New posting! Today we are showcasing Ron Kerns, a business owner from Mountain Home, Arkansas. Check out what he shared with us.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your disability.
A: In 2014, age the age of 46, I received an Autism diagnosis. I had only started suspecting it a few years earlier, while watching the first season of the NBC program, “Parenthood”. In the show, there was a kid named Max. And, when Max got his autism diagnosis, it got me thinking. So many of Max’s difficulties and challenges, were so much like mine when I was that age. I began to wonder. Could I be? Then, one night, while it was on, I took my laptop out, and started googling.
The “lightbulbs” started going off immediately. I soon came across a book entitled, “Pretending to be Normal”, a memoir of one woman’s life experience growing up into adulthood undiagnosed. And, that’s what really convinced me. Deep down I had always had that feeling that I was simply “pretending” to get by…and, then I learned that others have had that very same experience!
Overall, after a lifetime of struggles and difficulties, the diagnosis was a relief. There was finally a reason for it all. Once my assessment was complete, and the psychologist was going over the final report with me, I’ll never forget the look she gave me, as she asked, “How in the world did you make it this far? And, for so long? And, no one has ever said anything? At all?”
Q: What is your business and how did it start?
A: My business is called StudioKerns. I am an award-winning graphic designer, and I do design work for several clients located around the world. All of the clients I bring on have been personally referred to me by someone.
I started it in 2009, primarily out of necessity. I had just lost a full-time job, due to a major company reorganization, and had a feeling it was going to take quite some time to land another job. The moment I learned of the termination, I started firing off e-mails to contacts and vendors, letting everyone know that I was available for freelance work.
The first client was actually the company I was leaving. I had been designing the quarterly company newsletter for a few years, and the HR department was extremely pleased with each and every issue. They were just surprised as I was that I was being let go, and they still needed someone to produce the publication. So, for over three years after termination, I continued to do the newsletter for the company.
In the VERY first issue post-employment, I was able to put an article about myself in the newsletter. One of the last projects I did there, a campaign to launch a major new product, had won a design award from a design industry trade publication.
Once I got the diagnosis, I subtly “branded” myself as an “autistic, award-winning graphic designer”. That got the attention of a number of non-profit organizations, such as the Arc of North Texas, Dallas-based Launchability, and Baltimore-based Abilities Network, all of which provide support and services to those with disabilities, Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities, in particular. I personally designed a few Annual Reports for those non-profits, and other highly-acclaimed communications pieces.
It’s now been 10 years, and the work continues.
Q: Being someone with a disability influenced the way you manage your business?
A: Being autistic, it’s affected it in a few ways.
It’s made the practice of professional networking far more challenging than it would be for most. It took a very long time before I was effective at it. The crowded, loud rooms. The initiative to walk up and introduce myself to strangers. And, of course, managing to maintain any kind of eye contact.
I usually let clients know right away in our business relationship that I am autistic, if they didn’t know it already. And, that there can be times when I seem to be unreachable for a day or two…only because I am experiencing issues with meltdowns, shutdowns or sensory overload. And, with that, comes the need to ‘hibernate’ and recuperate from such episodes.
Those are really only the two things I can think of.
Q: Do you think the business community still has misconceptions towards those with disabilities?
A: Yes. For instance, in the United States, thirty-five percent of Autistic eighteen-year-olds go to college. Of those American Autistics with college degrees, only 15 percent are employed. This 85 percent unemployment rate (among college-educated Autistic adults) is massive—the general population’s unemployment rate (at all education levels) is only 4.5 percent.
There are multiple barriers to employment for those with disabilities, particularly those who are autistic. From being ostracized by coworkers and management when employed, having a long list of short-lived jobs on the resume, to communication challenges throughout the interviewing process. Upon following up on the countless interviews I had, the one phrase I heard most was, “We hired another candidate that was a 'better fit’ for the company/department”. And, “fitting in” is something that does not come easy for most anyone with a disability.
Q: Would you have any advice to someone that is disabled and is struggling to find a job or to build a business?
A: A few things certainly helped me.
As difficult as it might be to start, you’ve got to get actively networking. For instance, I found some professional organizations such as the Dallas/Fort Worth-American Marketing Association, Dallas Society of Visual Communications, and International Association of Business Communicators, and started attending their events, functions and meetings.
I was soon VERY active in the AMA, where I eventually earned the “Volunteer of the Year” award. Not only did I volunteer my time designing materials for the organization, but, I was constantly surrounded by those who were in positions of influence. Those that connected me with other people, all of who could consider either hiring me full-time or on a freelance basis. Three years after moving away from Dallas, and to rural/remote northern Arkansas, I still get contacted by those who I knew in AMA, or had been referred to me by someone who was to do freelance work.
Another example is being active in Toastmasters, particularly since one of my biggest challenges is communication. Toastmasters is an international organization that operates clubs worldwide for the purpose of promoting communication and public speaking skills. Makes for a great topic of conversation in a job interview, as well as for personal professional development.
While this business has been in existence for 10 years, again, the purpose was to provide income while seeking a full-time role. After my diagnosis in 2014, we came to the conclusion that perhaps a big-city environment was not the best place. (too much anxiety/stress, traffic, sensory issues, etc…etc..). And, my wife’s father was living on his own in rural/remote northern Arkansas. A place we loved to visit, and thought we would eventually move to. We decided to move there, and I would bring my freelance work with me.
About two years after moving to Arkansas, I did land a job at Missouri State University-West Plains. It’s been a ‘dream job’. Being a public university, they value diversity, and welcome those with disabilities. Plus, being in a very rural/remote area, I doubt there were many, if any, other candidates seriously considered for my job. How many others, with my background/experience could there be…in this small town?
While I do now have this full-time role, I do manage to do work for freelance clients, as well.
So, for job seekers I would definitely find a way to focus on public-sector employment. They not only are very accommodating to those with disabilities, but, welcome and encourage those who are to apply and join their organizations.
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