Friday, October 7, 2016

Disabled? Own it, says keyboardist Casey Harris

Renegades isn’t your typical music video: It’s about disabled people doing the things they love.

This summer American indie rock band X Ambassadors hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative chart with this song about people who aren’t afraid to stand out. “It’s not a matter of enjoying it more or less,” a blind guy hiking on a mountain tells us. Then we see athletes with amputations working out. “It’s about enjoying it differently.”

Later the band emerges from a vehicle led by keyboardist Casey Harris, wearing his signature shades and using a white cane. Due to a rare genetic condition, Casey was born with vision loss and needed a kidney transplant six years ago. BLOOM writer Megan Jones spoke to Casey about growing up with vision loss, why disabled musicians matter, and how the Internet rules as a disability resource for kids.

BLOOM: Let’s start with talking about your history. How did your disability affect your identity growing up?

Casey Harris: I didn't go to a special school for blind kids or anything, so for most of my life, I was really the only visually impaired person I knew. I was born in Seattle but my family moved to Ithaca, N.Y., before I started school. Ithaca actually had an amazing school system, and all my educators were willing to work to be adaptive. They made me feel as ordinary of a student as possible.

I never really played sports [laughs]. But other than that, there’s nothing I can point out that was different for me about growing up with a disability.

BLOOM: At the time did you ever want to have access to other kids with disabilities?

Casey Harris: I’ve never really thought about that before! During elementary school there was one kid who had cerebral palsy and one kid who had Asperger’s. But I was no more friends with them than I was with other classmates. I think when I was young I didn’t really know any different so I never really had that craving for company of other disabled people.

If I were to relive my younger years with the Internet it would be much easier to find a community outside of the school system. Young people [now] have an incredible resource.

BLOOM: What was your biggest challenge growing up?

Casey Harris: During my middle school and high school years I sometimes struggled to learn the social ropes. I mean…those years are so awkward to begin with. On top of that, so much of communication is based on body language. There’s a lot of stuff that kids pick up by watching each other. Not being able to do that was difficult.

BLOOM: How did you work around that?

Casey Harris: I sort of didn’t [laughs]. I just did my own thing and tried not to worry. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned, but it’s been a lot of trial and error. I think, again, if  I’d had access to the Internet, things would have been easier. You get this completely anonymous community and you can ask any question you want. It’s pretty amazing.

BLOOM: What about parents who have kids with special needs—any advice for them?

Casey Harris: One of the most important things you can try to do is to teach kids to own their disabilities. They shouldn’t be embarrassed by them—disabilities are just one thing that makes people unique. My parents instilled that thinking in me, and I think its one of the most important things they could have.

BLOOM: How did you get into music?

Casey Harris: Our mom was a cabaret, jazz and folk singer for most of her adult life. And our dad, a big music enthusiast, had also tried to become a songwriter at one point. So we were always a really musical family. We had a piano in the house, and when I was around six or seven I started plunking around on it and learned to play a few Broadway songs—I really liked Phantom of the Opera—by ear. Then, a few years later, I started formal lessons.

I also owe a lot to a music teacher in high school who introduced me to all sorts of rock and jazz music. It opened me up to the idea [that] music could be freer. Around that time, me and my brother Sam joined up to make the band. We’ve been playing together for more than 10 years at this point.

BLOOM: Tell us about your keyboard. Is it adapted?

Casey Harris: Nothing is particularly specially adapted. But the keyboards that I use are Nord brand—they’re known for not requiring any screen interaction. Everything has a button or a knob. A lot of keyboardists, visually impaired or not, tend to like that because you can completely change your sound on the fly without having to bury your nose in a menu.

I’m starting to branch out to computer synthesizers, but I’m running into that screen problem. It’s adaptable on a computer screen—you can use magnifiers and screen readers—but it’s still so much less intuitive and musical than turning knobs on the keyboard.

BLOOM: What’s your experience been as a person with a disability working in the music world?

Casey Harris: Honestly, it’s been really great overall. It sounds terrible to say but—it’s a good PR talking point. Weirdly, my visual impairment becomes a point of human interest. There’s a million and one keyboardists out there, but there aren’t that many visually impaired ones that are playing rock music.

BLOOM: At the risk of them stealing your thunder, would you like to see more musicians with disabilities in the mainstream?

Casey Harris: Absolutely. If kids can see more people with disabilities succeeding, then they’ll have concrete examples of what they, themselves, can do. There are a lot of things you obviously really can’t do when you’re blind. You can’t, for example, be a commercial airline pilot. That’s just not going to happen. But there are many other activities or jobs that you can figure out your own way of participating in. By seeing what other people have done, you can see yourself in their shoes.

BLOOM: Is that why you wrote a song like Renegades, which is about celebrating difference?

Casey Harris: My brother is the one who writes the lyrics so I hesitate to speak for him, but that theme has been present throughout a lot of our music. We were never the kind of band that managed to blend in or be part of a scene. I think that’s a strength—the more different you can be, the more interesting you are. That’s where the lyrics came from.

Renegades was the last song we wrote for the album. It wasn't a throwaway piece by any means, but we really weren’t expecting it to get placed in a Jeep commercial and get on the radio.

BLOOM: Did anyone ever suggest that it was risky to make a music video about disability? What’s the mainstream reaction been like?

Casey Harris: I don't think anyone involved in the music video process said anything other than, “This is a cool, inspiring idea.” I don’t think there was any hesitation.

The mainstream reaction’s been nothing but positive. I’ve met and talked to so many people who have said they’ve been inspired by. I had no idea it was going to be this global. It makes me realize that we now we have a responsibility and platform to use our voice to do some good in the world.