February 28, 2020

Removing Stumbling Blocks From the Seeing

Kodi Lee on "America's Got Talent." Photo from Facebook page.

“Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord.”

— Leviticus 19:14

Do we still need to pay attention to this verse? Aren’t we “there” already? Look at the latest winner of “America’s Got Talent”: Kodi Lee. He’s a singer-songwriter and pianist; he is blind and has autism. Didn’t we just remove the ultimate stumbling block?

Sometimes the literal removal of sight is a ploy. In the first round of the TV show “The Voice,” it is the judges who are “blind,” as they have their backs to the contestants. If they like what they hear, they press their buttons and turn their chairs to face the contestant. The show’s creator, Dutch billionaire John de Mol Jr., argues that the blind audition format “makes it all about the voice”; the implication is that all other aspects of each performer would be a distraction — or a detraction. Implicit in this model is an acknowledgement of bias.

If actor, dancer, model, activist, boxer and blogger Tatiana Lee told her story in a “blind audition” forum, we would not know that she was born with spina bifida, and relies on a wheelchair for mobility. As she resignedly puts it, “I have three strikes against me: I’m a woman of color with a disability.” Yet Tatiana Lee’s goal is to hide nothing. She has been invited to casting events on the second floor of buildings lacking ramps and elevators; she has landed modeling tryouts despite her health issues, only to be rejected because of her plus-size; she has worked hard to deliver roles earning rave reviews, only to encounter what she calls “inspiration porn”: the assumption that her success comes from “overcoming” rather than excelling.

Is Kodi Lee’s story one of overcoming or excelling? As I listened to the chants of “Ko-DI! Ko-DI!” every week of “America’s Got Talent’s” 14th season, I wondered if the audience members would be as enthusiastic if they had listened to their hero’s voice without knowledge of his disabilities.

Ruderman argued that, for as long as actors with disabilities are being overlooked, authenticity should be prioritized over “buying power.”

In the ever-open eyes of Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, we still need to focus on overcoming. Kodi Lee’s victory and Tatiana Lee’s success belie the fact that disability is the diversity issue that has celebrated the fewest breakthroughs, and that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in this country is 70%. A bone of contention in the entertainment world is that, even when protagonists have disabilities, the trend is to give those roles to actors without them. In our phone interview, Ruderman cited as an example the decision of the director of the movie “Blind” to cast Alec Baldwin as its protagonist. Refuting the assertion that an actor of Baldwin’s caliber was necessary to finance the movie, Ruderman argued that, for as long as actors with disabilities are being overlooked, authenticity should be prioritized over “buying power.”

Both in Leviticus and now, there is the assumption of a disparity between the “abled,” who have access and power, and the “disabled,” who require the gracious removal of a stumbling block to achieve parity. Is the goal as simple as the redressing of an imbalance?

Actor Tal Anderson, who plays Sid in Season 3 of the Netflix series “Atypical,” adds a key dimension. She said in a recent press release: “I learned that to be an effective actor, you must be present in the moment. My autism gives me an edge. When I am in a role, I AM that character, and when the director says, ‘It’s a wrap,’ I’m Tal again.” This insight goes beyond authenticity. It suggests that a perspective that is too often seen as a disability adds intrinsic value. Far from being “blind,” Anderson brings an extra keen vision.

Irish playwright Seamus Heaney observed: “One doesn’t want one’s identity coerced.” Perhaps the stumbling block we all share is a deep-seated reliance on categorization; and perhaps its removal would help us to see the people before us as they choose to present themselves.

Orley Garber is the founder of Builder Bees.