'Impaired Perceptions': Photographer rejects first impressions

Story highlights

  • Brian Steel's "Impaired Perceptions" photography exhibit showed in 2012
  • Steel has severe muscle weakness from congenital fiber-type disproportion
  • You shouldn't let anyone tell you what you're capable of, Steel says
Brian Steel was taught from birth that he was "handicapped." Singled out in school by policies and his peers, he grew up feeling unfairly judged because of the way his body worked.
Steel was diagnosed with congenital fiber-type disproportion when he was 4 months old. People with this rare condition, also called short fiber syndrome, typically experience muscle weakness, particularly in the shoulders, upper arms, hips and thighs, and may have breathing problems, according to the National Institutes of Health. The NIH estimates that about 25% of people born with the disorder die during early childhood.
Tired of the way people made up their minds before getting to know him, Steel decided to photograph other people with disabilities and tell their stories. The result was a photo exhibit called "Impaired Perceptions" that premiered in Atlanta late last year.
"We filter everything that we see through the lens of our perceptions, so it is not until we are able to step outside of our perceptions that we are able to determine what is real and what is not," the 33-year-old wrote. "The portraits are traditional, empowering and show each person's humanity."
CNN asked Steel about his exhibit, the misperceptions he faces and how we can do more to accept others. The following is an edited version of that interview.
CNN: How does this condition affect your daily life?
Steel: It has made me physically weak, so it makes a lot of tasks more difficult. I can't lift or carry anything much over 5 pounds. I have a hard time getting out of low chairs because of my weak leg muscles. My weakened chest muscles have caused me to have sleep apnea and make me susceptible to pneumonia.
Physically, it may have made me weak, but in other ways, it has made me stronger. It has made me more creative because I have h