But now she’s moving strongly ahead with the idea for a nonprofit called Access-U that won at last weekend’s competition. 

Lawrence also has a form of muscular dystrophy, and when a friend encouraged her to follow her idea for a new business, she thought about what she could offer to people that would be unique.

“And one of the things that I’ve always been passionate about since college has been disability rights and empowering adults with disabilities to take charge of their lives and do what they want with it,” she said. “I thought it would be great if I could develop a business around that.” 

Now she’s working to launch Access-U, which is a nonprofit that will offer a database of colleges that students with disabilities can search to help make the best decision about what school is right for them. 

During her work in graduate school, she did a project that focused on transition services in post-secondary institutions for students with disabilities. 

And she had her own experiences in searching for colleges. 

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act provides regulations for colleges about providing access and services for students with disabilities, Lawrence said there is wide range of what is actually available as far as services, facilities and infrastructure at each school. 

So with Access-U, Lawrence aims to provide a database that will allow students to search every college and find out what resources are available.

A self-proclaimed “concept person,” she had to narrow down the idea a bit after she graduated from the local Co-Starters class that provides tools for budding entrepreneurs. 

“I knew that I had to help students get to college first,” she said. “There’s so much in terms of access to consider. Whenever I looked for graduate programs, something that was always a concern for me was the type of access I would be able to get at the university.” 

When she says “access” she means everything from getting in and out of buildings to health home policies, which differ from state to state, in addition to what sorts of support and social services are available, she said. 

“I didn’t realize what all would go into building a database when I came up with the concept,” she said. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. There are upwards of 7,000 schools in the U.S.”

She’s starting with the state of Tennessee first and is going to make that her testing ground. 

In the coming months, she and her team are going to be developing a survey to send to two and four-year colleges in Tennessee to get information about disability services at each institution.  

“I’m hoping that Access-U will be able to partner with a handful of community colleges and universities in Tennessee to develop questions and test them,” she said. 

Her 48-Hour Launch prize is $500, which she said will go a long way for a nonprofit, and an array of other business services. She’s already scheduled appointments to take advantage of those services, she said. 

And she’s planning on crowdfunding and applying for grants to get Access-U underway. 

“It’s important to know that the database isn’t functioning yet,” she said. “But I would like to see the database functioning at least in the state of Tennessee within the next year.”