The word “disability” isn’t in Tony Ryals’ vocabulary. Instead, he created his own word, “diff-ability,” to explain his positive focus on painting, something he can do, instead of focusing on his disability. Disabilities disappear and turn into diff-abilities when looking past life limitations.

Ryals was born in 1959, with a rare, crippling disease called arthrogryposis, taking away any use of his arms and legs. The disease causes joints to not move as much as normal and occasionally even to become stuck in one position.

Despite all odds, when people doubted him, he’s grown into a painter, using traditional artists tools grasped in his teeth. He uses the title “Painter of Hope,” to explain the hope he has for himself and others. He brings paintings to life by pouring his whole soul into his works of art.

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Originally a potter, he switched to drawing after realizing clay tasted horrible in his mouth. A love for drawing turned into a love for painting, and now, he’s been creating works of art for over 40 years now.

Now Ryals will be a creator at One Spark, and he hopes to gain more exposure and give others a sense of hope.

Ryals’ inspiration comes from his love for fishing and being around the water. When observing Ryals’ Jacksonville studio, most of his work is comprised of scenic pictures of the ocean. He secretly puts a turtle in every painting.

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His pieces are all a part of his heart. Instead of painting what others want, Ryals does his own thing, with the hope that people enjoy his creations.

“There is a little bit of time every day that I feel like giving up. You have to remind yourself every day to never give up,” Ryals said. “The way I’m painting, which is not the usual way, can give others some hope if they can’t do something.” 

Throughout his life, he’s battled painful challenges, having to adapt to what is seen as a normal way of life. Living life itself is a challenge. Ryals realizes that everyone has problems, but regardless, they can do something and survive by doing that something.

“There are so many people with so many different circumstances,” Ryals said. “If I live my life and I’ve helped open up one person’s life, at least my life meant something. I know I’ve changed some people’s lives.”

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Ryals makes a lasting impact in children’s lives by painting at local schools and churches. He gives participants a sense that anything is possible.

Although he wants to continue his outreach, Ryals said that money is often tight.  That’s why he’s asking for $150,000 to buy a new van and supplies to travel around to schools, hospitals and universities to continue sharing his “never give up” message.

“It’s good to show students my talent — what I can do with my diff-ability,” explained Ryals.

Ryal’s diff-ability shows that it is possible to accomplish hard obstacles. “The importance of life is to never give up,” Ryal’s explained.