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Over the past two weeks I’ve spent time with two individuals who represent the largest minority group in the United States: Americans with disabilities. The first, Ric Nelson, is a 37-year-old entrepreneur in Anchorage Alaska. Nelson has cerebral palsy and requires full-time assistance to manage his physical needs. Nelson is academically brilliant and highly energized to advance the interests of the disabled. He graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class and, against high odds, used the scholarship he obtained to secure associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in Small Business Management and Business Administration. Most recently, he completed a master’s degree in Public Administration.
Nelson serves on multiple boards and after eight years of service became chair of the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education (GCDSE) for Alaska, where he is currently employed as Employment Program Coordinator. I learned from my discussion with Nelson the full extent of the plight of disabled employees.
The National Council on Disabilities (NCD) estimates between 40 and 57 million people in the U.S. are disabled. As of 2018, only 18 percent were employed. Statistics from the Census Bureau show the sum inched up slightly in 2019 but reached only 19.3 percent even prior to the global health crisis.
Not surprisingly, the COVID recession has been disproportionately hard for the disabled, who’ve lost nearly one million U.S. jobs between March and May of this year. Complicating factors include jobs ended due to the extra risk of immunocompromised conditions and the predominance of disabled workers in lower-level positions in industries such as food and service that have been most heavily hit. Concerns for the ability to comply with ADA (American Disability Act) requirements in work-from-home arrangements have also been a factor. Funding for private organizations to support the disabled have suffered as well.
However, Nelson notes that entrepreneurship could be an answer to some of these needs.
One disabled entrepreneur’s story
Christopher Casson agrees. Casson, who just turned 35, is an event and commercial photographer who is on the autistic spectrum. Instead of viewing his traits as a hindrance, he considers them a gift that gives him an unusually high level of focus and allows him to help other employees and entrepreneurs as an activist for disability needs.
In 2018, Casson launched the Autism To ARTism movement to eliminate negative stigma and emphasize strengths and raise awareness for the challenges autistic adults face, as current systems tend to leave them forgotten after high school. After completing associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in graphic design and computer animation, Casson interned with a wedding photography studio and in 2019 established Christopher Casson Photography, LLC.
I met Casson while serving as a coach for the Next Impactor competition that culminated in Chicago in August 2019. Casson was the fourth place winner and also received the Video Vanguard award for a video challenge he’d led.
Six months ago, Casson’s business was ready for launch in March 2020, and then, of course, we all know what happened next. The events industry that had been his primary target disappeared on a dime.
On the advice of an advisor, Casson is now hoping to shift to real estate photography, which is showing steady and even increasing demand. Is this a good idea?
To find out, I interviewed Michael Schoenfeld, a 35-year experienced photographer and cinematographer at the helm of Michael Schoenfeld Studio in Salt Lake City. Schoenfeld is the photographer my agency has used for our own needs and recommended to clients. Schoenfeld has received a number of awards, including multiple Graphis Platinum awards, and was selected as a judge of the Graphis 2020 New talent Annual this year.
Of most interest to me, however, he successfully pivoted from individual photographer to program head of a giant initiative for one of the nation’s top three self-storage companies 1,600 U.S. sites. The company wanted a high-level library of photographs at each U.S. site. When we last spoke about the project in 2018, he was in the midst of bidding, hiring, and organizing an enterprise project levels beyond anything he’d encountered in his photographic career.
“How did it go?” I asked. “And what would be your words of advice to an emerging photographer like Casson?”
An expert weighs in
Schoenfeld was candid. He noted that by and large, photographers enter their industry based on interest and talents, but with virtually zero experience in managing a business or succeeding as an entrepreneur. Failure rates are dismal. Of those who survive, many are capable of producing only $18-20,000 a year.
“Find a way to get some entrepreneurial training early,” he said. “Work you’re a** off. That’s my biggest secret.”
In his own case, Schoenfeld’s enterprise project for his giant and publicly-traded client was every bit as challenging as he believed it would be. The program tested his ability to plan and execute as a program director. He rightly anticipated the variance of abilities in the regional photographers he commissioned was less an issue than the process and rules for tweaking the results to make them consistent across all states. While he met the deadlines and executed properly in year one, he quickly determined success would come more readily in years two and three by engaging a smaller field of photographers who were tested and proven and assigning a larger regional territory to each. The strategy succeeded, as the program is now in its third year and on schedule for successful 2020 completion in spite of the interruptions from the health crisis.
Similarly, he noted that the region’s largest hospital, which previously engaged him for most of its advertising photography, suddenly noted that it wouldn’t dare to use the photography now as it depicts patients receiving flu shots from practitioners who are not wearing masks.
The hospital asked if it would be possible to photoshop masks into the photos.
Again, it was entrepreneurial problem solving and project/budget management, along with photographic skills, that let him succeed. As he’d kept records of the lighting, color, and specifications for every photograph he’d created, Schoenfeld was able to recreate each photo setting and photograph masks positioned exactly where the people in the original photographs had been. This allowed him to cut and photoshop the masks onto the original photos while maintaining the quality the client required.
Entrepreneurial skills are necessary amidst crisis
Beyond artistic skills and the ability of any photographer, disabled or not, to move beyond being a barely successful practitioner to a growing and sustainable business requires entrepreneurial skills and an unfailing work ethic to succeed. In fact, Schoenfeld notes, it is this set of requirements that is allowing so many international photographers from regions such as India to become surprisingly adept at stepping in and meeting the needs that U.S. photographers would otherwise be able to fill as “their biggest resource is time,” Schoenfeld notes, and they are willing to invest any number of hours required to hone their skills to succeed.
In the U.S., Casson is one of the millions of entrepreneurs and I fully believe he’s honed the traits to succeed. For those who’d like to follow his progress, he is documenting his own journey and the issues he is advocating with the help of others in his podcast “Thru Autistic Eyes,” which is syndicated on Apple.
For disabled individuals in the U.S. who are leading or contemplating the launch of a business, Entrepreneur has published a list of grants and funding resources here.