By Shen Wu Tan
Rows and rows of cushioned seats at the Harris Theater filled with spectators with and without disabilities last Wednesday to hear a moderated afternoon talk featuring Itzhak Perlman. The renowned violinist confidently zipped onstage in his scooter to share his experiences as a musician with a disability to the eager crowd.
As a culmination to the 25th year anniversary celebration of the American with Disabilities Act, the renowned violinist led a Juilliard orchestra performance of Tchaikovsky later that evening.
To celebrate the passage of the 1990 act, organizations across Chicago joined the ADA 25 campaign in 2015 by pledging to build a more inclusive community for people with disabilities.
“It’s good,” Perlman said about the campaign. “Anything that has to do with even a little bit of improvement is very good. And the good thing about it is that it brings to the front burner the problems.”
The 70-year-old violinist and conductor, who contracted polio when he was four, opened up about the prejudice he faced as a musician with a disability.
“People started to doubt whether I could have a career simply because of the traveling involved and because someone is sitting down. And how can you play sitting down?” Perlman said.
In spite of these doubts, Perlman’s success within the music industry is undisputed.
Throughout his music career, Perlman has been recognized for his talent and merit. He has won multiple awards including 15 Grammys, four Emmys, the Genesis prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Instead of being judged by his disability, Perlman wanted to be judged for his musical talent. “I had to really prove that I could really do it without people thinking, ‘Well, for someone who is sitting down, he is pretty good.’”
Although Perlman initially wanted to separate his music career from his disability, he began to self advocate and speak up about his disability as he became more established. Able to crack jokes about walking and the quick travel of his scooter, Perlman displayed ease and comfort onstage.
Marca Bristo, co-chair of the ADA 25 Chicago campaign and activist who helped pass the American with Disabilities Act, said Perlman’s openness about his disability as a celebrity has a positive impact on those with disabilities.
“Celebrities can go either way. They can either shy away from their disability or they can embrace it. And when a celebrity gets it like he does and is willing to be as outspoken and candid as he was, there’s power I think that comes from who the messenger is,” Bristo said.
For Larry Labiak, an audience member and a disability policy officer for Chicago Park District, Perlman was a role model for him growing up.
“He has a commonality with me in that he contracted polio at a young age as did I. So growing up – he’s probably seven or eight years older than I am – I always had a kind of identity with him because there weren’t so many role models in my midst,” Labiak said.
Although the campaign is now over, Terry Mazany, president and CEO of Chicago Community Trust, said there is still more work to be done. He hopes that Perlman’s audiences recognize the existence of negative stigmas against the disabled and the capabilities of those with disabilities.
“One of the basic things is just acceptance and appreciation of people’s diverse talents so that people are not stereotyped,” Mazany said. “A disability has nothing to do with a person’s ability.”