Many young people—and even many adults—are not aware that many of the world’s foremost musicians and performing artists have lived with one or more disabilities. Here are six of some of the best-known singers, songwriters, and performers of the 20th and early 21st centuries who can serve as vivid role models of creativity and perseverance for musicians of all types of ability:
1. Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt (1910 - 1953) was a Roma musician born in an itinerant camp near Paris. As a young man, he became skilled on banjo, violin, and guitar, but at age 18 received severe burns from a caravan fire.
The accident left him with one leg paralyzed and with a badly damaged hand. He relearned how to play guitar with his hand injuries. He also relearned how to walk using a cane. At only 24 years old, he joined with violinist Stéphane Grappelli to co-lead the Quintette du Hot Club de France, and later toured with Duke Ellington.
A master of improvisation, Reinhardt is beloved today by scholars and music-lovers for the exceptional originality of his compositions. He is honored as one of the most richly creative spirits in the history of jazz.
2. Hank Williams
Hank Williams (1923 - 1953) was one of the world’s major country music stars, known for his talents as a singer, a guitarist, and a songwriter. Williams gave intense, lyrical performances of songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Howlin’ at the Moon,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Lost Highway.” After he joined Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry he catapulted to international fame. His songs remain iconic and deeply moving expressions of the best of American popular music.
Williams was born with spina bifida oculta, a malformation of the spinal column that typically goes unnoticed, but that in his case resulted in lifelong chronic pain. Williams was a driven composer and performer who threw himself completely into his music. His use of drugs and alcohol intensified after a failed surgery to repair his spinal defect, and he died of a heart attack at age 29.
In 2010, Williams received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize citation for the extraordinary technical and emotional quality of his compositions, and for his role in transforming American country music on the world stage.
3. Rosemary Clooney
Rosemary Clooney (1928 - 2002) may be more famous today as the aunt of movie superstar and humanitarian George Clooney. But in the mid-20th century, the Irish-American jazz and pop singer was among the world’s best-known female vocalists, and was widely beloved by fans the world over.
She had an extraordinarily rich vocal quality and an unbeatable sense of timing and phrasing. Her 1951 recording of “Come On-a My House” topped the charts in its day, and remains popular.
After the assassination of her friend Robert F. Kennedy, a shock that was exacerbated by drug addiction, Clooney was hospitalized for several years. She relied on her music to help pull herself through. She battled bipolar disorder for decades, writing courageously about her experiences with the condition in her 1977 autobiography, This for Remembrance. The year that she died, she received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.
4. Itzhak Perlman
Itzhak Perlman (born 1945) is an Israeli-born virtuoso of the violin. His range of interpretation and mastery of the technicalities of musicianship have caused numerous critics to rank him among the greatest musicians in history. Perlman contracted polio as a 4-year-old, and as a result he uses crutches to help him walk. As a teen, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York.
In the decades since, Perlman has played and conducted with major orchestras around the world. He has recorded an extensive catalog of classical, jazz, traditional Jewish, and theatrical music, including the solo violin portions of John Williams’ score for the film Schindler’s List. He has earned 15 Grammy Awards to date.
Perlman, a vocal advocate for music education and for people with disabilities, also received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
5. Diane Schuur
Diane Schuur (born 1953) has been blind from birth due to a condition called retinopathy of prematurity. She is also one of the leading jazz vocalists in the world today as well as an accomplished pianist. Schuur, who began performing for family and friends while still a preschooler, went on to a genre-bending recording and performing career, earning two Grammy Awards to date.
Heavily influenced by jazz legends like Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and the blind pianist George Shearing, Schuur rose to fame in the mid-1970s. Her smooth, effervescent interpretations of classic and contemporary songs made her a hit with the public, with musicians like Stan Getz and Stevie Wonder championing her talent.
In 2020, Schuur released a new album, Running on Faith. It includes interpretations of her favorite standards, including a thrilling rendition of Washington’s signature song, “This Bitter Earth.” In 2000, Schuur was honored with a Helen Keller Achievement Award from the American Foundation for the Blind.
6. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder (born 1950) needs no introduction, even to music fans born long after the peak of his fame. Born Steveland Morris, the now world-famous singer received too much oxygen in an incubator as a newborn, which resulted in permanent blindness. As a young boy growing up in inner-city Detroit, Wonder idolized musicians like Ray Charles—who was also blind—and learned to play multiple instruments.
When he was only 11, Wonder was discovered by singer Ronnie White of The Miracles, a popular Motown singing group. At 12, he cut his first album for Motown Records, beginning a varied career of brilliant performance and composition that endures into the present.
Wonder’s work ranges from lighthearted love ballads like “My Cherie Amour” to powerful, driving, musically intricate pieces like “Superstition,” to songs that capture the chaos, deprivation, passion, and hope of the social changes of the 1960s and early ‘70s. Albums like Songs in the Key of Life (1976) have achieved milestone status among music critics, and Wonder has earned a total of 25 Grammys to date.