Clef Notes

Disability Pride Month: Spotlight on Musicians with Disabilities

Disability Pride Flag, created by Ann Magill in 2019

Celebrated in July, Disability Pride Month commemorates the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. The landmark legislation prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life to ensure equal access to employment, education, transportation, telecommunications, public accommodations, and government services. The ADA was passed in an effort to break down barriers that prevent those with disabilities, who comprise the largest minority group in the United States, from participating fully in public life. In honor of Disability Pride Month, we’re highlighting five inspiring musicians, past and present, with disabilities who we think you should know.

Paul Wittgenstein – Pianist

Austrian-born American pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887–1961) was born to a wealthy family in Vienna, where he came into frequent contact with famous composers, such as Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss. He made his public performing debut as a pianist in 1913—just one year before World War I broke out and he was called into the service. He was shot in the elbow and captured by Russian troops during an assault on Ukraine. His right arm was amputated, and he was held as a prisoner of war in Siberia. It was during his internment that he determined to continue on in his performing career, despite the loss of his right hand. After the war, he developed incredible technical facility with his left hand and persevered in giving concerts across Europe, even when reviewers qualified his performances as being "good for a one-armed pianist." He didn’t want to be treated as an oddity or put on a pedestal but strove to be taken seriously as a musician regardless of his disability.

He gained renown by arranging piano pieces for one hand and commissioned a number of pieces from prominent composers. The most famous among these is Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, completed in 1930. However, Wittgenstein made a number of unauthorized changes to the score before the premiere, causing an rift between him and Ravel. Other commissions include two pieces by Richard Strauss (Parergon zur Symphonia domestica and Panathenäenzug), Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4, Britten’s Diversions, and Hindemith’s Piano Music with Orchestra. He and his wife fled to the United States in 1938, settling in New York, where he taught until 1960.

Itzhak Perlman – Violinist

Itzhak Perlman is one of the most recognizable figures in classical music today. The winner of 16 Grammy Awards, four Emmys, a Kennedy Center Honor, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he has performed in all the major concert halls around the globe with the world’s top orchestras and conductors. He has become one of the most beloved violinists of his generation through his infectious passion for music and endearing humanity. He is frequently seen on television as an ambassador for classical music and is an avid teacher, spending his summers mentoring the next generation of musicians at the Perlman Music Program.

Perlman was born in Tel Aviv in 1945. He was drawn to the violin from three years old. When he contracted polio at the age of four, he lost the use of his legs and has used mobility aids ever since. However, his parents continued to support his dream of pursuing a musical career. He moved to the United States at 13 to study at Julliard, making his Carnegie Hall debut at 18. Those in the music industry discounted him at first because he walked with crutches. In an opinion piece for Newsweek in 2022, he wrote, “At the beginning of my professional career, I did have problems with people not accepting me. They only looked at the effect polio had on me, not at what I had to offer musically.” He kept studying and working to convince them that they should judge him by his talent alone. “In the beginning, I did not want the disability to be in any discussion about my music, but my attitude evolved," he continued. "After a while, I was very concerned about access and attitudes toward the disabled. I wanted everybody to actually mention my disability to set an example and show how important it is to ‘separate your ability from your disability.’ That is my motto.”

Thomas Quasthoff – Singer

German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff (b. 1959) is one of the finest interpreters of art song and oratorio of his generation. Noted for his rich voice, musical expressiveness, and direct delivery, Quasthoff won three Grammy Awards during the course of his career. He announced his retirement from classical music in 2012 and now focuses on other projects, including singing with his jazz quartet, performing spoken roles, and teaching.

Quasthoff’s mother had taken the anti-morning-sickness drug thalidomide when she was pregnant, which caused him to develop phocomelia, a congenital condition that impedes limb development. He was refused entry to music school, not for lack of singing skill, but because he could not play the piano, so he decided to study voice privately while working as a radio announcer and studying law. His career took off in 1988 when he won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich. He went on to a international performing and recording career, working with such conductors as Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle, and Helmut Rilling. Though he spent most of his career on the recital and concert stage, he did sing a few operatic roles. However, he refused to be typecast as characters like the hunchback jester Rigoletto or the evil dwarf Alberich from Wagner’s Ring, saying, “I prefer to play kings.” He said his preference for concert work over opera partially stemmed from the fact that it is easier for audience members to suspend their disbelief in the concert hall, whereas in opera his disability would more readily become the focus. “I wanted to be accepted as an artist who was disabled, not seen as a disabled person who was an artist,” he explained in an interview with the Guardian.

Gaelynn Lea - Violinist

Violinist, singer, and composer Gaelynn Lea (b. 1984) has taken the music world by storm after winning NPR’s Tiny Desk contest in 2016. Lea was born with the congenital condition osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, which hinders the development of bones and limbs. She was inspired to pick up the violin at age 10 when an orchestra performed at her school. Wit the help of a supportive music teacher, Lea developed a unique way of playing the violin like a cello, holding it vertically and anchoring it with her foot instead of holding it horizontally under her chin. In an interview with the PBS NewsHour, she explained, “You probably don’t now unless you have a disability that you spend every day modifying everything. I’m not concerned with doing it the way everyone does it because I can’t really do anything the way other people do it. So, for me, finding a way to play the violin was just a matter of time.”

Though Lea is classically trained, she is now best known for her original songs and folksong arrangements where she uses a looping pedal to build up layers of sound. Her appearance on Tiny Desk kickstarted a touring career, and she has a growing role as a pubic speaker, advocating for disability rights and accessibility in the arts. She is co-founder of RAMPD, Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities, a disability-led coalition that aims to amplify disability culture, promote inclusion, and advocate for accessibility in the music industry. Recently, she composed original music for a production of MacBeth on Broadway, starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga.

Joséphine Boulay and the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles

Joséphine Boulay (1869–1925) was a French organist, composer, and professor. Blind from the age of three, she underwent musical training at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for the Young Blind) in Paris. Established as a charitable organization in 1784, the institute eventually became one of the most important music schools in Paris. Music always held a prominent place at the school, initially as a means of publicity. Then, as the Industrial Revolution took away many of the only jobs available to blind people at the time, the role of music became even more prominent as a viable career option. This was hastened by the invention of Braille in 1824, which allowed students to learn music from scores, not just by rote. Blind organists soon became a fixture in Parisian churches, and the school became a feeder institution for the Conservatoire de Paris.  

Joséphine Boulay was admitted to the Conservatoire in 1887, where she studied with César Franck and Jules Massenet. In 1888, she was the first woman to win a prize in organ at the Conservatoire. While still a student at the Conservatoire, she was appointed professor of music at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, where she taught piano, organ, composition, and harmony to female students for 35 years. She continued to rake in the accolades at the Conservatoire, including a first prize in 1897 in Gabriel Fauré’s composition class. Ironically, it was not her blindness that held her back the most, but being a woman in a man's field. Despite her undeniable skill and talent, she did not hold any organist post, and she rarely performed in concert, primarily due to her gender. She was nevertheless among an elite group of blind musicians in Paris who trained some of the most brilliant French organists of the 20th century.


Illinois Public Media Clef Notes

Clef Notes

Illinois Arts Council Agency

These programs are partially sponsored by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.