I’ll Find a Way: How Legendary Musicians Recognized their Disabilities as Special Abilities

ONEder’s Jason Gross spoke with Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), Jose Feliciano (Feliz Navidad), Diane Schuur, and The Blind Boys of Alabama about how they recognized their disabilities as special abilities…

Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.” – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder’s quote highlights what we lose when we don’t support the dreams of young people with disabilities. Wonder and others have recognized that their disabilities are not limitations; they are instead the foundation for a unique perspective, that, with appropriate care, leads to the full flowering of their special abilities. At ONEder, we believe that every student has a special ability or as Stevie put it, “vision”. With support and nurturing, these visions can be activated and bring unique ideas to the world. Just think how different our lives would be without Stevie Wonder’s amazing musical innovations or, for that matter, any of the other great artists and musicians with disabilities.

ONEder recently interviewed multiple Grammy award-winning jazz singer, Diane Schuur, who, due to retinopathy, has been blind from birth.  Diane’s career stretches back to the 1970’s and includes collaborations with greats like Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra and B.B. King. She has never let the fact that she is blind hold her back in her work; indeed, she found important solace and inspiration in music.  Schuur explained:

“Music has been a support for me on many levels. Learning and studying musical foundations has also helped me to structure my life in a routine and orderly fashion. And it also helps me keep my other senses sharp.”

It is not uncommon for talented musicians with disabilities to find one another; Schuur not only collaborated with Stevie Wonder, but also multi-Grammy winner José Feliciano, most famous for his rendition of “Light My Fire”, and the perennial yuletide hit, “Feliz Navidad”.

We sat down with Feliciano to discuss music and disability. Feliciano was born blind due to congenital glaucoma and like Diane Schuur,  was focused on music from an early age.

“My music has always been my way to my inner peace,” he explained. “When my brothers would run outside, jumping on rooftops and getting into trouble, I had my music to not only occupy my time but to give me something positive and productive to aim for in my life.”

The link between disabilities and musical success continues with the multiple Grammy-winning gospel group, The Blind Boys of Alabama. They sang for the first time together at the age of nine for the school chorus at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. Like Jose Feliciano and Diane Schuur, music represented a spiritual and emotional escape for the members of this gospel group. In a recent interview, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie notes that “the song “Music Brings Us Closer” (from their new album “Almost Home”) tells our story. It says where we are spiritually and emotionally.”

“I look back on the days

The times seem oh so strange

Struggle, justice and despair

But we march right through that all

Joining voices, joining on

Singing brought us closer to free”

The Blind Boys of Alabama lived through many hard times, including a World War and the civil rights movement. Through it all, their music thrived. Like Jose and Diane, music was a way to escape the realities that surrounded them. Ultimately, this escape led to huge successes.

In writing about successful musicians who have had disabilities, not many people mention Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He is responsible for writing, arranging and producing some of the most memorable songs of the ‘60s. Unlike Schuur, Feliciano and the Blind Boys of Alabama, Brian Wilson had hearing loss from childhood. While it might seem like perfect hearing is something you would need to create hit songs, Brian Wilson has proved that this is not the case. His career has shown that hearing loss shouldn’t deter musicians from striving to succeed. There will always be challenges for individuals with disabilties, but these challenges can provide artists with a different perspective on the world. Brian said that music helped him overcome many obstacles, and to find his vision, “[it] made me feel better. Music in general is good for the soul.” As for Wilson’s thoughts about living with disabilities, he advised that it was best to have “great friends and family to support you.”

Through studying the lives and art of these successful musicians it is clear that the possibilities for individuals with disabilities are limitless. With the use of tools like ONEder every student, regardless of their starting point, can find a special ability that sets them apart from the rest of the world. Who knows which students will follow in the footsteps of these great artists and provide inspiration to people around the globe?  Even for those students who don’t become musical celebrities like Schuur, Feliciano, the Blind Boys and Wilson, their stories and their successes are just as important to their loved ones, friends and family, and to the disabled community at large.  Educators who help these students achieve the dreams that they strive for are just as much heroes as these pop icons

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