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What It's Like Being a Disabled Performer in an Ableist World

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“Are you the one that sings opera?”


“It sounds really good!”


This was an interaction I had today with a neighbor while I was out walking my dog. The reason why it stands out is because the person I spoke with assumed I was the one singing.

I have been studying voice since I was 12 years old, and for the past 10 years or so, my focus has been on opera. My bachelor’s degree is in music and I am no slouch when it comes to singing. However, wherever I have lived, my neighbors have always assumed the person they heard singing was everyone and anyone else but me. This is the first time someone actually thought I was the one singing.

“Tell your sister she has a stunning voice!”

“My sister?”

“Yeah, the girl with the colorful dreadlocks who lives with you.”

“Oh, you mean my roommate.”

“Wow, you have a roommate?! Good for you! Oh well, anyway, she’s an incredibly gifted singer.”

“Weird. As far as I know, she doesn’t sing, at least I’ve never heard her.”

“Oh, then it must be your other roommate.”

“I don’t have another roommate.”

“I thought the sound was coming from your apartment. Maybe it’s the one next to yours… unless, no, it can’t be you?”

How could it possibly be me?

This, my friends, is what we refer to as ableism: the assumption that because I am a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair, it means I simply possess no talent or skill. Unfortunately, the scenario mentioned above has happened to me time and time again in variation. A fellow singer came up to me once after hearing me sing and said, “I didn’t know people in wheelchairs could sing.” I don’t know in what world that’s a compliment.

The countless times when professionals in the field of opera and academia have heard me sing and said, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that!” is too many to count. Every time I’ve been in a show or recital, the comments from the audience afterward are always something to the effect of, “I didn’t know someone like you could sing like that!” or “what a gift you’ve been given,” as though my abilities were some magical thing I’ve been granted and no hard work was involved.

The expectation from the audience is that I will falter and fail because they see me on stage in a wheelchair. This is tiring and demeaning. Not only is it foolish and ignorant to think that because a person uses a mobility aid this means they lack in all areas of life, it is also immensely damaging to the individual experiencing this societal narrative. My whole singing life, I’ve felt the pressure to exceed my peers just for the chance to be in the same room as them. I felt I had to prove myself to able-bodied people so I would finally be accepted.

Although shocking to most, people with disabilities actually (drum roll please) do possess skill and talent! *Gasps* Though, I fear there are a lot of disabled people with immense talent and potential that have not been nurtured because of these negative assumptions. It’s hard to go after something or put a lot of effort into it when society as a whole and on an individual basis tells you that it is impossible for you.

My mother is a horn player and has a master’s degree in music. I grew up going to various symphonies, concerts, musicals and operas she was performing in. I saw her practice diligently every day during my childhood. She encouraged me to study music and would get me lessons for whatever instrument I wanted to play. This included flute, violin, clarinet and piano — none of which I stuck with for more than a few months. I had the mentality that I couldn’t do anything, so why bother trying. I also had the belief that musical talent was something you were born with and not a skill you gained through practice.

When I was about 8 years old, my mom had me and my two siblings audition for a children’s choir. Both my brother and I got in. It was around this time that people started to tell me “you have such a pretty voice.” Able-bodied people would say this to me every time I sang, and because of these comments I thought, I can do this! I started taking voice lessons at 12 and never looked back!

I am telling this story because if I had not had a mother who was so supportive of me with music, if I had not had amazing teachers that wanted to work with me and encouraged my singing even at times when I wanted to quit, I would not have continued studying music.

Society teaches people with disabilities that we are only our disabilities. Because they see we have limitations in one way, they believe we are limited in every way. There is a term called savant (formerly “idiot savant”) which the New Oxford American dictionary defines as a person who is considered to be mentally disabled but displays brilliance in a specific area, especially one involving memory. Because of this term, many able-bodied people believe that if a person with a disability has a talent or skill, they were just born with it. It is hard for able-bodied people to see those of us with disabilities as actual human beings, who with practice can become extraordinary at something.

There is also a term, “prodigy,” which is defined as a person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities. As a society, we celebrate and wish to emulate these prodigies. For example, one of the most celebrated composers of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was a child prodigy. My question is, what is the difference between a prodigy and a savant?

Ableism. That’s the difference.

Being either a prodigy or a savant is incredibly rare. Both terms mean being exceptional at something without necessarily having had a lot of practice with it — a God-given talent with no explanation. For some reason, we have felt the need to give two separate names to what is essentially the same thing. The only difference is that able-bodied people want to separate those with disabilities into a whole other category. Because we are different, we are perceived as inferior or inadequate.

I want to live in a world where there is no separation between me and you just because my bones have less collagen than yours do. I want to enter the audition room and not be met with the assumption that I must be terrible, or be deemed un-castable the minute you see my wheels. When I’m in a room with other auditioners, I want them to see me as a fellow competitor instead of meeting me with high-pitched, overly enthusiastic, condescending hellos and wow good for you’s, as though I’m a child who has no idea what I’m doing and I’m only auditioning for the fun of it.

In their eyes, I’ll undoubtedly fail and won’t be cast. The sad part is that they’re correct. Nine times out of 10, I won’t be cast. But it’s not because I lack talent or ability, it’s because the casting directors are just as ableist as the auditioners. They are consumed by the cookie-cutter versions of musical theater or opera, without the ability to see outside of the box and lacking creativity in a creative field.

Getty image by Golubovy.

Originally published: September 2, 2020
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