The parents of severely disabled children are among the targets of a marketing program that Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. unveiled this week.

The Market Champion Program will offer trust services, mutual funds, and insurance products to the guardians of so-called special-needs children- those whose physical or mental disabilities are expected to bar them from ever holding regular jobs without special help.

The program, staffed by 137 account representatives, is also aimed at people with incomes of more than $500,000, those older than 50, and women business leaders.

Though MetLife has long served these other groups, the addition of families with special-needs children is a new twist for the company, said Nadine Vogel, director of the program.

Ms. Vogel, who has an 8-year-old daughter with a disability, said she presented the idea to MetLife executives.

They saw it as an opportunity to serve a huge market, Ms. Vogel said. "Most people don't realize how big it is," she added.

About 11% of U.S. children who are 18 or younger and live at home have a physical or mental impairment that is serious enough to prevent them from ever holding down a regular job, Ms. Vogel said.

MetLife noted that in 1997 about 14.9 million Americans, or 8.7%, had the sort of disability that would ordinarily keep them from regular employment.

While recent legislative mandates have raised awareness about the number of Americans with disabilities, Ms. Vogel said, few companies have moved to develop significant specialties serving the market's needs.

And the needs are complex.

Estate planning for families with disabled members poses unique challenges and pitfalls. For instance, she said, most parents do not realize that if the last surviving parent wills more than $2,000 in money or property to a child with special needs, that child will forever lose eligibility for many types of government assistance.

Such a misstep could imperil the financial health of siblings or other family members, who might feel they had to contribute more, Ms. Vogel said.

MetLife's plan is to staff the Market Champion Program with employees with special understanding of understand the challenges facing these families. About 80% of the representatives chosen to focus on the segment have cared for special-needs children themselves. That experience, along with involvement in community organizations dedicated to special needs, is desirable in applicants, she said.

"You have to be a very special person to want to be involved in this," Ms. Vogel said.

MetLife expects to serve the complex needs of this group and still turn a profit. But "nobody should go into this for a quick buck," she view.

Segmenting investors by their needs can work, said Les Dinkin, a principal at NBW Consulting Group in Westport, Conn. "The idea of dividing and conquering for insurance or other financial services makes a lot of sense," he said.

MetLife may have carved a niche in special needs, making it difficult for other companies - particularly smaller ones-to copy them, Mr. Dinkin said.

"Very few people will want to wade in there after them, because of the complexity," he said.

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