St. Louis Entrepreneur Karen Copeland Of Sammysoap Addresses Disability Rights

Parenthood is a powerful, formidable force. St. Louis entrepreneur Karen Copeland, whose son Sam was born with a developmental disability, saw an opportunity to challenge the traditional approach to supporting disabled adults. For parents of children with disabilities, the path is often littered with advocacy battles that extend well into their child’s adulthood, ranging from confusing policy hurdles to employment discrimination.

Copeland, along with her close friend and eventual business partner Beth Forsee, birthed a radical idea. They started, as Copeland often says, “a job-creation machine for adults with intellectual disabilities, disguised as the world’s best soap company.” The idea transformed into what is now sammysoap.

While most everyone uses this basic toiletry, few actually know much about it. Copeland, curious to explore new subjects, began her entrepreneurial journey by researching the surprisingly dramatic history of soap and discovering unsettling details about the chemicals most major soap manufacturers use in their formulas. “If you’re buying your soap by the six pack, you’re basically using detergent on your skin,” she explains. “Real soap has been made the same way for thousands of years. It’s very simple, natural chemistry.” That all-natural process is exactly what sammysoap offers from the factory to the sales floor, using sustainable packaging as well as vegan and cruelty-free ingredients.

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The charming shop in a suburb of St. Louis offers a gentle, serene alternative to the harsh fragrances of manufactured scents. “If we can make an excellent product and it’s doing something for the community—and it’s also the same value in price … well, why not?” Copeland explains, with a light shrug of her shoulders. The strategy is so simple that it may be easy to miss its true inventiveness. Sammysoap’s foundational mission is to invest in social support and economic opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities, and thus the heart of their work is two-pronged: teaching the public about the ingredients in the skincare products they use and educating about disability rights.

“To me, disability rights and fair wages are a civil-rights issue,” says Copeland. Her energy builds organically, and her petite frame becomes even more animated as she delves into an explanation of the history of disabled workers’ rights—or lack thereof—tracing the progression to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and other disability-rights legislation today.

“Everybody deserves dignity,” Copeland says, determination in her eyes. “Disabled workers deserve enough of our respect that we trust them and our fellow humans to have their backs. They should have the freedom to flail or fly or fail just like the rest of us. We just need to let them be participating citizens. 100 percent participatory citizens. That’s all we want.”

While the shop has only been open for a little over two years, Copeland sees firsthand the transformations it can enact. “It’s crazy what’s happened to Sam. It’s been really positive and really good. I mean everything—the way he stands, what he talks about, even his slang,” says Copeland, as her son eases into adulthood.

“If you’re passionate about something, usually that excitement is contagious and it’s inspirational. And people want to be inspired by other people because it inspires them to do their own things,” she says. “We all have our dreams.”

Video by The Normal Brand

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