The familiar phrase, “one, two, three say cheese” is unlikely to evoke a big smile from Don Whittecar 's subjects! Don is a free-lance photographer, who specializes in photographing animals in their natural habitats for wildlife biologists. Don is also an artist, who uses engraving to capture the beauty of nature. Today, his captivating images can be seen in private collections and galleries across the United States.
Taiowa Images, Don’s company was founded 14 years ago, when the onset of disability necessitated the need for a career change. At the time, he was doing social educational research concentrating on victims of child abuse. Due to a neurobiological brain disorder, work related stress became too much, and Don’s physicians mandated a new job. Don decided to pursue engraving, because it was his passion and made good use of his assets. “I am very detailed oriented and tedious tasks do not wear me out. This work adapts to my abilities.”
Today, according to an article in Wildlife Art News, Don Whittecar is one of only 7 or 8 wildlife art engravers in the world. An engraver uses a hand held tool called a burin, to cut every line into a sheet of copper. Next, the copper sheet is heated. Then, printing paper is placed on top of the sheet and run through a hand press. The result is a unique work of art.
Making a living from engravings took patience and perseverance. Don learned early on that engraving was becoming a lost art. Even seasoned art gallery personnel could not tell the differences between engraving and etching. Thus, Don was doubtful that his art could be effectively marketed. However, this did not stop Don from pursuing his dream of owning a business! He realized that he needed to be flexible, "when one door closes another may open." Don began taking pictures of wildlife and developed photos that he would later use for engravings.
Don believes that a prerequisite to starting a business is to have passion for what you do. "You absolutely need to love it and, if you do not, find something else to do," he advises. "Some people think having your own business gives you the freedom to come and go as you please, but this is not true. Succeeding in your own business requires putting in many more hours than if you were working for someone else explains Don. "Those hours are not laborious when you like what you do."
After identifying his passion, Don developed a business plan. He said, “There are resources available through the Small Business Administration that can be invaluable when planning a business. The plan is the framework, just like building a house you have to put the framework up first. Planning was the easy part; implementation was hard. I needed support. Throughout the process, my state vocational rehabilitation counselor went the extra mile for me. To start, she had to convince her superiors that entrepreneurship was the right direction for me. This required education about self-employment and a change in attitude about supporting a person with a disability. It was about accentuating my abilities; not receiving services due to my disability.
“Along the way I encountered obstacles. Perhaps, these were not real obstacles, but instead just what it takes to run a business, but for someone with a disability some may seem more insurmountable. If the support is not there, look for it. Have the security in yourself. If you do not have the courage in yourself, borrow it. Take it from somebody else. Lean on a friend. Always be willing to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness or inability. We all need help. No matter how successful an individual is, they did not get their by themselves. We all need help.”
Today, Don is working on the wolf recovery project of the Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. There are only 59 of these wolves in existence. A gentleman approached Don when he was taking pictures in Yellowstone National Park, who admired his camera. In turn, Don noted the man’s binoculars were the same brand as his camera. The man was park ranger, Norm Bishop, who had spent 45 years reintroducing the wolves to the wild. Norm and Don became friends. Later, Norm would introduce Don to one of the top wolf biologist in the world, and his work on the wolf recovery project began.
This project meant that Don needed training and equipment. His vocational rehabilitation counselor helped advocate for the funding. The Rural Institute provided money for the dark room equipment. Financial assistance and counseling also contributed to Don’s success. The University of Montana Rural Institute: Center for Excellence in Disability Education, Research, and Service, is part of the national network of programs funded by the Federal Administration on Developmental Disabilities (ADD) committed to increasing and supporting the independence, productivity, and inclusion of persons with disabilities into the community, http://ruralinstitute.umt.edu/index.asp.
When asked what he would say to a person with a disability who may be considering self-employment, Don, offers sage advice, paired with famous quotes. “You have to be disciplined. While others are out having fun, going to the movies or eating out, an artist better be working in the studio. It really does not matter what you do there are sacrifices you have to make in terms of time, energy, and money. You have to maintain your desire, and passion for what you are doing. You need to know if you put forth the effort in the early years, you get established, and it will be a lot easier."
"Cardinal Sunans, a Catholic Cardinal, said 'blessed are those who dream dreams, and are willing to pay the price to make them come true.' We all have dreams; but we must also be the one that is willing to pay the price. If you have never worked for yourself or followed your passion then you need to it. I believe you will find…it’s not labor; it’s a love; it’s not effort; it’s enjoyment. So, I encourage anyone who wants to try this to do it."
"Bobby Kennedy made the statement 'some people see things as they are and ask, why? I dream things that have never been and ask, why not?' That is what we can do as persons with disabilities; ask why not? We as people with disabilities are competitive. We can compete on a level playing field with just about anybody. If we have the right adaptation, follow your passion, open the doors, and pave the way for future entrepreneurs with disabilities. Remember there are a lot of resources out there to help. You will be successful."