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article imageAn artsy solution provides disabled artists employment Special

By Robert Kingett     Jan 31, 2015 in Entertainment
Chicago - One of the biggest ongoing advocacy efforts by anyone in the disability community is employment awareness. Activists promote the message that disabled people are just as competent, sometimes better, workers than their non disabled colleagues
Even today employers would rather hire people without disabilities, leaving a significant many in Chicago jobless. A start-up in Chicago is tackling this problem with art and the power of the Internet.
The north side start-up called We Are Lions is empowering the disabled and the perceptions of the disabled by combining crowd-sourcing with work opportunities such as packaging the art sold on their website. They work with non-profits and artists with disabilities, using their art to promote equality, awareness, and break the stigmas often associated with disability.
“It is community support that allows us to achieve large scale impact for the individuals we serve.” said Kevin McMahon, a co founder of the fundraising platform. According to the website, “We  Are Lions believes in and is inspired by the incredible talent, creativity and individuality of the special needs community. We see their historic marginalization as one of the most important civil rights issues of our day and we believe that waiting for policy makers and foundations to enact change is simply not enough. We’ve taken matters into our own hands.”
People with disabilities manufacture, package, and ship orders. 50% of your purchase goes to the artists and non-profits that create the art. Art can be submitted on the website at
“The determining factor was a combination of a couple things. First and foremost, what we thought was fair, and would be able to provide a worthwhile return for our artists and non-profits. Second, we needed it to be sustainable so that We Are Lions could grow and continue to do its best to serve this community. 50/50 seemed like the natural choice to show that we’re not trying to profit any more than the people who’s art is being supported.” McMahon said.
We Are Lions was born in 2010 out of the Founder and CEO David Schwartz’s desire to combine his entrepreneurial love of clothing, with something more meaningful.
McMahon illustrated how this dream became a reality in the interview. “As someone with family members affected by disability and mental illness, he witnessed first hand the disparities and lack of support between the disabled and non-disabled community. And after being surrounded by artwork created by the inspiring individuals he began to come into contact with, an idea was born. David saw the beauty and potential of this artwork as something people might like to wear. So—after almost two years of developing the infrastructure to do so—the first batch of official We Are Lions clothing was introduced in late 2011.”
There are a lot of other sites that allow disabled people to sign up and receive donations via crowdfunding means, such as Kickstarter and Patreon but the artists who sign up there are competing against other contributors to try to generate incentives to donate to someone, rather than the other person. At We Are Lions, a lot of partnership is done to ensure sold work.
“We engage in a large variety of outreach for our partnering organizations. We ask that they co-promote the campaigns with us and we both do our best to mobilize the local community. We do pop-up shops to create buzz, but we also rely a lot on word of mouth.” Aside from partnerships, the company hosts many expos to showcase the work and to generate buzz.
“Most often our expos are based around one of our partnerships. We’ll create a collaborative event with one of the non-profits we work with, and use both of our networks to get as many people out as possible. We’ll come stocked with official We Are Lions gear and original art from the artists that come from a particular non-profit. In fact, over the next few months we’ll be doing a monthly event at the Randolph Street Market with Project Onward who are based out of Bridgeport.” The company has broader horizons, however, not just in Chicago. In the interview McMahon demonstrated the vast outreach.
“We work with non-profits all over the US and even a couple in Israel and India. What separates We Are Lions from those other crowdfunding platforms is the scope of focus, and the way in which we raise money. We focus exclusively on the disabled community, we see their marginalization as one of the most important civil rights issues of our day. Specifically by showcasing these talents through the creation of wearable art, we incorporate the products into the day to day lives of our supporters. This means it’s not just a donation, it’s recognition, it’s empowerment, it says that these individuals are capable of so much more, it’s about opportunities. We want to be a network of support for individuals with disabilities all over the world, but Chicago will always be our home.”
We Are Lions proves that, with the help of the community and the tools and platform to allow expression, employment opportunities are as far and wide as the Internet with minimal effort and creative flare. this artistic endeavor showcases, not only how simple it is to create employment opportunities for the disabled community, but that a simple act of expression can open up a world of entrepreneurial doors as well.
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