If you haven’t seen Kodi Lee’s performance on “America’s Got Talent”, it’s worth a watch.
The 22-year-old Lee is blind and has autism. His rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” brought the crowd to its feet – and thrilled viewers at home.
“Loved this moment so much! Stood up and cheered in my living room!” Oprah Winfrey tweeted.
Much of the media coverage portrayed Lee as someone who, in developing his musical ability to such a high level, overcame all odds – a common though sometimes troublesome trope used to describe people with disabilities who achieve any measure of success.
One challenge for people with disabilities can be that others tend to conflate their disability with their personality and identity. Their disability becomes the defining aspect of who they are, which can prevent people from realising that those with disabilities can have rich interior lives.
So listening to Lee sing about love – mature, adult love – I heard a 22-year-old man whose voice and delivery brimmed with emotion and rang with authenticity.
“I’ve been so many places in my life and time,” he begins. “We’re alone now and I’m singing this song to you,” he croons, evoking deep intimacy and connection.
Infantilising and de-sexualizing people with disabilities is still commonplace – as though physical or intellectual disability should necessarily exclude the ability to feel desire and the longing to be desired.
Lee shatters these notions. To sing these lines believably means to have lived them or to have imagined their truth.
Perhaps the most joyful aspect of Lee’s performance, however, is rooted in the dimension of time.
Philosopher and disability theorist Licia Carlson has written that “the experience of disability may be defined in negative terms when people fail to live according to what is considered to be normal time”.
In other words, because many tasks can take longer for someone with a disability, keeping pace can feel like a constant struggle.