Closing The GapBy Daniel Vance • Sep 2008 • Category: Feature Story
Henderson-based international publishing and conference business providing a special service
Photo by Kris Kathmann
“I’ve told the story of our business many times,” says Megan Turek, sales manager and managing editor of Henderson-based Closing The Gap, her animated dialogue somersaulting forward and off her pursed lips as an Olympic gymnast from a balance beam to a floor mat. “It’s a very personal story. It’s a family business.”
It is intensely personal.
Virtually unknown in southern Minnesota, Closing The Gap is an international publishing and conference business helping education professionals and parents learn about assistive technology devices for children and adults with disabilities. Its employees work in a renovated turn-of-the-century brick building on Main Street in relaxed downtown Henderson, Minn. And it has an annual conference attended by upwards of 2,000 people at the Bloomington Sheraton and a bi-monthly magazine with 10,000 worldwide subscribers.
Closing The Gap was one of the nation’s first businesses dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities find solutions for their special needs. In essence, it spawned and has helped sustain an entire industry.
Says 37-year-old Turek, “My parents started Closing The Gap because of a personal need. I have a brother, Marc, who lost his hearing as an infant. My parents realized early on he was deaf. The desire for any parent is to want their child to be ‘normal’ or to lead as normal a life as possible.”
In time, Marc was fitted with two hearing aids and was an excellent lip reader. Initially, he did really well academically in a Belle Plaine elementary school, where he was one of the few completely mainstreamed students with a disability. Then in junior high, in 1982, Marc began struggling to learn and his grades went in freefall. Deeply concerned, his parents, Budd and Dolores Hagen, started meeting with teachers and school personnel and to their chagrin learned that some teachers hadn’t even known about Marc’s disability.
“It was a shock how little the school knew about his needs, but not shocking that he was beginning to slip through the system and his needs weren’t being met,” says Turek. “Marc needed to lip read, and the school there had staff members that wore mustaches, which made lip reading more difficult. In junior high, also, he began having a different teacher every hour of the day, instead of the same teacher all day long. That made lip reading more difficult, too.”
To succeed academically, Marc needed a great deal more one-on-one practice, but educational supports for students with disabilities simply were not available at most schools then. Dolores met with school administrators, urging them to explore new technologies that might help her son. Finally, in early 1983, the district loaned her a brand new Apple computer to use at home to help Marc. She had been in the right place at the right time. She took the computer home and immediately began designing software to help Marc so he could better succeed academically. A family-wide interest in the new computer blossomed, as younger sister Megan and brother Joe joined in, too.
To Budd and Dolores, this little computer had been an answer to their son’s need, and they quickly realized it could be the answer for other people with special needs. The couple promptly began learning everything they could about available technologies. These companies had great, life-changing products, but no one knew about them.
Budd and Dolores Hagen were skiing enthusiasts and natural born entrepreneurs. In early 1982, they were publishing a ski—and in summer, sailing—newspaper. After a few years with unseasonably warm temperatures, the ski industry began reeling, and the Hagen’s ski newspaper went out of business. As a financial stopgap measure, Budd went to work as a freelance sports photographer and Dolores started an upholstery shop.
Soon, Dolores suggested they start a newspaper to publish timely information about how computer technology could be utilized to change the lives of children and adults with special needs. Budd thought she had gone insane.
“My folks, at the time, lived on a small hobby farm in Belle Plaine, and were really working hard to make ends meet,” says Turek. “They had always been self-employed, entrepreneurial people. A lot of chutzpuh—that’s my mom. She’s the kind of person who never saw a problem that couldn’t be solved. She could do anything once she put her mind to it.”
After much discussion, Dolores finally persuaded Budd in 1982 to try her idea. Closing The Gap began bringing information and training about technology to parents, education professionals, government officials, specialists, and others. Connie Kneip, now vice president, was an early employee. The first desk at the company was improvised: two file cabinets topped by an old door. Early on, they provided workshops, a conference, and a bi-monthly newspaper. The workshops offered training to school district professionals in ways assistive technologies could be used to help students with disabilities. Soon after taking their popular workshops on the road, Budd and Dolores were traveling nearly 150 days a year, and they decided to move off their rural hobby farm and find an office for their growing needs.
“In 1984, they approached several communities, including Le Sueur and Henderson,” says Turek. “Allen Cords of Le Sueur was really receptive and was trying to help us relocate. He was trying hard to make it happen, but no one else there seemed to be on board. On the other hand, the City of Henderson saw the value of our small technology company, and helped us develop a working relationship with the local school for training and support, in exchange for office space. They wanted us and it was a perfect match.”
So the entire family and business relocated to Henderson. The move had side benefits: Kids and teachers in Henderson welcomed Marc with open arms, not to mention Megan and brother Joe.
Budd and Dolores were instrumental in encouraging many early developers of assistive technology to “stick with it,” says Turek. Many of them did. One early developer in the industry has even credited Budd with being the first to introduce the idea of a customized, programmable communication aid. The idea revolutionized an industry, and from it ultimately sprung the Unicorn board, IntelliKeys, and others.
“There was a big need (in those early years) and very few resources,” says Turek. “At that time, the newspaper’s purpose was to inform parents and professionals about what was available to help people with disabilities. They needed to know who was making these products, the cost, and where they could buy them. Computer technology could change the lives of just about anyone with a disability, such as a person with autism, severe dyslexia, a spinal cord injury, vision issues, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy—anyone. If you could control just one muscle in your body, and activate a switch, you suddenly were a candidate for assistive technology, and the same is true today.” Any muscle in the body could include the winking of an eye, lifting of the eyebrow, or the simple act of breathing to control a sip and puff switch.
Closing The Gap became a clearinghouse for industry information. It reported on available products and assistive technology through its newspaper, sold advertising, offered workshops, and held an annual international conference in which users could touch, learn more, and try. While Budd managed the newspaper, Dolores was “the go-getter, the front person, the drive,” says Turek.
“For ten years or so, my folks did nothing but workshops on the road, the conference and a bi-monthly newspaper,” says Turek. “As demand grew, it made sense to focus their efforts to develop one detailed and comprehensive training opportunity, the conference, and gradually the regional workshops went by the wayside.”
Today, and semi-retired, 63-year-old Budd and 71-year-old Dolores leave most day-to-day decisions up to Kneip, Turek, and Closing The Gap staff, which includes son Marc, age 39, and his wife Becky.
Turek admits that Closing The Gap, as a company, could improve greatly in one particular area: “We aren’t marketing geniuses, for sure. The industry continues to evolve, and the Internet has changed the way people look for and find information. We’re an information company and that means we’ve needed to adapt and adjust to changing times.”
For years, the annual conference has continued to grow, last year drawing more than 2,000 attendees. This year, from October 18-20, Closing The Gap will re-boot once again in the Bloomington Sheraton and Hotel Sofitel with workshops, presentations, and an extensive commercial exhibit floor. Several outlying hotels are needed for additional lodging. Conference goers fly in from all over the world, including dozens this year from The Netherlands alone.
The company’s landmark publication, which recently switched from being a bi-monthly newspaper to a bi-monthly magazine, draws people to the conference. Circulation hovers around 10,000.
“Our primary conference audience will be made up of professionals who work with children and adults with disabilities,” says Turek of this year’s conference, the twenty-sixth. “At the conference, we see speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, rehabilitation professionals, special education teachers, assistive technology specialists, administrators, hardware/software developers, parents, and end users.”
An extensive commercial exhibit floor will feature more than 100 companies showcasing the latest in commercially available hardware and software products for individuals with special needs. Some presentation topics this year: “Unraveling the Mystery of Social Relation Skills for Students with Asperger Syndrome: Practical Uses of Technology for Assessment and Intervention”; “Adapting Activities for Maximum Student Participation: Ideas for Your Classroom, the Work in Ours”; and “My Students Can’t Write. Can They?”
The conference will have hands-on, lab-driven, workshops in which professionals such as special education teachers and therapists—usually not salespeople, although some salespeople are special education teachers or therapists—share their assistive technology strategies and best practices. In addition, Hamline University will offer graduate-level academic credit and CEUs to those fulfilling professional continuing education requirements. From Thursday through Saturday, the conference will have more than 200 one- and two-hour presentations in the two hotels. (The company received more than 500 applications from potential presenters for those slots.)
The conference will be face-to-face and intensely personal, not unlike Megan Turek’s family business and story.
Turek loves Closing The Gap. She feels a great deal of satisfaction in helping change people’s lives for the better. But she hasn’t always felt comfortable.
“I worked for my family part-time in the summers as a teenager. It wasn’t always easy coming to work here then,” she says, “and in the beginning, I felt as if I had absolutely no credibility. It was nepotism at its highest. I was the boss’s kid, and everyone knew I got the job because of who I was and not because of my ability. I felt that if I was ever going to work here I’d need some credibility.”
Over several years, she worked as a graphic designer at Carlson Craft Commercial in North Mankato and in 1991-93 for the Gaylord Hub and Belle Plaine Herald. She also attended college. Then in 1993, Closing The Gap hired her back to scan and archive historical photos for publishing in a history book featuring Henderson.
“Everyone was older than me,” she says of her first year, “and the only other employee my age was my ex-husband. I didn’t want to be handed something. I was bringing in a lot of baggage, and was wondering if I would ever be respected for my ability.”
In only a few years, her parents named her editor. Her feelings of inadequacy began dissipating in 2001-02 after she taught herself web design skills and re-designed the company website. “We needed to go online with the newspaper,” she says. “It made sense for us to cross-reference our static articles to our product guide.”
Her fellow employees never once hassled her about the issue of nepotism, but Turek felt she had to earn their respect, and now believes she has.
Turek works closely with Vice President Connie Kneip to implement the directives of Budd and Dolores. Besides being managing editor of the newspaper, just this summer Turek became sales manager, responsible for exhibit and magazine advertising.
“Man—I’ve evolved in my job set here,” she adds.
“Connie has been here forever,” says Turek of Vice President Connie Kneip. “She was one of the first employees and was hired when I was only age 10. Today, Connie is the conference, meaning she does all the conference coordinating, material selection, and knows the industry, keeps track of up and coming things, and evaluates everything. She is the most detail-oriented person I’ve ever met and is in a position that requires detail. She runs a well-organized machine of a conference.”
Taylor Corporation employee Tim Madsen and wife Liz serve as support staff at the one-week annual conference in Bloomington that draws people from around the world. Says Turek, “Tim is the ultimate fanny-pack wearing uber-geek and is proud of it. He knows computers like nobody’s business.”
Turek’s ex-husband Jeff left the company six months ago to start his own media company in Henderson, Evolution Media and Design, but still works on contract as the conference technical director. Both she and Jeff have remarried, and her current husband and Jeff are close friends.
Recently, Closing The Gap re-programmed its website to increase speed and reliability. Business has been brisk, to say the least.
“College and university professors use our online subscription service as an electronic textbook,” says Turek. “Federal legislation mandates that schools must consider assistive technology for their students. The demand for all educators—general and special education professionals alike—to have a general understanding of assistive technology is becoming more important as inclusive classrooms become a reality.”
As for where their family business is headed, Turek says, “Print will never go away.” Just this August, the company upgraded from its long-standing tabloid-sized newspaper to a glossy magazine that readers can more easily archive. Over the years, subscribers had commented about the bulky newspaper’s size and their difficulty storing it. She says, “Our publication isn’t like the New York Times, which gets thrown away once you’ve read it. It becomes reference material for most professionals.”
Online demand has been huge, of course. The company also publishes an annual Resource Directory, which is a guide to the latest assistive technology products for children and adults with special needs.