Man With Quadraplegia Running Successful Custom Apparel Business, Thanks to Supported Employment

Eric Patrick Thomas is a business owner on the move.

Eric opened EZ Awareness by Design, a graphic arts business, in his hometown of Flint three years ago. He’s already won a statewide Entrepreneur of the Year BOOM (Be Our Own Motivation). The Flint and Genessee County Chamber of Commerce has honored him with its Spark Award, because his business is a rising star.

Eric Patrick Thomas

Eric Patrick Thomas

Not bad for a guy whose only voluntary movements are achieved through puffing on a straw mechanism mounted on his wheelchair.

“I feel blessed because I’ve found support to help me do what I want to do,” said Eric, 36, who emblazons his own T-shirts with this word: Inspire.

“For all the tough times Flint has had,” Eric continued, “the business community here has been just terrific in helping and teaching me. Branding is essential and even my competitors in the sign business know there is enough work for all of us.”

Eric was 20 years old, living in Lansing and attending Lansing Community College, on Sept. 20, 1997, when he got in the way of random gunfire. He’s got a bullet lodged in his third vertebrate, causing paralysis in all four limbs.

The night he was shot, he was hosting a party to celebrate the release of his hip-hop group’s first album. It wasn’t a loud, out-of-control party, but a couple of hundred people showed up. Eric admits he didn’t know everybody. He remembers going outside to make sure the crowd wasn’t spilling over onto his neighbor’s property. He was standing in his front yard facing guests on his porch when someone fired a gun from the street.

As Eric collapsed, guests scattered like gunshot, afraid of being arrested for under-age drinking when police showed up. Friends who stayed to help Eric didn’t see the shooter. Some thought gun had been fired from a vehicle; others said the shooter was on foot.

Nobody was ever arrested. Eric’s not sure how much effort police poured into an investigation. He laid in a hospital on a ventilator communicating the best he could through eye blinks and tongue clicks. Over the next few years, Eric said it required all his energy to learn how to live in his changed body.

“After a serious injury, you’re either going to live or die,” Eric said. “Since I survived, I want to make the most of the life that was almost taken away. I want to show that true quality-of-life still exists. You’ve just got to have some support.”

Eric spent six months in a Colorado hospital being weaned off the ventilator. There he also learned how to hire and train the staff for the 24/7 care he’ll need for the rest of his life.

Eric returned to his parents’ home in Flint, where he worked with his local Disability Network to set up a self-determination arrangement. As his independence and finances allowed, he rented an apartment, then a house.

His next goal: To own a fully accessible home. He dreams of having a bathroom he can actually bathe in.

Eric resumed his studies at Mott Community College and Wayne State University, but public transportation wasn’t always dependable or convenient. Twice he has conducted successful fund-raising campaigns for accessible vans.

Eric tried pursuing career interests in music management and photography after the accident, but it didn’t work out. Television shows like American Idol and The Voice, which culminate with recording contracts to winners of three-month talent shows, have skewed expectations of young talent about how long it will take to “make it,” Eric said. The adaptive equipment he needs for photography wasn’t manufactured until recent years.

He started reporting for an entertainment newspaper, but the publication died. He started an Internet radio station, but that didn’t take off, either.

There is no such thing as failure, Eric said. Disappointments are welcome mats for “growth spurts.”

Imagining his artistic eye would be good for graphics, Eric told his parents and professionals in his support circle at an annual meeting that he wanted to open a custom apparel company.

“A person-centered plan is the best thing you can do because it puts what you want out there,” Eric said. “Talk about your long- and short-term goals, and have somebody write on flipcharts. Your support circle discusses how to make it happen. Some things take years to accomplish but, somehow, amazing things happen.”

Eric’s circle grew to include a Medicaid-funded supported employment program through Michigan Rehabilitative Services. He worked with Goodwill Industries to develop a business plan and found the perfect investor: Ziad Kassab, who started several successful businesses to benefit people with spinal cord injuries.

Ziad (the “Z” in EZ Awareness by Design) loaned capital to buy equipment. He also mentors Eric from his Rochester Hills headquarters via Skype.

Eric hired a graphic designer who was also willing to be trained as his day-time direct care assistant, since he couldn’t afford two employees during the same time period. Business gradually grew from five hours a week to full time.

“I didn’t know that our equipment could also be used to produce banners, interior and exterior signs,” Eric said. “It was owners of other sign companies who taught me.”

A reciprocal arrangement has developed with a sign company that has an electrician and a boom truck. In exchange for access to those services, EZ does some of the other company’s design work.

Eric has invested all earnings back into his company. He figures he needs to clear at least $100,000 per year before he starts drawing a paycheck and his supported employment payments end. He says he needs a six-figure because of his medical needs and having to employ assistants around the clock, he said.

Eric is the first person in his area to use the supported employment program, but he hopes others follow.

“It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can reach your dreams,” said Eric, who gives several motivational speeches each month.

Next he’d like to play a role in starting a textiles mill in his hometown. He says he’d be proud to sell custom apparel that’s 100 percent Flint made.

And he says he’d love to provide good jobs to strengthen the struggling community that supported his personal comeback.