13 year-old Singer “Blows Away” Audience and Inspires Me to “Blow Away” Judges Reactions
by Greg Smith
Greg Smith is a leading voice in American disability culture. He is the founder and host of the nationally syndicated “On A Roll” radio show, subject of the PBS documentary, “On A Roll,” author and professional speaker known as “The Strength Coach.”
I am watching a football game, and during a commercial break, I quickly zoom my power wheelchair into the kitchen to grab a snack. My daughter and mother are watching “The X Factor” on the other TV.
A charismatic 13-year-old girl walks onto the stage and introduces herself to the judges. There’s something different about her hands and arms. She’s one of us! Football can wait a minute.
Simon Cowell asks Rion Paige to tell us something interesting about herself. She immediately leads with her medical diagnosis. “I have a condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita” she explains, while at the same time, introducing us to her bubbly personality.
“My hands are curved differently because of my joints,” she says. The disease has caused her hands to be in a fixed and bent position. She is also blind in her right eye from glaucoma.
We cut to a woman in the audience for only one second whose facial expression is one of amazement. She is shaking her head and mouthing the word “wow!”
Next, there is a brief inspirational vignette about her life, in which Rion tells the judges and the whole world what she wants in plain English: “I just want the judges to not take pity and think of me as different.”
And now I’m fist pumping, yelling “You GO girl!” There is tension in the audience, in my living room and in my mind about what we are about to hear. I am rooting for her to “earn it,” fair and square. Simon says, “Good luck…”
She nails the song! She is a definite “yes.” I’m excited about her performance. After the standing ovation, the judges chime in with the violin music playing in the background.
The first judge, Demi Lovato kicks it off with, “Rion, I am so impressed right now and I cannot believe the struggles that you’ve had and how positive you are,” she says. “I believe that everbody in this room can learn something from you today.”
WHAT? Ummmm, How about the fact that she nailed the song?
The second judge, Paulina Rubio says, “Music heals everything and I’m honored to live this with you.”
HUH? Did I miss a healing? A miracle? Her hands still look bent to me!
Next, Kelly Rowland finally gets it right with her comment. “Rion, I just witnessed passion,” she says calmly and honestly. “I think that’s what I loved the most about it.”
At least she’s talking about the performance! I wish she had stopped at that point, but she goes on. “Everything about you is just so incredible!”
And then finally, Simon makes reference to how this performance reminded him of the first time he saw Carrie Underwood. But he doesn’t get specific about what he liked about her performance. He concludes with “In every single way, Rion, you are a beautiful person.”
If I had been a judge on the panel, I would’ve said something like this: “I was blown away with the level of passion that you brought to the performance. You definitely put your personality into the song. It was a great song choice for you and you nailed it! I want to congratulate you. You have a future in music. Great job.” — And the crowd goes wild!
Do you see the difference? Most people with disabilities have no desire to be inspirational. Rion has a desire to be recognized as a girl who can sing! I know you can say that singing is inspirational, and I get that. But I think what she was looking for from the judges was an honest evaluation of her performance. Disability notwithstanding.
My point can also be reinforced by the feedback on the Guinness Facebook page about the wheelchair basketball TV commercial. People are commenting about how the commercial made them cry. What the heck? Dudes balling and going out for a beer makes you cry? The fact that people respond that way makes ME want to cry. We’re not looking for our existence to elicit emotional, teary responses. The tears from Rion’s mother were cool with me because any mom would feel that way if her daughter was successful on a national stage like this. I might cry if my daughter did the same and I’m a big strong man… well you know what I mean.
I love how people with disabilities are finally starting to get regular inclusion in the mainstream mass media. But we want your respect, not your pity or unearned adulation. We are looking for fair and equal treatment.
Finally, I realize that words condemning “inspiration” might sound funny coming from a person who is a motivational speaker. You might ask, “Greg, don’t you earn a living inspiring people?”
People don’t hire me to speak because they feel sorry for me and are inspired by my disability. That would be great for business, but that’s not my intention. They hire me because I am excellent at communicating the lessons that I have learned in my life and how those lessons can be applied to improve the lives of the people they want to motivate. I am looking for people to respect me as a messenger of ideas. Not as an amazement because I function with a severe disability.
What do you think? Do you think the response to Rion’s performance was a little over the top? Or was it ok? I don’t watch “The X Factor” or shows like it that often, so maybe they respond to everyone like that. I’m just asking. Please make your comments on the blog below. Just click the yellow button.