Artist dreams of being 'Picasso in a wheelchair,' but struggles to find work

Amanda Orichefsky grips the brush between her lips, nods her head up, then down, as a leafy landscape blooms on the blank canvas. The mouth painter sells her art for added income. She says she's sent out many job applications, but "not one person would call back when they found out I was in a wheelchair."

Toronto mouth painter hopes her pieces will inspire other disabled entrepreneurs

Amanda Orichefsky has been a student with Mouth and Foot Painting Artists since she was 13. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Amanda Orichefsky grips the brush between her lips, nods her head up, and then quirks her neck down; a leafy landscape blooms on the blank canvas.

The 27-year-old artist began studying painting at 13 after she'd taught herself to paint and draw. Orichefsky says she learned the same way "you learned and started drawing with your hands."

She was born with arthrogryposis, a neuromuscular disorder that affects the movement and strength of the limbs. Orichefsky uses a motorized wheelchair to get around.

Orichefsky says art always offers her an escape. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

"I did have to try harder," she says. "I had to prove to everybody that I could do what they were doing, just differently."

That theme — the idea of being the same, but different — has coloured much of Orichefsky's life.

Although she loves her art, part of what inspires her to produce it is that it's a source of income. She receives a stipend from the Mouth and Foot Painters Artists to help pay for her supplies and her art classes at George Brown College. The group also makes prints of her work that she can sell.

"When I was growing up, this was the only thing that I was really, really good at," she says of her artwork. "I didn't know what was out there in the world. I didn't know what jobs would be offered to someone with my needs, so I just stuck with it."

Discriminatory hiring

She says she's applied for other jobs, but has only ever worked as an artist or held a co-op position at Muscular Dystrophy Canada.

"I've put applications all over Toronto and not one person would call back when they found out I was in a wheelchair," she says. "They say that it's not because it's a wheelchair, but it is."

Orichefsky taught herself to paint and draw with her mouth when she was a child. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

The Ontario Human Rights Code outlaws discriminatory hiring practices, but it can be time-consuming and difficult for prospective employees to prove they've missed out on a job because of a disability.

"And there's a difference between law in action and law on the books," says Tess Sheldon, a lawyer with the ARCH Disability Law Centre.

The centre represents clients at hearings before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. There, people can file a complaint if they feel that their disability affected even part of an employer's decision not to hire them.

Nearly 55 per cent of the applications the tribunal received in 2013-14 involved complaints of discrimination based on disability, although not all may have been connected to employment, according to the annual general report. 

Fiercely independent

Roughly 16 per cent of Canada's workforce has a disability, according to National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which happens in October. 

Orichefksy says she hopes that both the law and technology will ensure there's equitable representation. 

The Mouth and Foot Painting Artists organization helps Orichefsky pay for her supplies. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Her art's not necessarily political, featuring landscapes and vivid colours. But she says that she hopes her fierce independence as an artistic entrepreneur prompts others with disabilities to demand better working opportunities — or to create their own.

"I'm an artist because it's a way of expressing myself and also to make an income and live," she says. "I want to be a Pablo Picasso, but Picasso in a wheelchair. To be famous and have my art everywhere and inspire younger people with disabilities."

With files from Craig Chivers