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X Factor Judges Fail in Response to Rion Paige Performance

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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.


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29 thoughts on “X Factor Judges Fail in Response to Rion Paige Performance

  1. rion, as someone who has lived a long life, you are Carrie underwoods double. I love country music and you are country music.. The passion in your voice and on your face is so intense that it brings me to tears. God has given you this amazing voice , so get out there and sing your little heart out. with that voice and those looks you are gonna knock them dead.oh yea, when I was your age , I would have killed for that hair! Good luck Rion and God speed.

  2. I think shes needs to be number . One . Entertainer guardian angel she shinedand brought tears . To my . Eyes/ outstanding I b looking for her albums love . U girl

  3. I completely agree with your assessment and I’m thrilled that you so brilliantly captured my reaction. It’s an important discussion indeed.

  4. I have watched XFactor every season and you are correct. Their comments were geared more towards her struggle and triumph than her hands. However, that is the only time. Every comment after that was about her performance and her voice.

  5. I just happened on Rion while looking at other things on YouTube. Here’s the thing; if Simon Cowell thought Rion was terrible and had no future, he’d have told her. I don’t know the other people on the panel of X Factor because I don’t watch it.

    Also, people go on these shows who are homeless or jobless or who spent years doing other work when they’d rather be performing. People go on these shows who were in the military and have seen some bad things. People go on these shows who are fugly and no expects anything but they are going to be terrible.

    I expected Rion was going to be good because I didn’t believe her family would let her audition if she wasn’t and I didn’t believe the producers would let her on the show to have her feelings hurt by Simon. It was not that she sang so well and was handicapped that impressed me. It was that she was so danged bubbly! What kind of go-go juice is that kid drinking? I want some! I thought to myself if that kid can think so positive when she can’t grab the microphone like she’d like, I can accomplish something more than I do.”

    Listen; she may not want to be an inspiration but she is one and that’s just something she’s going to have to accept and I expect she already has. Some heroes are made, some are called. Rion has been called and now she’s made…for life.

    I have a feeling you’d have had something to say if they’d totally pretended they didn’t notice her challenge. It’s not as if any one of the judges said, “Wow! Who’d have thought you could sing so well being crippled like that!” Yes; I know crippled is not a pc word. I used it for impact.

  6. You’re right on, Greg! The judges didn’t need to focus on her disability or to refer to it in their comments. They only needed to focus on her as a person & on her singing.

  7. I have watched only a few minutes of these talent shows and can not stand to watch and hear some of the rude comments made by rude judges to people who try their hardest and have the courage to listen with a smile to what they have to say. A huge cringe factor for me. This particular singer mentioned in a great article written by Greg Smith only fortifies my opinion.

  8. Thanks for what you wrote. It was spot on. I too was channel surfing, and came across the performance. I think she did a good job, but the judges were awful. You explained it well, without coming across as the “bitter cripple”. I would hope that as the show moves forward they will let go of the pity party approach.

  9. I agree with your comments Greg. I’m a person living first, not one living with disabilities. I very briefly mentioned my paralysis or other limitations in my book “Rock Scars,” because it had little to do with my experiences in the entertainment industry. My wife and I own a music lesson company. We serve students with disabilities, but we don’t treat them differently in their studies than students without disabilities. My wife has taught a blind young man piano lessons for some years. Yes, it amazes me how he overcomes his disability, but I have heard him go from beginner with okay ability to a student who plays well. Like you, my wife and I critique his playing, not whether or not he has a disability. –James Hester

  10. I think the X Factor judges were a little more accurate when evaluating Carlos Guevara last night, the young man with Tourette’s Syndrome. They talked about the PERFORMANCE! By the way, he sang my theme song, “Gravity!”

  11. Greg….I loved the song…she rocked it! In my opinion you might have been a little harsh on the Judges. The problem with this world is a’ Lack of Compassion’…Ya gotta let people show compassion in any way they can. Rion started out by telling Simon the most interesting thing about her was her disability….so of course they are going to reference it in their responses.

    • Thanks, Janice. I appreciate your participation. Folks, Janice and I go way back to high school! I looked up the word compassion. It is defined as : “a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.” The problem is that people VIEW folks with disabilities as “sick” when we are not! We are different, yes, but sick? Not at all. To me, compassion says “I’m better off than you so I feel for you and want to help you.” When you show compassion to someone who doesn’t consider himself or herself to be sick, hungry, in trouble or in any way worse off, you are really HURTING that person. You’re hurting their feelings. The day I’m in hospital, dying from congestive heart failure, then I want you to have compassion for me. Until then, I’d rather have your respect and your friendship! Rion said, ““I just want the judges to not take pity and think of me as different.” And they IGNORED her. You get where I’m coming from? Educating people about that is gonna take a long time, but it has to be done. If we don’t feel sorry for ourselves and we manage to go on with our lives and “get over it,” society can get over it too and see us as equals. Feel me?

  12. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “So what!”
    Greg, your disability aside, why are you inspiring enough to speak to others? You’re a single father living with your parents (I think, sorry if my facts are askew). Hardly what I would start a slow clap of applause for.
    Our disabilities make us different. Not a day goes by that we can just live our lives. To us, the things we do to exist are no longer a big deal. To the outside world looking in, they can’t ever imagine living as we do.

    Now to the video. The kid can sing, flat out brought it. We know those little hands didn’t help her sing one bit, but those little hands did get all of our attentions. How many other X Factors have we discussed, umm, none.

    We can use our differences to get our foot in the door, but then we have to sing.

    • Her “little hands” had nothing to do with her getting the opportunity. And my disability doesn’t qualify me for the platform. I think the fact that I created a nationally syndicated radio talk show on disability issues… 70 stations…14 years,,,, authored a book and was the subject of a PBS doc have more to do with my qualifications than my marital status or my chosen living arrangement, Mark. Those station managers didn’t put me on their air because they were inspired. Nor did the companies who sponsored. Nor did the people who started asking me to speak. Relentless hard work qualifies me. And bringing a strong message.

      • But, being disabled “opened” the door. Once inside you took the ball and ran with it, and kudos to you for having a great career.

        These talent shows see thousands of people with mad talent. To be entertaining they need a hook. The homeless singer, the bullied singer, the young/old singer, the disabled singer and so on and so on.

        I know an extremely talented singer that got turned away from American Idol. She has a killer voice and extremely easy on the eyes. She is very abled bodied as well. The producers rejected her because they needed more “freaks” with bad talent. She had no hook besides her big voice.

        The X Factor girl has a great voice and personality. Her disability opened the door, they gave her the ball, now she has to run with it.

        • First, I love the fact that we can have a great debate and I appreciate your participation. My first dream was to be a sportscaster. I was well on my way. Did 8 years of play-by-play in high school and college. Worked 5 years at top sports radio station in Phoenix. Hosted “Cardinal Talk.” So you’re saying if I had stayed on that path and was doing Monday Night Football today instead of Mike Tirico, my disability would have “opened the door?”

          • I can’t say. Talent eventually trumps hooks. Your case may be different as you were plugging away since the start of your career.

            You have to agree with me on the girl though.

  13. Well done, Greg! Here’s my issue: If this young contestant wanted to be judged on her singing talent alone, why did she open her introduction with an explanation of her disability? Why not just go out there, sing the song, get judged, and THEN explain? I find that a lot of people with disabilities SAY they don’t want pity, but yet they spoon feed their inspirational story to the public on reality shows like these all the time. This doesn’t just happen with disability – it happens with the guy who lost X to cancer or overcame cancer, or the person who’s grandma died last month and inspired him/her, or the parent who tells their, “I’m a single parent of X kids and I’m doing it all for my kids” story. Gag me.

    • This is why I like “The Voice” as a singing competition. The judges don’t know squat about the singer and can’t see them. The hear the voice and if the singer is compelling enough to get them to turn around, fantastic. It should be all about the singing and not the rest of it . . . initially. BUT, we all know that in the end it’s also about the packaging and the marketing – the pitch. I mean really, if Madonna and Britney had been on The Voice, neither of them would’ve gotten past the auditions b/c they can’t sing. They are, however, very well packaged and marketed.

  14. Nikki Pope First and foremost, this is a singing competition, so the judges need to, no they MUST comment on the singing. Then, if they believe the singer’s story warrants admiration for sheer accomplishment in the face of adversity, whatever kind of adversity, fine. Simon did say “that’s the way it’s done,” just before he sat down after the standing O, but he could have said more.

  15. From someone in the music business, the song was sung perfectly, hitting all tones and notes. For me, once she began singing I forgot about her disability! She has a beautiful face, sunny smile and like u stated, a “bubbly” attitude! But I personally don’t think that’s why she got all the “yeses” and maybe the judges just wanted to give her words of inspiration or maybe wanted to show their compassionate side! Once again she nailed that song,and what disability?

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