From a young age, Jeff Tiessen had an entrepreneurial spirit. After founding a lawn and garden service at the age of 12, Tiessen went on to study communications and became fascinated with the business of media and advertising. A double-arm amputee (the result of an electrical accident as a child), Tiessen was naturally passionate about issues facing the disabled community. Competing as a Paralympic athlete made him realize that while the issues facing people with disabilities were very diverse, they also had many things in common. At the time, in 1991, there were no media outlets that catered to his community and their needs. He decided to combine his business acumen, communications background, and natural affinity for the community to create one.
Tiessen was committed to making Disability Today a successful business venture. While most services for the community at the time were offered on a not-for-profit basis, it was important to him that Disability Today could compete and succeed on its merits.
And so it did. Tiessen built the business gradually, attending events, conferences and trade shows in Ontario, around Canada, and in the United States to do the kind of direct promotion that was especially important in the early years. Being based in St. Catharines also helped Disability Today succeed in the United States as a Canadian publication. In 1996, Tiessen won the contract to produce the official program and commemorative book for the Paralympic Games in Atlanta – beating out Sports Illustrated, the official sponsor of the Olympics.
He has also expanded the business to the internet, with assistance from OMDC. (As a for-profit enterprise he could not take advantage of any of charitable grants that non-profit services could – but as a business creating jobs and growth in the Ontario economy, his company was exactly what OMDC was looking for.) The Disability Today Network is an online village where people can gather and communicate; Tiessen likens it to the community's first social media network. Given the fragmentation and varied interests of the disability community, this online “trade show” allows users to find products and services specific to their needs. But with many common concerns and challenges, the community also offers a place for disabled individuals, their family and friends, and health care professionals to connect.
Tiessen is not convinced he will ever move the magazine completely online; demand is strong for a print magazine, and the print publication and web offerings support one other. Both continue to grow at a steady pace. Disability Today has become the go-to resource for disability issues, its subject matter and coverage as diverse as the community it serves.
“The magazine seemed like a community service that could do well as a capitalistic venture. Do good and do well – that was my motivation.”
—Jeff Tiessen, Founder and President, Disability Today