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Disabled South Korean Musician Pushes the Limits of the Possible


Concert pianist, Lee Hee-ah, was born in South Korea with severe physical impairments, but her disabilities have not stopped her from achieving her goals

Concert pianist, Lee Hee-ah, was born in South Korea with severe physical impairments, but her disabilities have not stopped her from achieving her goals

Nothing worth having is easy to get. That is especially true for one young South Korean woman, who has overcome extraordinary physical challenges in her pursuit of artistic fulfillment.

Lee Hee-ah was born in South Korea with severe physical impairments. Where other people have knees, her legs come to an end in stubs that resemble feet.

On each hand, Lee has only two thick fingers. She refers to them jokingly as her "crab hands."

But her disabilities have not stopped her from achieving her goals.

Lee is a concert pianist. She manages with four fingers classical pieces that others struggle to perform with 10.

What makes 24-year-old Lee's ability all the more impressive is that she also has a cognitive impairment that makes it all but impossible for her to handle math.

"My IQ is terribly low. It is like a seven-year-old kid," she said. "It should be technically impossible to teach a person who can not even do simple calculations to play the piano. Once or twice, I seriously thought of quitting. But playing piano was how I met new people."

Lee says she got this good by practicing relentlessly - up to 10 hours a day, for years on end. "There was no result at first, even after hours of practice. My skill remained exactly the same for one or two years. It was like eating the same side dish every day. I got so sick of it," she explained.

But she progressed, with the help of her mother, who raised her alone after Lee's father died about 10 years ago. She says she provided the mixture of patience and tough love that prevented Lee from feeling sorry for herself. She says Lee's own good humor got her through.

"School kids made fun of her all the time. It broke my heart. But Hee-ah was actually nice to the kids who ridiculed her. Kids would say things like 'hey you have scissors in your hands,' or 'hey, you have crab hands.' She would just answer back things like, 'you're right-- crabs are my ancestors,' and she would even let them touch her hands. When she approached them like that, the kids stopped making fun of her," her mother said.

Lee spends much of her time doing performances like this, to rally support and hope for the disabled.

"I always live with a can-do spirit," she said. "And even though your body may be challenged, it does not necessarily mean your thinking has to change. I can do anything. My dreams make everything possible."

Lee also promotes South Korea's reconciliation with North Korea. She hopes to go to Pyongyang later this year, to perform and raise awareness of the potential of those with physical setbacks.

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