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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Gaelynn Lea on folk music, disability rights, and systematic discrimination

As someone passionate about disability rights, advocacy and music, I was elated to learn that violinist, singer-songwriting, and disability rights activist Gaelynn Lea was scheduled to speak at convocation. Her talk did not disappoint!

Lea began by talking about her childhood—happy memories of bike rides with her siblings and the resolution of her parents to ensure she had a “normal” childhood. Although such details are not usually revolutionary, they point to the seemingly novel fact that people with significant disabilities can live enriching lives regardless of their “limitations.” Lea carried this point through her talk as she began to recount her initial experiences with violin. She really wanted to play the cello, but no one could figure out how to make it work given her height. Instead, her elementary school teacher worked with Lea to figure out how to adapt the violin positioning and bow-hold to fit Lea’s needs. The rest was history.

Through the years, Lea learned fiddle and became interested in Irish and English folk music; she performed with bands through college and beyond, and now teaches. It was her fiddle students who ultimately pushed her to apply to NPR’s 2016 Tiny Desk Concert Competition. To her utter shock, she won, and subsequently quit her job and decided to go on tour, performing and eventually speaking about disability rights. Her visit to Carleton comes at the end of year three of travel.

After providing context for her childhood and pathway to a career in music, Lea focused the rest of her talk on disabilities issues, specifically on barriers she faces and ways able-bodied people can be allies. In taking us through her own journey, she identified three systemic barriers facing her as a person with a disability, which included medical care, employment, benefits, and access/transportation. From doctors directly refusing to treat her, to employers not hiring her because of her disability (an ADA violation), to not being able to get a cab after a gig, Lea faces systematic discrimination on a multitude of levels. It is important to note the Carleton chapel stage has no ramp and Lea had to speak from the floor. In her discussion about those barriers and discrimination, however, Lea also reminded the audience not to pity her and others with disabilities.

She talked about the “kick-ass disability rights movement” and implored us all to learn more about the history of the movement and about disability pride. Lea wants to see disability history in the K-12 curriculum, more accurate representation on television, more visibility in the arts, inclusion in conversations about diversity and, maybe most importantly, remove the negative language and associations around disability from our culture.

Growing up with a sister with significant disabilities, with a mother who works as a disability rights lawyer, and with a learning disability of my own, I found Lea’s talk resonant and refreshing. Her emphasis on disability pride and allyship was empowering, and I hope we can see more disability and allied activism emerge on our campus this year!

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