Stevie Wonder and the Disabled Artist
Monday night, soul legend Stevie Wonder seemed to appear out of nowhere on the Grammy stage. Flanked by mediocre accappella group, Pentonix and without his signature piano, he looked like a sea captain without his boat. That is until he started to sing. While paying tribute to former contemporary and fellow soul/funk legend, Maurice White, Wonder reminded us of his legendary status through his expert vocal runs. He blew Penatonix out of the water. But that wasn’t the surprise.
The surprise came after the performance. As Kirstin Maldonado of Penatonix remarked in awe that she had just preformed with one of the greatest singers ever, Wonder couldn’t figure out who spoke and Maldonado looked uncomfortable. The tension was high. And then Wonder opened the envelop to reveal the Winner of Song of the Year. Groping the card, Wonder taunted his fellow performers and the audience: “Nana nana you can’t read Braille.” And then he did something even more shocking: He called for accessibility for people with disabilities: “We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.”
As a person with a physical disability, my eyes began to tear up. No one ever talks about disability issues on a national level. Ever. It is because of this, I was excited to see what the news outlets had to say. And to my disappointment — but not surprise — they completely missed the point.
Slate called the moment, “charming.” US Weekly only focused on the joke saying, it was the most “LOL Moment” of the show. While other major outlets, like Billboard and Rolling Stone, completely passed over the moment. Only smaller outlets like Tech Insider and Michigan Live aimed to capture what it really was: a revolutionary moment.
Don’t get me wrong, the moment was charming and funny, but to people with disabilities it meant so much more and to describe it in those words is infantilizing to Wonder and everyone in that community.
Suddenly, when we aren’t super-crips* doing something great to overcome our disability — whether that be playing at the Grammys or just walking down the street — we are children. A cute little thing that said something about our rights, not to be taken seriously because you’ll forget to invite us to the party anyway.
With unemployment for people with disabilities consistently at double the national average, and their salaries at 22 cents to every dollar a white man makes; with 80% of disabled women experiencing domestic violence from their partners and the possibility of being stuck in the horrible situation because when living with someone, the government takes away a disabled person’s benefits, making them their spouse’s dependent; and with asinine comments and alienating looks from John Q. Public, the disabled community needs to be taken seriously.
We are not your cute little child or your super-crip. Hopefully, Stevie Wonder reminded you of that. Thank you, Stevie. Thank you.
* a super-crip is a person with a disability who overcomes — what the able-bodied person views as — a horrible depressing life because of their disability. Therefore, they are inspiring. This narrative assumes that having a disability is horrible and makes the able-bodied person feel better about their lives. It also calms the able-bodied person’s fear of becoming disabled themselves. This puts the disabled person on a pedestal and is a strange type of objectification.
Even stranger, Wonder might have just benefited from this objectification throughout his career. As a blind musician, it assumed that he has better hearing, and therefore is a talented musician. While his blindness might have steered him toward music, Wonder is a great musician because he’s a child prodigy, signed to Motown at age 11 and creating some of the most important and socially relevant soul music of the 70s.