Disability ≠ Inability: the stories of the two disabled artists from Changshu

by Rachel D., Concordia Applied Journalism


While Changshu seems a long way from where we study in Jinqiao, the powerful stories of two artists leaves us deep in reflection.

When someone sees a disabled individual the initial reaction is often pity, viewing their disabilities as an obstacle or a tragedy. Although disability may bring about challenges, it often doesn’t stop individuals from doing what they love. Take for example artists Gu Wei Yi and Cui Yi Fei, both of which have significant disabilities. Mr. Gu, a traditional Chinese artist, was diagnosed with polio at the age of three, while Mr. Cui, who is a metal artist, was born completely deaf. Evidence gathered from these two extremely talented people lends credence to the fact that disability does not equate to inability.


The Traditional Chinese Artist: Gu Wei Yi


When he was three, Mr. Gu Wei Yi was diagnosed with polio, a debilitating disease that permanently deprived him of his walking. Daily life had become a hardship and when school had started for young Mr. Gu, his daily challenges had gotten worse.

"When I was in elementary school I had no crutches," recalls Mr. Gu. "All I had was a chair to support me."

“When I was in elementary school I had no crutches, all I had was a chair to support me,” he recalls in an interview.“So, whenever I wanted to use the bathroom I would have to inch myself to the restroom bit by bit.” Fortunately, his father was the elementary school teacher at that time, so all during elementary school years it was his father that carried him to and from school. Yet when middle school rolled around, things changed for Mr. Gu. “My father couldn’t carry me around anymore,” he explains, “so I had to slowly walk to school with my chair every morning.”

     The artistic life of Mr. Gu began             when he was 13 years old.

Seeing him struggle everyday Mr. Gu’s father started to fear that Mr. Gu wouldn’t have a way to sustain himself in the future. What career could an individual with polio really have? When Mr. Gu turned 13, the father and son developed an answer to this question. A family friend who was an artist had observed the young boy’s challenges for a while and was moved deeply the struggles the child had to face. So, he took him in as a student and it turned out that Mr. Gu had a natural talent in art. “You know what’s funny?” Mr. Gu asks. “By the time I was 15 I was already teaching students who had children of their own who were the same age as me.”

From then on, Mr. Gu excelled at art, completing art college in only three years. He even started getting commissioned by international clients. There were certainly some challenges along the way. Appreciation for traditional Chinese art was slowing dying out and many bought his art for reasons other than the artistic factor. But Mr. Gu has persevered through it all. Now fifty years old and living in a small cottage in Changshu, he is still madly in love with art, painting traditional Chinese art pieces that have been sold and showcased nationwide.


The Metal Artist: Cui Yi Fei


“It always seemed funny to me when people would judge my artistic skills on my hearing disability,” Mr. Cui Yi Fei chuckles as he types his thoughts on to his phone. “I’m not making art with my ears!”

Mr. Cui was born deaf to a deaf family, so often times he didn’t face a lot of unique challenges growing up. He was constantly surrounded by supportive people and didn’t feel out of place during his childhood. “Sometimes hearing kids would tease me, but I couldn’t really hear them so I didn’t care,” Mr. Cui joked as he recalled his childhood.

"There were no tutorials or instruction manuals to the metal art,” Mr. Cui recalls, “so I kind of had to figure it out myself..." (image supplied)

Yet it was when he got older that Mr. Cui started feeling the social stigma of his deafness. He had spent a lot of his life pondering what he could choose as a career path and was constantly refused employment because of his hearing impairment. “I could see why I might need to be hearing to by a waiter or a salesman, but I was turned down for cleaning jobs and cooking jobs as well, which hearing wasn’t as crucial for,” he explains “But thank god I didn’t keep looking for jobs because I found the thing I was passionate for. And that was metal art.”

Mr. Cui had found out about metal art through the internet as he was scrolling through his Weibo (Chinese social media) one day. The moment he saw it, he fell in love with the concept. “There were no tutorials or instruction manuals to the metal art,” he recalls, “so I kind of had to figure it out myself, sitting in my work room all day and night just to figure out how to do the framework,” he adds. “Slowly I started to get the hang of it.”

Now Mr. Cui is not only a highly accomplished metal artist, being able to make metal models of a variety of objects from motorbikes to Chinese landmarks. Amazingly he finds energy to devote to others as a part-time Chinese Sign Language (CSL) teacher, teaching CSL to anyone who is willing to learn for free. “I just want people to know that we are just as capable as everyone else,” Mr. Cui remarks. “That’s why I wanted to teach the classes, to raise awareness.”

Considering the remarkable stories of Mr. Cui and Mr. Gu, it seems obvious that disability is not inability, as much as it may often be mixed up. These two artists are just two out of the plethora of talented disabled people that take daily strides to persevere through hardships and reach their goals. These extremely hard-working people show us that no matter what obstacle one is faced with, through persistence and courage, anything can be accomplished.

Rachel D. is a student of Concordia Applied Journalism.