Ray Charles is the second musician I want to celebrate in my regular slot on resilience and disability. He defied stereotypes and broke down barriers in music, race and public perception of the blind. He did not allow others to diminish him because of his disability and was true to himself. He became a stronger not a weaker person because of his blindness.
Ray Charles experienced trauma in childhood when he witnessed his four year old brother drown in a laundry tub, leaving him with a life-long sense of guilt. Shortly afterwards Ray lost his sight due to glaucoma. His mother instilled tremendous self-worth and encouraged him to tackle challenges. She made him promise to never let anyone or anything turn him into a cripple. She would say, ‘You’re blind, you ain’t dumb; you lost your sight, not your mind.’ In 1937 his mother sent him away to a Special School for the Deaf and Blind in Florida. In the same year she died. Ray learned to read Braille music and quickly developed his musical talent, refusing to be labelled or exploited because of his blindness. He insisted, “there were three things I never wanted to own when I was a kid: a dog, a cane, and a guitar. In my brain, they each meant blindness and helplessness.”
Ray Charles refused to play racially segregated concerts and contributed financially to the Civil Rights movement as well as blind and deaf charities. His music was sometimes considered controversial, merging the genres of gospel, rhythm and blues, country and jazz. He also defied expectations of how blind men are supposed to behave by being a tremendous womanizer. Many women were seduced by his charisma. He fathered twelve children and married multiple times.
Ray had a heroin problem which he eventually overcame through Rehab. He was resilient in the music business and in his private life. Ray won many awards for his music and also received a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame for his achievements. In 1994 he was honoured with the Helen Keller Personal Achievement Award, which celebrates individuals who have improved the lives of disabled people. Ray continued working until his death at the age of 73 in 2004.
He is a role model for all of us, whether disabled or not, showing that adversity can make us stronger and that we do not have to be defined by the expectations of others.