WIDEFIELD, Colo. — Before a bad fall and a series of failed operations left her disabled, Pal Lerma's real estate job was very physical: She would pace through houses and scamper through yards as she worked to make the sale.
Nowadays, she lets her fingers do the hawking.
After years drifting deeper into a depression brought on by her reduced mobility, Lerma has found a new life with online auctions from her garden-level bedroom in this Colorado Springs suburb.
"I literally was a shut-in," Lerma, 43, said recently. "I never went anywhere, I never did anything. I just pretty much sat around and cried and felt sorry for myself."
Two years ago, her mother bought her a computer for Christmas.
"I really felt like she had parked a jet in my backyard," Lerma said. "The very first time I put my fingers on my keyboard, I thought, 'This is my way out.' "
Lerma is one of many disabled people who are discovering the freedom afforded by the Internet. They are logging on to trade stories and to join clubs for disabled people with interests from hunting deer to hunting for a relationship.
More and more, they are also doing business.
"I think we're talking about the very beginning of a trend," said Charles A. Riley, editor-in-chief of We Magazine, a New York-based publication for the disabled. "I think this is going to catch on like a bonfire."
About 54 million Americans have disabilities and more than 70% of adults with severe disabilities are not employed, according to 1996 U.S. Census Bureau figures.
But the 1990 census showed that while 7.8% of the overall population was self-employed or running small businesses, the number jumped to 12.2% among the disabled--about half a million people.
Riley believes the number is higher now and destined to climb, thanks largely to the Internet, which he called "a natural fit" for people with disabilities.
"You could be deaf, an amputee, or blind, or you could have had a stroke and lost mobility or coordination--nothing matters if you have the right software," he said.
Peter Blanck, director of the University of Iowa's Disability Law Research Center, said the Internet has had a profound effect on the employment picture. It has given people with disabilities "more of a level playing field" and helped employers gain access to millions of people who want to work.
"This is going to really even things out for disabled people, who have been left behind in this economic boom," predicted Riley. "This is their big chance."
A modest but outgoing former Marine with a cheery laugh, Lerma takes pride in her ability to entice online bidders with the descriptions of clothing, jewelry and accessories that she has bought from online wholesalers.
"I'm pretty good at painting pictures with words. When it comes to describing a dress, you have to make somebody feel what they're going to feel when they put it on," she said. "I have a lot of people who write me and say, 'You could sell a gunny sack.' "
With the snowcapped Rockies obscured by window curtains, Lerma works the keyboard of her computer--which she calls "Precious"--as she puts items up for auction, writes colorful descriptions and contacts winning bidders.
She started her online business last year. A mannequin that stands against a wall of the room is used to photograph the items she sells. That part of the job often requires help, which she gets from her mother and her teen-age daughter.
Lerma, who uses crutches or a motorized wheelchair to get around, also has help from her family taking items to the post office and shipping them to winning bidders. She is considering hiring an assistant.
And she may be on her way to an income large and consistent enough to get her off government disability payments.
"That's what I'd like to do, is free up the Social Security for somebody else and go back to work until I can't work anymore," she said.
More important than money, however, is the self-esteem Lerma has found. "No amount of money can buy self-worth," she said.
Urban Miyares, president of the San Diego-based Disabled Businesspersons Assn., said profit is often a secondary concern for disabled people who start home-based businesses.
"It's a quality of life issue, it's being active and being a contributor to society," Miyares said. "Making money is icing on the cake."
Miyares cautions that the Internet cannot break down all the barriers for people with disabilities. Software can be very expensive, and despite a new law designed to let disabled Americans keep government-funded health coverage when they take a job, health care costs are still an issue.
Also, a great deal of business is still done "bellybutton to bellybutton," at trade shows and in clubhouses.
"You know what they say, you learn more on the golf course than you do in the office," Miyares said.
Lerma said her auction business would be difficult to run without help from her family, but she urged others with disabilities to take advantage of the Internet.
And for any who do follow her into the world of Internet auctions, Lerma has a piece of practical advice: "Everything sells better in sets."