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In the past two weeks, I've spent time with two people who are the largest minority in the United States: Americans with disabilities. The first, Ric Nelson, is a 37-year-old entrepreneur based in Anchorage, Alaska. Nelson has cerebral palsy and requires full-time support to meet his physical needs. Nelson is academically brilliant and highly motivated to advance the interests of the disabled. He finished the top 10 of his high school class and, against all odds, used the scholarship he received to earn an associate and bachelor's degree in small business management and business administration. Most recently, he completed a master's degree in public administration.
Nelson serves on multiple boards and is an eight-year chairman of the Board of Governors on Disabilities and Special Education (GCDSE) in Alaska, where he currently serves as the employment program coordinator. I learned the full extent of the plight of disabled workers from my discussion with Nelson.
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The National Council on Disabilities (NCD) estimates that between 40 and 57 million people are disabled in the United States. As of 2018, only 18 percent were employed. Statistics from the Census Bureau show that the total rose slightly in 2019, but had already reached 19.3 percent even before the global health crisis.
Unsurprisingly, the COVID recession was disproportionately severe for the disabled, who lost nearly one million U.S. jobs between March and May of this year. Complicating factors include the termination of jobs due to the added risk of immunocompromised diseases and the dominance of disabled workers in subordinate positions in industries such as food and services, which are hardest hit. Concerns about the ability to meet the American Disability Act (ADA) requirements for work-from-home arrangements were also a factor. Funding for private organizations to support the disabled has also suffered.
Nelson notes, however, that entrepreneurship could be an answer to some of these needs.
The story of a disabled entrepreneur
Christopher Casson agrees. Casson, who has just turned 35, is an events and commercial photographer who is on the autistic spectrum. Instead of viewing his traits as an obstacle, he views them as a gift that gives him an unusually high level of focus and allows him to help other employees and entrepreneurs as a disability needs activist.
In 2018, Casson launched the Autism To ARTism movement to remove negative stigmatization, highlight strengths, and raise awareness of the challenges autistic adults face as current systems often make them forget about after high school. After earning an associate and bachelor's degree in graphic design and computer animation, Casson interned in a wedding photography studio and founded Christopher Casson Photography, LLC in 2019.
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I met Casson while coaching the Next Impactor competition, which culminated in Chicago in August 2019. Casson was the fourth place winner and also received the Video Vanguard Award for a video challenge he directed.
Six months ago, Casson's business was ready to go in March 2020, and then of course we all know what happened next. The events industry, which had been his main target, disappeared in an instant.
On the advice of a consultant, Casson now hopes to switch to real estate photography, which shows steady and even increasing demand. Is this a good idea?
To find out, I interviewed Michael Schoenfeld, a 35-year-old experienced photographer and cameraman at the helm of Michael Schoenfeld Studio in Salt Lake City. Schönfeld is the photographer my agency used for our own needs and recommended to clients. Schönfeld has received a number of awards, including several Graphis Platinum Awards, and was selected as the judge of the Graphis 2020 New Talent Annual this year.
What was of greatest interest to me, however, was that he successfully went from being a lone photographer to being the program manager of a huge initiative for one of the three largest self-storage companies in the country with 1,600 locations in the United States. The company wanted a high-quality library of photographs in every location in the United States. The last time we talked about the project in 2018, he was in the process of offering, hiring, and organizing a corporate project that went beyond anything he'd experienced in his photography career.
"How did it go?" I asked. "And what would you advise an aspiring photographer like Casson to do?"
An expert weighs in
Schönfeld was open. He noted that photographers, by and large, enter their industry because of their interest and talents, but have virtually no experience running a business or being an entrepreneur. The failure rates are dire. Of those that survive, many can only produce $ 18-20,000 a year.
"Find a way to get an entrepreneurial education early," he said. "Work, you're a ** off. That's my biggest secret."
In his case, Schönfeld's corporate project was just as challenging for his huge and publicly traded client as he had imagined. The program tested his ability to plan and execute as a program director. He rightly assumed that the different skills of the regional photographers he hired were less of a problem than the process and rules for optimizing the results to make them consistent across all states. While meeting the deadlines and performing properly the first year, he quickly found that success in years two and three would be easier to come by by hiring a smaller field of photographers to be tested and proven, and a larger one each assigned regional territory. The strategy has been successful as the program is now in its third year and is on schedule for a successful completion in 2020 despite the interruptions caused by the health crisis.
Similarly, he noticed that the largest hospital in the area, which had previously hired him for most of its commercial photography, suddenly realized that it wouldn't dare to use the photograph now that it shows patients receiving the flu vaccinations from practitioners who do not wear masks.
The hospital asked if it was possible to include Photoshop masks in the photos.
Again, it was entrepreneurial problem solving and project / budget management as well as photographic skills that made him succeed. Since he kept records of lighting, color, and specifications for every photo he took, Schönfeld was able to recreate every photo setting and photo mask that were positioned exactly where the people were in the original photos. This enabled him to cut the masks onto the original photos and edit them with Photoshop while maintaining the quality requested by the customer.
Entrepreneurial skills are required in a crisis
Beyond the artistic skills and ability of a photographer, disabled or not, to go beyond just being a barely successful practitioner but also becoming a growing and sustainable company, entrepreneurship and an infallible work ethic are required to be successful . Schönfeld notes that it is this set of requirements that enables so many international photographers from regions like India to step in surprisingly adeptly and meet the needs that US photographers might otherwise meet when "their greatest resource is time" notes Schönfeld, and they are willing to invest any number of hours in improving their skills in order to be successful.
Related: How This Comedian Overcome Chronic Pain and Disability to Build Her Media Career
In the United States, Casson is one of the million dollar entrepreneurs, and I have a firm belief that he has improved the qualities for success. For those interested in tracking his progress, he documents his own journey and the issues he advocates with the help of others in his "Thru Autistic Eyes" podcast, which is published on Apple.
For disabled people in the US who are running or considering starting a business, Entrepreneur has published a list of grants and funding resources here.