Selfie - Tenacious
Her Inner Light - Her daughters, who are hope, compassion, and everything humanity could and should be.
Her message to women everywhere - “You are strong, you are powerful. Be loving and kind to yourself, forgiving yourself of whatever transgression you think you may have. Whatever you want to do in this world, you can do it."
Kim Lan Grout was born in our land of the free, but she grew up in the shadows of those who barely made it to this country. A boat person from Vietnam, Kim Lan’s mother experienced atrocities before her escape, the weight of which she carried to her new life. Kim Lan’s father was born Polish during WWII in a labor camp where he lived for many years before immigrating to America through Ellis Island. Kim Lan grew up on cultural tension both at home and school.
Kim Lan also battled a disorder from birth. Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, which manifested on Kim Lan’s left leg, is a rare condition that affects the development of blood vessels, soft tissues and bones. Painful and debilitating, the disability also impacted her socially and emotionally. “I didn’t hate my leg,” Kim Lan remembers, “but my mother seemed to. She would hate on my freckles, for example, maybe as a distraction from my leg for herself.” As a child, Kim Lan didn't understand the ways people devalued her because of her disability. "People often said to me that I won't have long to live. Mortality was a very real thing for me during my childhood, a time that shouldn’t be about death and how it looms."
Even though so much of her childhood was conflicted, Kim Lan identifies herself as a happy person. With light in her eyes and a perpetually joyful smile, she says, “I could be resentful and sad, dwelling in the darkness and the decisions that made up my life. But what good would that do? That is all in my head.”
When Kim Lan was eighteen, she chose to have her left leg amputated. She pivoted. Kim Lan describes the elation, power and strength she experienced upon waking up post-operation. "I’d just gone through this horrible thing, but I was so excited for the rest of my life and all that was to come. I’d had a disability my entire life, but after my amputation, the pain was over, the hospitalizations were done. I was free to be me. This was my liberation!"
In the spirit of no holding back, Kim Lan started her own business. First a teaching academy that offered tutoring services in math, sciences and verbal comprehension. She managed a staff of tutors and ran the business out of a space in San Francisco. She met and married a man who shared her sense of freedom and love. With him, she embarked on the adventure of parenthood with their two healthy girls. With the birth of each child, she dialed down her tutoring business. Not wanting to be away from her own children, she told clients she could either help them find other good tutors or she could offer them her services via Skype. Every single one of her clients chose to stay with her so her business grew organically into an online service. “My work evolved with me,” Kim Lan says. She took up photography to capture her growing family. Before long, people hired Kim Lan for their portraits and family moments so she started a photography business. Alongside birthing her children, she birthed a talented photographer.
Of all her creations, Kim Lan’s absolute favorite are her children. Kim Lan is effusive about how much she loves being a mother despite the regular challenges of motherhood on top of those that come with being a mother as a disabled person. "I love that I have created something that will tell their own stories and I’ll get to be part of them.” But she saw how the ways people approached her disability increasingly affected her girls' world view. Her daughters grew terrified about Kim Lan dying, a fear with which they framed their lives. "This broke my heart, how my three-year-old was internalizing a message from all the voices around her — how her own mother was not strong and would not be able to take care of her for long.” Kim Lan did not want her girls to grow up with such unfounded fears and misinformed attitude about people with disabilities.
In 2014 Kim Lan started the Redefining Disabled Project, a photo series accompanied by stories about people of various disabilities in their daily lives. Kim Lan interviews disabled people who apply through her website. She takes photos and writes their stories. Kim Lan saw very quickly the many stories that wanted and needed to be told. Kim Lan’s Redefining Disabled Project creates a way for disabled people to be seen and understood as the individuals they are. Kim Lan says, "Now is the time to start having these conversations. The basis for understanding, acceptance and tolerance starts with proper information."
Kim Lan is a good listener and a natural story teller. “I genuinely love my models. They are taking an enormous leap of faith with me. For days and weeks, their spirit and stories stay with me and carry me through everything. That people are willing to let me tell their stories is a dream come true. I am humbled, and I honor their stories.”
Photos provided by Kim Lan Grout