Founding Executive Director of I-CREATE YOUTH Jessica (Jess) Kim interviewed Aunia Kahn, a photographer, author, and disability adcoate.
Aunia Kahn is the CEO of Rise Visible. With 24 years in the field, she is a highly sought after digital marketer, strategist, public speaker and digital influencer. She is also an internationally recognized and awarded visual artist, photographer, author who has shown in over 300 exhibitions in over 10 countries; at places such as San Diego Art Institute, iMOCA, and the St. Louis Art Museum. She founded Create for Healing and the Oregon Disabled Business Owners Association. Aunia also identifies as a disabled business owner surviving and thriving with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (Type 3), Mast Cell Disease, Dysautonomia, and POTS, PTSD, etc.
I-CREATE YOUTH is an organization that empowers, educates, and connects disabled youth through language in its various forms, from poetry to programming. We teach creative writing workshops, host fellowship and summer research programs, and curate monthly exhibitions featuring disabled changemakers, all in an effort to connect disabled youth and communicate their stories with the world. Learn more about us at icreateyouth.com.
Jessica Kim: As both an artist/photographer and author, what do these two forms of artistic creativity mean to you?
Aunia Kahn: Both of these art forms have had various meanings over the years. I have been doing art, writing, and photographing the world since I was very young. It was a way for me to escape things less than pleasant that occurred during my childhood. Being creative gave me a window to a world of positivity, expression, and healing.
Art comes from a place of more abstract expression, although I mostly paint figuratively - I don't think too much about it. I go with a feeling in the moment and move instinctively in the direction the artwork is taking me.
Photography came back into my life as a crucial part of my disease process. I had just gotten out of the hospital a few years ago and was on a feeding tube formula. Sitting down to paint or create art was not calling me at the time. So I began documenting my recovery through a series of personal photographs. Photography helped me process the trauma of the medical issues I was dealing with.
This gave me a more physical and visceral way to interact with the creative process. Most of the work is self-portraiture working through not being seen or heard in the medical world and always being brushed off. It was also about expressing the feeling of burden, loneliness, and sorrow that held onto me so deeply.
Writing has carried me through the years in a very similar way as art and photography. It is a different way to express oneself and work through challenges in life. Writing is very therapeutic but I also love playing with words to tell a good story, write an article for a publication, or layout a poem or song.
The creative process has kept me alive. It has helped me heal and connect with others. Being able to use any form of creativity (you don't have to be a master at it) is a tool that can change lives. I highly recommend finding ways to express yourself if you have a chronic illness or disability, or you are going through a rough patch.
JK: You’ve worked on dozens of projects and books. What’s one that was particularly meaningful to you?
AK: Everything I create has deep meaning. It is hard to place one over another because I live in a place of diplomacy - often! I love to see the value in everything; especially in the things I have created. Each has changed my life in some way.
One of the most meaningful books I created was "Obvious Remote Chaos". This was a collection of writing from youth. They are the stories and poems of my school days. This was a time I was bullied relentlessly, my homelife was less than pleasant, and all the parts and pieces in between. These were writings on little pieces of paper thrown in my school bag or stuffed in a journal all pulled together for an anthology of my life back then.
I also used more recent photography to balance the pages of the book with visuals I felt complemented the writing. The whole experience felt amazing, yet when editing it was quite hard to read a lot of it but it was also very therapeutic. It's really interesting to have such a complete account of your life for yourself, even if no one reads it.
Also, when I finally pulled together 13 years of being a fine artist into an art book, it was astonishing once again to see the story of my life unfold in imagery. The story of trying to survive through an undiagnosed chronic illness and the way the imagery told the story in a way I could never articulate was magical. If only for myself, it was worth the creation.
If others enjoy either of those two projects - that is a bonus!
JK: Can you share your journey of identifying as disabled and eventually branding yourself as a disabled woman in tech?
AK: Right now, it is Aug 2022, and this year was the year I finally decided to step into the identity of a disabled woman in tech. Being a woman in tech is already hard since it is a male-dominated field, but adding a disability to the equation can make it more challenging.
I finally got my umbrella diagnosis (Ehlers Danlos Syndrome) after 18 years in July 2021. I had to go through the process of realizing this is who I was and I can't change that. The other illnesses that I was diagnosed with in 2018 (Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, Dysauntonimia) were the results (or fallout) of the main illness (EDS) that I was not diagnosed with yet. I felt that those illnesses could perhaps go away over time - people have healed themselves from them, so there is hope.
The final diagnosis in July 2021 made it very clear that I would need to live my best life without the hope of full recovery unless a miracle happened. I do believe in miracles but I am also a realist. I know what I am dealing with here.
Over that year, I had to think a lot about my identity and who I was. I had tried to hide who I was especially as I ran my digital marketing agency - Rise Visible. This was my income and how I pay my bills. It just seemed too risky to put that out there. So many "what if's" played in my head. Then I started to move away from myself and started to think about the greater good for all. What would stepping out of the dark mean for not only myself and others too? If I feel a sense of shame to feel less than, then so do others and no one should feel alone in this.
So, I decided to take a risk. I am working on certification through the DOBE (Disability-Owned Business Enterprise), As well as being certified on Clutch Clutch (the leading ratings and reviews site in the world of tech, marketing, and B2B) as a woman-disabled-owned business. I was also featured in Authority Magazine's article "Disability Inclusion In The Workplace: Aunia Kahn of Rise Visible On How Businesses Make Accommodations For Customers and Employees Who Have A Disability".
To me, it just seems wrong on so many levels for me not to speak up. I understand not everyone can or wants to and that's okay but that's just who I am. As a person in art and business, I am seen as very direct and authentic. I like to say it how it is. Those are my core values and I must stand by them for myself and the greater good.
If this can create more conversations about disability visibility then it's the right thing to do.
JK: Do you think technology and art blend well with each other? How can we strive toward finding a balance between the two?
AK: I have been living in a blended art/tech world since before it was 'cool’. My career started as a digital painter, due to my severe allergies to all traditional art mediums. I was already a graphic designer so I found a new way to create art using the tools I used for design. When I started showing art in 2005, digital art was really frowned upon. There would be calls to art or gallery submission pages that in big bold letters said "NO DIGITAL ART". It was very hard to get my art seen back then.
The interesting thing is after a medical intervention for Mast Cell Activation Disorder, my world started opening up and I was able to start working with a colored pencil in 2020 and watercolor in 2021. I am not doing as much digital art since I have been craving to work with more tactile mediums my whole career. Yet, everyone else is going digital with NFTs and Procreate.
I think technology is a wonderful asset to your creative toolbox, but I also think getting in there and getting your hands dirty with no "delete button" is also an important skill to attain.
JK: Additionally, you’re also the CEO of Rise Visible a full-service creative digital marketing agency. Tell me about the professional work you do!
AK: Thanks for asking! I just love what I do and I have been doing it in some capacity since 1998. Yep, that is 25 years and now I have aged myself! Listen, I have grey hair and I am just happy to be alive creating and running a business I love.
I did not plan to be doing what I am today and it was not where my passions were leading when I was younger. I wanted to be a therapist, but while in school my life changed in a way that threw me on another path.
I moved from Michigan to St. Louis in 2001 and was studying psychology. I had started a new job in a new city and within an hour of being there, I heard someone yelling from the break room - this was 9/11. As everyone sat watching the TV in disbelief, I asked to leave and never went back.
I tried for months unsuccessfully to find work which left me empty-hanged and it was at this point my health also began to fail me. I started looking for new ways to take care of myself and I leaned into a skill I had acquired and still did as a hobby: website design, graphic design, and marketing. I reached and got an interview at a local agency. It was quick no. So I asked friends, family and people I knew for referrals and my business started to grow to a tiny solopreneurship.
This brought me where I am today, 25 years later and I could not be happier. This might not have been my original career path, but sometimes the universe takes you off your path and puts you right where you are supposed to be.
My company helps people rise above and be visible. As a person that was locked in for almost 2-decades, I had to learn to use the internet to connect to the world around me and I help others do the same. We offer website design and development, e-commerce sites, Edu-platform portals, SEO, digital marketing, social media, email, and marketing consulting.
JK: What are some ways for disabled business owners to be better represented in the industry?
One of the best ways for disabled business owners to be represented in their industry is to be willing to speak out. If you feel comfortable (we must do the right thing for ourselves) take a stand and find a way to be outspoken and have conversations about disability inclusion and representation.
Also, it is part of the communities job to provide places for people who have disabilities. Most of us with disabilities spend our life having to navigate a world made for people with abled bodies, we are always adapting. It would be wonderful if the world would work with us to make those adaptations easier. Most of us don't want the world to turn upside down to accommodate our needs, but a simple thing like a ramp for wheelchairs can change the life of a person with disabilities.
Also, I think it is important to note that not all disabilities are visible, and most are not. There are so many people that each of us knows, business owners included are living with disabilities. If we can create more open dialogues about this, then people will be less worried to be open about who they really are. We all deserve to be seen, heard, and represented in life.
JK: Your survival as a disabled person is very inspiring. Who are your own role models?
Thank you! Anyone who wakes up every day and strives to be the very best they can be in that moment. If that means you’ve got enough energy to take your dogs out and that is a big win for you, then you inspire me. We always look to bigger names or those making a huge impact and we need people like that! We also need a normal everyday hero that fights the good fight daily to just stay a part of this world.
If choosing a specific person, Joe Dispenza is one of my all-time heroes. He went from a traumatic injury that could have cost him his life to helping himself heal and in turn changed the lives of others. With a better understanding of neuroscience and brain playing, we are learning that we can heal ourselves in ways we never knew we could! He's remarkable!
JK: Last but not least, do you have any advice for young disabled creatives?
AK: Disabilities do not define us. They are a part of a bigger whole. As people, we are made of so many things, and disability is just a piece of that whole. It is hard not to define ourselves or see ourselves with that lens because often everyone else does - but we don't have to. We are so much more! Also, disabilities give us superpowers! We are the X-Men(Women) of the world and let's stand in the magic that we hold!