Disability Pride flag, designed by Ann Magill.

 

“Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes doesn’t mean he lacks vision.”
Stevie Wonder

Creating vibrant, welcoming spaces for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to experience the power of free, live music lies at the heart of the Levitt mission. In honor of Disability Pride Month, we’re spotlighting Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities (RAMPD), a coalition of visionary music industry professionals promoting disability culture and pushing for a more inclusive and accessible industry for all. With one in four American adults living with a disability, there’s a widespread need for community, representation and inclusive spaces for people of all abilities—all of which RAMPD is working to improve across the music industry.

Disability Pride Month was created in 1990 to “listen to what the voices of disabled people have to say about their rights and what they need.” RAMPD serves as a collective voice for music professionals and forward-thinking advocates working to raise the visibility for disability rights and accessibility, while celebrating the richness of disability culture.

The making of a movement

Following a 2021 Recording Academy panel on closing the music industry’s accessibility gap on and off stage, panelists and participants were energized into action. In the ensuing months, panelist and internationally acclaimed, singer-songwriter and violinist Gaelynn Lea joined forces with panel moderator and award-winning singer, songwriter, producer and advocate Lachi to create RAMPD, alongside several acclaimed founding members.

In 2016, Lea entered NPR’s Tiny Desk competition, changing the trajectory of her life. Upon winning the contest and sharing her haunting melodies and innovative approach to fiddle playing with the world, she rose to fame and began touring extensively. In the four years that followed, Lea performed 600 shows in 45 states and nine countries—including Levitt Shell Sioux Falls in 2019. While disability culture was always something she carried with her, she did not see it represented in the world. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, Lea recounts how lonely those early days on the road often felt, like she was “the only one dealing with the barriers of accessibility and promoting disability culture.” Since those days, Lea has toured globally, started writing a book, written music for a Broadway adaptation of “MacBeth” and co-founded RAMPD to help bring disability culture into the mainstream. In a recent interview with NPR, Lea shared that “celebrating disability, rather than just accommodating it, is the next step in the journey to really valuing diversity.”

Last month, Lea’s fellow RAMPD co-founder, Lachi, made history when she was elected as the 2022 Recording Academy New York Chapter Board Governor. In this prestigious role, she’ll build upon the work she started on the New York Chapter GRAMMY Advocacy Committee. She shared with The Hype Magazine how she was thrilled about her new opportunity, particularly since this is an elected position, showing that “the people are saying they’re ready for change, growth and a more inclusive music industry.” The honor celebrates Lachi’s talent and tenacity. In a RespectAbility profile, she credits her intersectionality as a woman of color with Coloboma, a congenital visual impairment, for inspiring her to become “super ambitious and unafraid of what others would consider a lofty goal.” From her early days of studying music at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill—where she led an all-female a capella group and gigged around campus—music has always been a source of strength for this multi-hyphenate talent. “Many of my songs center on self-empowerment and are really my own inner stay-strong mantra set to music,” she continued. From releasing chart-topping pop and EDM tracks, to co-founding RAMPD, to her newly elected Recording Academy role, it’s clear that her mantra is working.

“A vibrant and thriving counter response to the exclusion”

RAMPD officially launched in January 2022 with a live virtual event from the GRAMMY Museum Experience™ Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Beyond Lea and Lachi, RAMPD members boast an impressive artist roster of experiences and credentials. As Lachi conveyed to The New York Times, “Our professional membership have awards, have toured, have worked with big names, are big names themselves…We’re not here to get handouts. We’re here to get gigs. We’re here to get on stages, we’re here to get paid.” Viewers got to meet several of the group’s inspiring founding members during the celebration launch.

The one-hour event featured a wide range of talent, highlighting how the RAMPD community is as dynamic as it is diverse. Beyond unifying and amplifying the calls for more inclusive spaces and practices across the music industry—like adding visible ramps at televised awards shows—RAMPD provides a platform to celebrate the beauty, complexity and value of disability culture. During the launch, founding member Adrian Anantawan—a violist, music educator, and chair of music at Milton Academy who is missing his right hand—explained, “Being able to create these pathways for artists like myself is not an act of charity, but one that is essential to the fabric of our culture. We have so many different stories to tell, unique vantage points to express what it means to be human.”

As part of the launch party, RAMPD founding member and hip-hop artist Namel ‘Tap Waterz’ Norris explained how disability culture, or celebrating those who identify as disabled while acknowledging their individual experiences and contributions, is “a vibrant and thriving counter response to the exclusion, marginalization and oppression, historically and currently experienced by many disabled individuals…and it deserves to be celebrated.” Through innovative collaborations with organizations like Folk Alliance International, The Recording Academy, Women in Music, among others, RAMPD is bringing more and more people and organizations into the fight to support and promote accessibility and inclusion of creative professionals with disabilities, neurodiversities, deafness, choroid illness and rare disease.

Be sure to check out rampd.org to learn more about this coalition’s inspiring work, including opportunities to collaborate. And in celebration of Disability Pride Month, the Levitt Foundation is a proud sponsor of Inclusion Festival taking place this weekend (July 15–17, 2022) in Kempton, Pa., and created by Accessible Festivals. An accessible music and wellness event, Inclusion Festival is designed to accommodate people of all ages and abilities, featuring sensory-friendly and empowering live music, immersive experiences, and a large variety of educational and recreational workshops.