For deaf entrepreneur, determination trumps disability

Chen Huizhi
It's hard enough to start a business if you are perfectly normal. For the disabled, it's an uphill battle – but one that can be conquered.
Chen Huizhi

Living in a world of no sound, Hu Shiqun creates a world of colors.

Hu, 38, is the founder of a Shanghai street art studio that specializes in 3D wall and ground paintings. All seven of the painters at his studio have impaired hearing.

Communication with the clients is handled solely through typed words, but that hasn’t hindered the business, Hu told Shanghai Daily. The studio weathered the COVID-19 epidemic by word of mouth among clients.

Hu, who grew up in Anhui Province, lost his hearing when he was only a year old due to medication he was given. He said he started to learn Chinese calligraphy when he was 13 and became interested in art after seeing someone writing Chinese New Year’s couplets with a brush.

“Learning to paint without being able to hear is not different from the experience of other students, except that I communicated with my teacher in sign language and written words,” he said.

Hu praises Li Xiang, a teacher at a special education school in the Anhui city of Bengbu, who dug into his own pocket to buy books on classic calligraphy and Chinese painting for Hu and led him through practice.

“Most importantly, he was very strict with me, which helped me learn faster,” he said.

Hu’s skills led him to enrollment in a high school in the Anhui capital of Hefei. There he started to learn to paint watercolors.

“I had no money to buy textbooks and spent my time doing still-life painting on my own,” he said.

Hu went on to study advertising design at a college in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, and found a job copying oil paintings. That lasted only a year.

“I dreamed of becoming a true artist and starting my own company, and I felt copying other people’s paintings was a dead end,” he said.

He came to work in Shanghai as a graphic designer, where he met one of the most influential people in his life, Wan Wenguang, about 10 years ago. Wan, 52, is a famous 3D and installation artist in China.

“I was deeply fascinated by his wall painting art because it’s so unique and expressive,” Hu said. “I believe that the meaning of art is to express thoughts and emotions.”

In wall paintings, artists use acrylic paints. The genre requires special training in perspective.

Wan told Shanghai Daily that he guides Hu and other students more toward an attitude on art and life than on the skills because attitude determines artistic accomplishment.

“Choosing the right cause at the right time, making art accessible to the public and always being self-critical help an artist go a long way,” Wan said.

Hu started to plan his own art studio in 2014, when everyone around him seemed to be talking about starting up businesses, but they were mostly people without disabilities.

“I had never heard of a successful startup founded by people with impaired hearing, and I wanted to blaze a trail for people like me,” he said.

He had only 20,000 yuan (US$3,000) in his pocket when he started his studio, but he was helped along by startup competitions and by support from the Shanghai Disabled People’s Employment Service Center.

Communication was sometimes a problem, Hu said. Some clients found communicating through typed words frustrating, but those who persisted were rewarded.

One of Hu’s more recent clients is Cao Yingjie, a young entrepreneur in charge of the design and operation of a new grocery market in Baoshan District.

Hu’s team was hired to paint street-style patterns on the surface of the stone counters in the market, which aims to attract different generations of people with cooking classes, nature education, art shows and live performances.

“They’re energetic young people with a passion to create new things, and you can feel that in their paintings,” Cao said. “They’re also a professional, dedicated team, often working late into the night on the designs for us.”

Cao said he had no problem communicating with the team and was satisfied with their work.

Hu said many painters with impaired hearing are good at imitating artworks but are not necessarily good at innovation. He said the problem probably stems from the fact that they have fewer opportunities to learn from top painters.

Hu serves as art director of his studio, helping less-experienced team members develop their talent.

The priority now, he said, is to expand the business and employ more disabled people with background in art training.

“After all we’ve been through, we have proved that we’re able to live on what we love, and I hope that will inspire other disabled people to chase their dreams,” Hu said.

On disabled people starting businesses in Shanghai

For deaf entrepreneur, determination trumps disability
Ti Gong

Wu Zhaolong

Wu Zhaolong, vice director of training and employment at the Shanghai Disabled People’s Employment Service Center:

“Our center has been running a startup incubator for disabled people since 2016, providing services to 21 startups. Through September this year, our services have resulted in the employment of 73 people. At the moment, 11 startups are using the facility.

The center provides help in registering companies, business planning, legal issues, financial affairs, media relations, roadshows and investment opportunities. We’re here to address their needs.

We have disabled entrepreneurs who have impaired eyesight or hearing, or are physically disabled. They want to start businesses in a wide range of sectors, including handicrafts, technology gadgets, education and services for disabled people.

We support the startups even after they have left the facility, and we actively encourage investors to support them.”

For deaf entrepreneur, determination trumps disability
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Zhang Zhenyu

Zhang Zhenyu, a blind piano dealer and tuner:

“For everyone who starts a business, it’s an uphill climb, but for disabled people, it’s even harder. We are still faced with inequality of opportunities and insufficient accessibility, which makes us more restricted in building up resources and more vulnerable in face of risks.

I experienced that myself during the COVID-19 epidemic. Since our customers couldn’t come to our shop and we couldn’t go to their homes, we tried to keep the business operating via online livestreaming. We recorded videos beforehand and played them live. However, the streaming platform we were using required that users show their faces in front of the camera 15 minutes into a streaming session. But the client software on the platform didn’t allow us to do that via our screen-reading software. Fortunately, with help of some media friends, the platform resolved the problem for us.

We would probably be out of business were it not for livestreaming.

Another problem we face is the reluctance of local banks to provide loans to businesses run by disabled people because they think we are higher risk.

I hope more companies will become aware of the disabled community. We’re not looking for special privileges, only reasonable accessibility. And we want society to recognize that we are entrepreneurs just like everyone else.”

Special Reports