Spreading awareness of disabled people
Written by Marissa Graf, Staff Writer
Austin College had the privilege of welcoming Gaelynn Lea, a singer, violin player, and advocate for disabled people, to perform her music. As a disabled person herself, Lea works to spread awareness of hers and others disabilities. Throughout the night she discussed her upbringing, the struggles that many disabled people experience, and her journey to self expression and confidence.
The virtual and in-person event was organized by Austin College’s Campus Activities Board (CAB) and CHAMPS (Cultivating, Helpful, Aware, and Mindful People of Service), a new organization on campus that hopes to promote awareness of disability.
Professor of Biology, Kim Snipes, started out the night introducing Sydney Versen ’21, the president of CHAMPS. Before handing the mic over, Snipes shared that she herself is blind and informed the audience that 26% of Americans have a disability.
Versen then introduced Lea who spoke a bit about her career. In 2016 she won the Tiny Desk contest and her career took off since then. She has performed in 45 states and nine countries and presented two TEDx talks.
Before going any further, Lea took a moment to describe herself and her surroundings. Lea is a short, white woman. She was wearing a blue dress, her hair was in two buns on her head, she was sitting in a wheelchair, holding a violin, and she was sitting in her kitchen with the kitchen table seen behind her.
Lea stressed the importance of this description because some people, like Snipes, have visual disabilities and might not be able to see her on Zoom. Lea discussed the importance of making all events accessible to people with disabilities. Promotional emails should contain alt text that allows computer systems to read words that are printed on a poster and describe photos. At the actual event there should be wheelchair access and physical descriptions, and this needs to be advertised prior to the event so that disabled people do not have to worry about their ability to attend and fully enjoy the event.
Lea played four songs throughout the night. Her first song, “Watchful World Unfold,” was about looking inward and being watchful and taking notice of others. Next she performed “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” which she says is about love being “beautiful even though sometimes it’s difficult or complicated.” Her third song, “The Long Way Around” is about friendships that didn’t work out but were worth it in the end and her final song “I Wait” expresses how people with(?)disabilities should have a seat at the table. She sings, “can you see me way in the back here? I’ve been waiting.”
Each song starts with violin chords and sequences which she repeats using a loop pedal. Then she sings along to the looping music she has created in front of her audience. Her music is peaceful, calm, and contemplative. It makes the listeners pause and really listen. Many people in the audience were visibly moved by Lea’s music, closing their eyes to listen intently, swaying, and crying.
After playing several songs Lea discussed her experience with disability. Lea has brittle bones disease. This means that before she was even born, about 30 to 40 bones in her body broke and solidified in that broken position. She was never able to walk and got her first wheelchair when she was two years old.
Luckily, Lea’s family was incredibly supportive. She said that their motto was “If you really want to do it, you’ll find a way.” Lea had an aid who helped her growing up and even helped start a ballet class for disabled kids when Lea said she wanted to do ballet. Her brother made sure to include her in everything. Lea recalled a time when they all went for a bike ride and her brother put Lea in the newspaper carrier basket at the front of the bike and tied her on with twine.
In school, she started getting interested in music and her teacher let her try out lots of instruments. Eventually she settled on the violin. She hopes that schools will treat disabled students like her music teacher treated her. Schools should facilitate disabled students’ passions even if it’s difficult, until they aren’t interested anymore.
Lea also talked extensively about beauty standards for disabled people as they often feel left out. She shared that she stopped caring about beauty standards in high school when she realized that it wasn’t worth it and they were simply unattainable for her. She encourages everyone to express themselves freely and create their own standards.
One of Lea’s strongest messages throughout the night was for others to become more informed about disabled people and how others can do their part in helping out. Below are a few resources that Lea recommends to learn more about disability:
RAMPD: Lea co-founded this organization that will help disabled artists and their allies promote their work and amplify disability culture.