I have loved music and theater my whole life. Unfortunately, as a person with a disability, I know I am not alone in experiencing exclusion when seeking to participate in the performing arts. That’s why I was proud and excited that Stevie Wonder plugged accessibility at the Grammys – everyone deserves a chance to pursue their passions and develop their talents.
In elementary school, I learned to read music and was chosen for a select choir. Then in middle school, I started losing vision and could no longer read music. I suddenly faded to the background, since I couldn’t join my choir during sight-reading competitions. However, I continued training my ear to learn music by listening.
In high school, I auditioned for a theater group, but it was difficult to compete with my fully-sighted peers because I struggled to read aloud even with a large-print script. I was not chosen initially, but did not give up. I wrote an essay about my passion for theater and presented it to the theater teacher, and she decided to let me join the group.
I auditioned for every production and as I feared, I had to focus so much on reading my lines and trying not to stumble over the words that it was impossible to act the part. The director only offered me parts in the chorus, except for one time she chose me to play a 100-year-old woman with no lines. Based on conversations with my friends, that is a typical experience for students with disabilities; they are often only allowed to play characters with disabilities or be in the background.
Finally, our high school got an assistant theater teacher who gave me a chance to play a real role. She was missing several fingers on one hand, and I think she identified with my feelings of difference. She cast me as a main character in “Steel Magnolias,” and I got the chance to shine. My mom and I made giant copies of the script, which I called “The Big Book of Steel Magnolias.” Though I still had trouble reading the print, it built my confidence to play a real character. I was a part of the theater group at last. I will always appreciate my teacher for giving me a chance.
During college, I began writing, recording and performing music. I had the opportunity to open for several artists, perform at local events, and even sing the National Anthem at an NBA game. Now that I work in disability employment policy, I encourage young people with disabilities to pursue their dreams and their parents to think creatively about ways to help them achieve those dreams. Take lessons and find ways to adapt them to your needs. It will enrich your life and build your confidence.
I implore teachers in the arts to give kids with disabilities a chance. Cast a student with a disability as the lead role, even if they look different than the way you imagined the character. If a deaf student auditions for a play, take a page from Broadway and include them in an equal role as a hearing student. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Soon you’ll have the opportunity to join the conversation on disability and the arts. The Office of Disability Employment Policy will partner with the National Endowment for the Arts to host an online dialogue on removing barriers to careers in the arts for people with disabilities. Sign up for ODEP’s News Brief to stay tuned for more information, and check out our ePolicyWorks site for past dialogues on disability and employment.
Thank you, Stevie Wonder, for using your influence to shed light on a group of talented people who are severely underrepresented in the performing arts.
Lindsey Teel is a policy adviser in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Stevie Wonder photo credit: Christopher Polk/Getty Images via Grammys.com