A little boy stares into the face of his grandma. She smiles wide, the wrinkles outlining her mouth bowing in further. In the little boy’s hands, a beautifully drawn picture of a dog, the same one he loved to look at in his coloring book. Although writing was still difficult for her grandson, his ability to draw gave her hope that they could find a way.
Alumnus Desmond Blair, a well-known artist, was born without hands on both of his arms and once struggled to learn how to write. However, when art became an active part of Blair’s life at a young age, he proceeded to defy the odds with his problem-solving skills and passion.
Although accomplished artists are an inspiration, Blair attributes his drive to his mom and grandma, who both raised him. For them, his limb difference did not limit him, but gave him a reason to stand out for more than just his differing functionality.
“My mom, she knew I was going to school, there was no option,” Blair said. “Since I was a little kid, she was like, ‘You’ve got to get your education, especially having a limb difference.’ It’s going to be more important that I should get education just so I have an opportunity to level the playing field.”
Blair was given a challenge and, with the help of his mom’s support, he was accepted in to UTD’s Arts and Technology program and found himself moving away from home to pursue his dreams.
“Moving on campus at UTD was the first time I had ever really been on my own, so the academic piece was a challenge to me, getting used to college classes, making sure you learn the nuances of each professor and what their expectations were,” Blair said.
Blair also found daily chores such as cooking and washing clothes difficult while living on his own.
“I’m pretty sure most people deal with those things, but it is a little daunting because I always had my mom to ask for help. When you have to do all this stuff on your own, it is another huge piece of the challenge during my time at UTD,” he said.
Blair returned to UTD in the fall of 2007 to pursue his master’s. Higher education came with its own challenges, as he was exposed to the working world and those who inhabited it.
“The greatest challenge was after I got my master’s degree, like navigating the job market,” Blair said. “When you’re 23 years old and you have an advanced degree, people kind of scratch their head and then they scratch their head more when you don’t have hands and they’re trying to figure out how that whole situation is going to work.”
Blair’s limb difference brought about an attitude he did not expect from business professionals.
“I would go into these interviews and answer all the questions fine,” he said. “I have all the technical mobility, know-how, knowledge, but then they turn around and ask you, ‘Well, how do you use a keyboard?’ I don’t need any modifications, but most people don’t understand.”
Though discouraging to hear, Blair did not stop pursuing potential careers with maximum effort.
“It is just something I had to learn to be aware of, that you have to show people … I was just doing 3D graphics and stuff, but I started back painting because going on these job interviews and into those awkward situations and I wanted to be able to show them that if I could paint, then I can write, I can type 70 words a minute,” Blair said. “I just have my own way of doing it.”
Blair’s methods of functioning from day-to-day may be different, but his draw to the world of painting and art can only be explained by the same lure experienced by other artists.
“For me, it is almost instinctual … A lot of this stuff I learned through school, but you just do it so much, I think that it comes natural … I guess you just work with your tools so much that you know which brush to grab,” he said.
Blair said blending is his favorite part of the painting process. It allows him to completely focus on his work. It brings every stroke together into a whole work of art to be shared as a testament to what everyone is capable of with the right amount of endurance despite the challenges. For Blair, having a limb difference was one of these challenges, but his ability to overcome it has motivated him to use his art to teach his audiences about limb differences.
“I would ultimately like my artwork to spread … awareness and education about people with limb differences, how to not be taken aback,” he said. “My artwork has given me that opportunity to expose people to that and to be able to answer some of those questions and hopefully the next time they do come across someone with a limb difference, they don’t see them as disabled. They see them as just different. They see the person first.”
Blair’s acceptance into college meant everything to him, but money was a burden on him and his family until he was given the ability to attend UTD with the help of a scholarship from Texas Scottish Rite Hospital, as well as the Bryce Jordan scholarship. He wishes to use his talent to award other exceptional children with limb differences the same opportunities he had, despite their financial situations, by using his art to fund scholarships.
Blair believes he is at a point in his career where it is time for him to plan his own solo exhibition over the next year and create the pieces he wishes to present, such as portraits of individuals with limb differences, from varying ages and backgrounds, to tell the story of what those with this same “disability” can accomplish despite their circumstances.
“I’d like to … ultimately sell my artwork and get to the point where I can create a foundation around it and give kids with limb differences educational opportunities and scholarships, and mentoring programs and things like that,” Blair said.