“History will be kind to us,” wrote Winston Churchill, “because I will write it.” That point is more than debatable these days. What isn’t debatable is the fact that history hasn’t been kind to people with disabilities. Even though as you will read in this issue they have produced heavenly music and exquisite works of art, entertained us and fought for justice.
This issue leads off with a portrait of the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace. The painter is Sarah Biffen. You can read more about her below. It also features Tony Award winning actor Ali Stroker, Beach Boy Brian Wilson, actress Selma Blair and social justice crusader Helen Keller. I suspect many of you will be surprised at the extent of Keller’s political activism.
Please help rewrite history by sending your comments and suggestions for future issues via this form. If you would like to brand and distribute these bulletins through your own network please get in touch.
Enjoy – Al
PS: Recently the World Economic Forum chose The Power of Disability as one of the best books for business leaders who want to build an inclusive workplace culture.
June 16th is the birthday of actor and Broadway star Ali Stroker (1987). She was in a car accident when she was two years old and has used a wheelchair ever since. She is the first wheelchair user to win a Tony Award. She won best featured actress for her role as the flirtatious ‘Ado Annie’ in the Broadway musical Oklahoma. “Who says that dance isn’t turning on wheels? Who says dancing isn’t throwing your arms up in the air and grabbing someone else’s arms to be propelled across the stage?,” she said.
Stroker is paralyzed from the waist down and can’t use her diaphragm the way most mezzo-sopranos can. She created her own singing techniques to accommodate her paralysis. “Singing is more than just making a sound – it’s a physical activity. The breadth of support that you get from being able to control your diaphragm and lungs is incredible. So I have to do a little bit more work than others to get the amount of air I need to take in.”
In addition to her work on and off-Broadway, Stroker has soloed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, New York’s Town Hall, the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts and Carnegie Hall. She is currently writing a book and recording an album of children’s songs and stories. Last Christmas she played the lead in the holiday film Christmas Ever After. “When things get really difficult, I remember that it is not just about me,” the former Glee Project star continues. “It’s about all of those people with disabilities, my community, seeing themselves represented in mainstream media, on screen and onstage.”
She adds: “Every time I do something for the first time, people are unsure whether it’s possible. In those situations, you must stay true to yourself and work really hard to get to where you want to be.”
June 20th is the birthday of legendary Beach Boy singer songwriter Brian Wilson (1942). His harmonies continue to fill the world with good vibrations. Paul McCartney claims that Wilson’s song “God Only Knows” is the greatest song ever written. Wilson’s album Pet Sounds is ranked number 2 of the greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
Wilson’s struggles with mental illness are equally legendary although not well understood. They led to parodies like the Barenaked Ladies lyric, “lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did.” He began hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations when he was twenty-two. He describes the voices as derogatory, stalking him and telling him negative things about himself. The voices are accompanied by depression and periodic feelings of intense fear. “So many people on the planet deal with some type of mental illness. I’ve learned that over the years, and it makes me feel less lonely. It’s part of my life,” he said. It wasn’t until he was forty that Wilson started receiving treatment. The voices haven’t gone away he wrote in his autobiography, I Am Brian Wilson . “It’s part of my brain that doesn’t change so what has to change is the way I deal with it.”
“To calm myself, I try to meditate my way into the music. Music is the solution. Music takes what’s inside me and puts it into the world around me. It’s my way of showing people things I can’t show any other way. Music is in my soul.”
“I want to believe my music helps people on a spiritual level, helps them with their troubles, eases their minds, makes them feel love. But in the end, how can I know?”
“My family and friends constantly assure me I’m going to be okay, that they’re on my side and they’re my allies. They tell me they are my guardian angels and they will help me through it.”
June 23rd is the birthday of actress Selma Blair (1972). She is known as a fashion trendsetter and has worked with designers like Stella McCartney. At the 2019 Oscars, she caused a sensation by appearing on the red carpet in a beautiful gown holding a patent leather cane that she had personalized with her own monogram. A few months earlier she had revealed her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis on Instagram. “I have #multiplesclerosis,” she wrote. “I am disabled. I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy. And my left side is asking for directions from a broken GPS. But we are doing it. And I laugh and I don’t know exactly what I will do precisely but I will do my best.”
Blair doesn’t interpret her MS as a tragedy. She is relieved at having a diagnosis after five years of not knowing what was happening to her body. At first, she thought she had a pinched nerve. “There’s a humility and a joy I have now, albeit a fatigued joy,” she said. Blair describes herself as “pretty much a nobody in Hollywood.” But she is motivated to use her celebrity status to help people become more comfortable in their own skin. “It’s more than I’ve ever done before,” she adds.
Blair would like to see more stylish clothes available to people with disabilities. Clothing can be comfortable and chic at the same time she says. They should “fit right and look cool.” A cane is a great fashion accessory she adds.
The documentary Introducing Selma Blair premiered in the spring of 2021. It won the Special Jury Award for Exceptional Intimacy in Storytelling in the Documentary Feature Competition.
June 27th, 1880 is the birthday of Helen Keller feminist, pacifist and union activist. She campaigned for women’s and workers’ rights and an end to racial segregation. She also co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union. Keller became known as the socialist Joan of Arc. “I feel like Joan of Arc at times, she wrote. “My whole being becomes uplifted. I, too, hear the voices that say ‘come,’ and I will follow no matter what the cost, no matter what the trials I am placed under. Jail, poverty, calumny—they matter not.” Her radical politics were criticized and even drew the attention of the FBI who thought she might be a Communist.
“So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘arch priestess of the sightless,’ ‘wonder woman,’ and a ‘modern miracle,” she wrote.
“But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, which I maintain is the result of wrong economics, that is a different matter! It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.”
Toward the end of her life Keller was asked whether there was anything worse than losing her sight. Keller replied, “I could have lost my vision.”
Self portrait of Sarah Biffen wearing a black dress with a collar of white ruffles.
Did you know?
Miniature portraits painted on ivory in Victorian England were as popular as selfies are today. Sarah Biffen was one of the most popular and financially successful artists of that era. She became so famous that Charles Dickens mentioned her in his novels, and Queen Victoria was a client. The inscription on the back of her portraits read, “by Sarah Biffen without limbs.” Biffen used her mouth to steady her brush because she was born without arms and legs.
Biffen became a member of the Royal Academy of Artists and was awarded a civil pension by Queen Victoria. Her paintings still fetch a high price and have inspired an international art movement of artists who paint with their mouths or feet. For more information contact The Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists of the World. They represent artists from more than seventy-five countries.