By Jonathan Craig
Let’s talk about Stevie Wonder.
Is that an outtake from his weird concept album Journey through the Secret Life of Plants I hear, or is it the sound of all of you groaning? Ok. So let’s talk about why you don’t want to talk about Stevie Wonder.
I understand, of course. As one of the most well-known people who are blind in the world, he is, for many, the only point of reference, and thus a predictable point of comparison. I’ve heard many stories of people being manhandled toward pianos to show off their presumed musical genius. It gets much worse if you have ever shown any interest in music at all.
For someone who’s thought of as our most prominent living spokesman, Wonder speaks surprisingly rarely about living with blindness. There are certainly examples. He used a speech at the Grammy awards to call for better accessibility. Usually though, he chooses to engage with it playfully, like when he appeared in the drivers’ seat at the beginning of his Carpool Karaoke segment.
He most succinctly summed up his point of view on the topic when he explained that since he’d known nothing else, he wasn’t that interested in talking about it. “Stevie’s blind! Please!” he said. “It’s fact, but it’s not important to me.” This is a very familiar sentiment, which Chrissy Brincat grapples with in her brilliant piece later this issue. Many of us don’t want to be defined by how much vision we have.
I’ve been similarly hesitant to discuss my experience of blindness, for fear of becoming trapped by it, forever “that blind writer”. But for others, Wonder’s approach feels like a wasted opportunity. One of the top questions people ask about him on Google is “is Stevie Wonder really blind”? There are hundreds of YouTube videos exploring this conspiracy theory, micro-analysing videos and TV appearances to prove he’s faking it – because no real blind person could achieve what he has.
We don’t have the luxury of avoiding those people the way he can. We constantly have to face down society’s low expectations of us, to defend ourselves against challenges like “how can you watch a movie” or “how do you use the internet”? As far as I’m aware, he’s only addressed the theory once. As he walked out of LAX, a photographer asked him whether the rumour was true. “I’ll always tell you the date and time,” he replied, as his entourage ushered him toward his limo.
Why has he been so quiet about such a ridiculous accusation? A short interview explaining how he conducts daily tasks could have put the idea to bed forever. And everyone who saw it would have been less likely to ignore us and speak to our sighted friends when we enter a shop, or double take when we talk about going to work. Why couldn’t Stevie Wonder, just once, use his platform to be a “teachable moment”, for the sake of his peers?
BCA’s President, John Simpson, was born less than three years before Stevie. Though there are very few comparisons we can reasonably draw between them, they grew up familiar with some of the same technology, and might have dealt with similar attitudes toward vision impairment.
But Simpson seems to have taken a very different approach. This year, he was appointed as a member of the Order of Australia, for his outstanding service to Australians who are blind or vision impaired. At the end of his recent interview on New Horizons, John said the honour was as much a reflection on our organisation as on him personally. “I want to take this opportunity to work with BCA to celebrate the award from that point of view,” he said.
Through decades of paid and volunteer work, John has dedicated himself to making society safer, more inclusive, and more empowering for us. His selflessness and energy set an example I know I will never match. In this issue, you’ll also read more about Martin Stewart’s remarkable achievements in decades of advocacy work. You’ll read about the vital work of BCA founders Hugh Jeffrey and David Blyth, whose forward thinking made BCA what it is today. And you’ll read about Leonie Barber, who decided to undertake a long and arduous fight with the Queensland government, not just for herself, but for others like her concerned about their safety.
Given my admiration for these people, do I think Stevie Wonder is wrong for not doing more advocacy work? Not really. Because of his celebrity, his life is very unlike a typical person’s in most ways. His wealth has probably given him access to the best adaptive tech in the world. He has a choice whether or not to deal with the practical issues we face on a daily basis.
I don’t begrudge him any of that by the way. Through the albums and concert tickets I’ve bought, I’m sure I’ve funded a talking microwave or something, and I hope he loves it. But I also think his experience of blindness differs so much from most of ours that I don’t know how well he can really represent us.
There is more he could say and do, of course, but I don’t believe he has an obligation to dedicate his public speech to a cause he’s not passionate about. And I’m sure the very fact of his public life has ultimately done more good than harm to the way we’re perceived, even if there is a long way yet to go.
I believe I had the right to never mention blindness in my work, just as Wonder isn’t being deceptive when he talks about seeing in his lyrics. I saw problems I felt I could address, and had ideas I felt were valuable to our community. I’m happy with my choice, because it was my decision, not my duty. If we judge Stevie Wonder’s choices, then we’re prescribing the right and wrong way to approach living with blindness. And I’m not comfortable with that.
But I think we clearly need both kinds of people. Behind Wonder’s success was the work of countless advocates, who removed barriers and built systems so his natural talent could get the attention it deserved. His freedom, unfortunately, may still be the exception, not the rule. Up until 1985, the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind, an organisation whose very name was a promise to stand up for us, was still employing us in workshops for laughably low wages. How many people in his generation missed out on reaching their full potential because they never met the right people or had the right resources?
The workshops may be mostly a thing of the past, but the battle for better employment opportunities is still one of BCA’s top priorities today. There are still barriers that need breaking down, and more systems that need building, so we can all have the same opportunities everyone else does. We may not think much about how well our eyes work, but society does. And even a visionary who inspired generations of musicians can’t fully escape the gravity of that fact.
So here’s to Stevie Wonder, the pioneering musical genius. And here’s to John Simpson AM, to all who came before him, and all who follow in his footsteps, tireless advocates working toward a world where blindness can be as important or unimportant to us as we want it to be.