Paradigm Shift: Lessons from Kae Tran


Kae Tran is a Chinese-Vietnamese-Canadian model, art director, graphic designer and photographer.

Kae art directs and styles a product shoot in Toronto. 

I met her just over a year ago in Toronto, and can remember our first conversation clearly.
It was in the thick of winter at an event downtown and we had been introduced over email previously to talk about graphic design. What started off as a quick ‘hello’ turned into a deep conversation and she was so energetic and positive that I almost didn’t realize that she was leaning on a cane.

Kae has a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy; a degenerative disability that chips away at her physical strength year over year and forces her to walk with support. With symptoms manifesting at fourteen and a diagnosis at seventeen, Kae has been navigating an ever-changing condition for over a decade. Stubborn, prideful and deeply committed to living mindfully, Kae continues to build a career and legacy defined by her spirit and skill, not her disability. Her cane is also an important detail; she chooses it every day over what would be the more convenient option…a wheelchair.

Kae's first solo trip to Vancouver, 2017. 

Kae’s graphic design work is woven into some of your favourite ad campaigns and fitness studio graphics across Toronto, and she is one of the spoken thread community’s favourite models.
Today, Kae takes over our spoken thread blog to share her story. 

Let's Get Through the Tough Stuff First 

I always tell myself that it could be worse. In my case, it actually will be worse; living with MD means that my strength will continue to disintegrate over time. My balance has recently started to give out, too; last summer, I fell pretty hard on my face and walked away with a swollen eye and mild concussion. And yet, I still have to remind myself that it could be worse. Specifically, I have Limb Girdle 2B which is a less severe form of MD and affects my limbs, but not my heart or lungs.

There’s still a lot of stigma around the word ‘disability’ and my goal is to help change that by example. Sharing my story will hopefully give others the tools to cope, heal and rediscover self-love for themselves.

On Overcoming Adversity

The key, for me, has been all about my outlook. I’ve learned that it’s not about 'fighting' this disability, but rather about 'treating' it and giving it the support it needs. In accepting and embracing this part of myself, I’ve been able to move forward with a new attitude and sense of confidence.  With the right mindset, I’ve shown others (and myself), what true strength and resilience can look like.

But of course, I went about things all wrong at first.

As a bit of background, independence has been ingrained in me since I was little. My parents divorced when I was only a year old, and that was the start of a pretty chaotic upbringing.

Kae as a toddler, a full decade before noticing any MD symptoms.
Saskatchewan, 1992. 

My coping mechanism and sense of calm came from seeking independence. Relying on others as seldom as possible worked well for me as a teenager, until mild symptoms (of what is now my MD) started to manifest themselves. When I was officially diagnosed, I felt an immediate and permanent threat to my independence.

Confused and scared, I buried the news in the back of my mind, refusing to acknowledge it or share my feelings with anyone. While I ignorantly waited for answers and clarity, I went through extremes to hide my condition. It was physically and emotionally exhausting and I quickly slipped into a depression. 

My breaking point was the day my friend and I missed our train because I refused to let him help me climb the station stairs. That was a pretty instant realization that I had to stop making it so difficult for everyone and myself. 

Changing my perspective has allowed me to unapologetically ask for help and support. It initially felt heavy to fight this battle alone, but I realize now that asking for help doesn’t mean I’ll be judged or ridiculed for having a disease out of my control. To be clear, my pride and stubbornness are still fully intact, and I’m determined to be taken seriously as a very capable, creative human being…but I’ve learned that it takes a lot of strength to be vulnerable too.

On Design

I got my hands on Adobe Photoshop when I was ten years old, but my true introduction to graphic design was through a site called AsianAvenue when I was eleven. Similar to Myspace, it allowed you to ‘design’ a profile page. From colours to font selection to finding codes that covered ad banners, this design component came naturally to me. I had a knack for creating a clean aesthetic. Back on Adobe a few years later, sitting at my family computer, I taught myself the program using personal photos and my love of graphic design continued to grow from there.
Kae's design work for adored Toronto studio, movement clinic and fitness community, Myodetox. 

Most of my work today is still ‘graphic design’, but the physical design of our surroundings has the biggest impact on my life. Whether graphic or physical, thoughtful design is all about problem solving. I’ve had to get creative with my way of living because of poor design in my physical surroundings. We need to take design seriously, rethink everyday interactions and accept that truly great design is accessible to everyone equally and without barriers. My disability helps me think of design differently, and my experience helps me execute design better.

On Modelling

Kae models the NUDO collection, by spoken thread.

My career was built behind the camera, so modelling was challenging for me at first. I look blatantly uncomfortable in some of my earliest photoshoots. My breakthrough (and a trick that I come back to now) was on a shoot two years ago. I  had an idea to put my mind where I was most comfortable, which was behind the camera. I’d visualize what the photographer was seeing through his lens, and mirror that in my own body language. Living with MD has not only changed the way I look, but also the way I move and feel, which makes modelling that much more challenging. I now see modelling as an opportunity to get more comfortable, confident and connected with the Kae that I used to hide.

Whether it’s my MD, graphic design or modelling, it’s all about perspective. I'm the same person, just outfitted in a better attitude now.