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Interview: Jeff Moyer

Jeff Moyer is an authentic renaissance man. After losing his vision at an early age, Moyer went on to become a pivotal player in the Disability Rights Movement, a forerunner in accessible technology, and a consistent advocate for human rights. He has used songwriting and musical performance as a means of social change, and now operates his own publishing company, Music from the Heart. Moyer is also an author, historian, and public speaker who has been featured on the CBS Evening News, National Geographic, and the BBC. He spoke with Exceptions Journal‘s editor-in-chief Craig Pearson about his journey and how blindness has influenced his creative perspective.

Craig Pearson :::  Could you give us a brief history of your life and how you got to where you are today?

Jeff Moyer  :::  When I was five years old, two seminal moments happened—virtually simultaneously. I nearly died from a case of measles, and it triggered the genetic predisposition for a form of retinitis pigmentosa called cone-rod dystrophy. I started to lose my vision at that time. The same summer, my brother was born, Mark, with a severe and profound cognitive disability. So my life was shaped by my experience with my brother: watching his developmental delay increase, and the cruelty and the victimization he experienced at the hands of the neighborhood children.

At the same time, I was losing my vision, and my parents were told that I was pretending I couldn’t see. So for three years, between the ages of five and eight, my parents insisted I was pretending. When I was six, I began piano lessons, and the piano teacher was also told I was pretending I couldn’t see, so he insisted that I sit back from the music, and I then couldn’t see it. As a result, I was pretending I was reading sheet music, when in fact I couldn’t see it. So for a year and a half, I did that. He would play something, and I would muddle through it by ear, and then I would go home and my mother would open the piano music and we’d pretend I could see—and I would memorize it, learning that if I could hear it, I could play it. I didn’t consciously understand that what was happening was I was beginning to develop my capacity as a by-ear musician, but that is what happened. And later in life, that would be followed by guitar lessons at 14. By that time, they understood I couldn’t see, but the teacher said, “If you can’t read music, I can’t teach you.” So I found some folk musicians, took some lessons, and began to play in coffee houses and had opportunities to perform through the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.

Music is a very powerful way to convey ideas. There’s a long history of music as a very effective means of stimulating social movements and helping to create social change. I went to California in 1968 and came back to Cleveland in 1982 after working in the assisted technology world in California and teaching at San Francisco State University, where I developed a course on the social psychology of visual disability. While teaching that course, I was conducting the human factor analysis on a state-of-the-art reading machine for blind people with a team at a Silicon Valley company. Through that I met Stevie Wonder. And the voice of that synthesizer became the voice of Stephen Hawking: it narrates A Brief History of Time, the movie that Dr. Hawking did based on his book.

That lead to other endeavors with music, including being the only musician to use synthetic speech singing—giving people with disabilities that impaired their ability to speak the power to sing. They can download my singing program and, through their own synthesizer, sing. There’s much to say about technology. I’ve used it very effectively as a means to write. My ability to play by ear has led to my developing the ability to play 20 instruments, and now I have a studio in my home and I produce my own work. My son is a sound engineer and musician. We have a company called Moyer and Son, and my publishing company is called Music from the Heart.

As somebody who’s blind, and grew up that way, do you think that you come at the creative process from a different perspective? How does that influence you as, say, a songwriter or a musician—and just generally as an artist?

Blindness is a gift. Because you are free from the distraction of vision. You are free to explore the inner landscape. I think I’m a much more creative person, a better writer, and a better musician because I’m totally focused on it. While I’m performing, I’m focused on the sound of my voice, the sound of my instrument—I’m not distracted by whether people are listening or not. When you perform a concert, they always tell you that you should look into the audience and find someone who’s listening and watching and then play to that person. I don’t have that, so I just listen to myself. I create sort of a mental image of how I want my music to be perceived, and I try to project my intention through my music. And I think it’s effective. Blindness, if you’re open to it, it’s a very potent teacher. I think it’s no fluke or coincidence that many great writers have had visual disabilities—and musicians as well, in many genres.

I find the language that you use very interesting, because I feel like we often hear these stories of “overcoming” blindness or “getting past” it. And you used words like being “open” to it.

What I mean by that is being open to it rather than resisting it. You have to go through grief. It’s a terrible loss. Vision is our primary sense. It’s estimated that the average person receives 93% of the information they gather through vision. So there’s no mistaking that it’s a terrific loss when you lose your vision, or when you’re born with limited or no vision. You have to be able to be open to the feelings—the sadness, the anger, the frustration, the shock. You know, it doesn’t stay put. You bang into something, and in that moment, you’re going to feel anger, frustration, disappointment. And you have to be able to feel it and release it. But the key is releasing it. And you can release it by talking, or by just cognitively thinking about it and saying, “I’m not going to let that control my life.” But recognizing that there are what I call “a thousand little deaths.” The many, many times that I feel the impact of my disabilities. But then you release it, and you’re open to what it gives you. Blindness is a great teacher. But you have to be willing to be a student.

On that note, I’m really curious to hear your opinion on education, specifically education for students with visual disabilities. What do you think is the best way to help students come up through their education, who are living with visual loss of some degree?

I think we’re missing the point when we talk about the three R’s: reading, writing, and arithmetic. We should be talking about the 3 S’s, which is something of my design. The first is “scholastic” learning. The second is “skills” development. When you’re blind or you have low vision, you have to learn to use adaptive technology. You have to be willing to use it in public, and that can be embarrassing. You have to actually be proud of it, that you’re doing something more difficult than other students, and not be ashamed of your low vision or blindness. Be able to talk about it, be the expert on it. Understand what the nature of your vision dysfunction is, and be able to communicate about it. And finally, the third S is “social” understanding. When you have a visual disability, I think it’s very important to be in contact with other people who have visual disabilities. Find ways, whether it’s camps, or seminars, or weekends, or whatever it is, to engage with other students with visual disabilities. If you attend a school for students with visual disabilities, you have that built in. Because there, in those communities, you’ll find that people will understand. It’s our sameness that we share, and that’s important. That doesn’t mean that that’s all we are, but it’s critical that we experience that.

You bring something up that we at Exceptions are really focused on, which is that idea of bringing together a community. And in our case it’s a community of artists or writers who are visually disabled. What do you think about that mission? And what has your creative community been like?

I think that what you’re doing is revolutionary. It’s going to spur a lot of synergism between people who share the artistic gene, so to speak. My communities have consisted of people I’ve played with, primarily—and as I’ve said, my son. I’ve been in groups, but I’m a songwriter, and I work as a solo act. So I have not really had a community of support. But I think what you’re doing will help people get that.

I’m curious. If you were asked whether you have any advice for students, say, at the high school or university level, who have visual disabilities but have these passions for music or writing or poetry or any of the creative arts, what would you say to them given the opportunity?

I’d say it’s an extraordinarily hard way to make a living. And if they really intend to do that, have a really good plan. We’re so well connected now: the American Foundation for the Blind has a network you can tie into and talk to other people with visual disabilities that are doing a career that is of interest to you. They have a mentoring program. I think NFB and ACB have similar programs. Explore what it’s like for people who do what you want to do, and find a mentor. There are many people that would love to be asked to mentor a young person.

Do you have anything else that you’d like to say—any final thoughts related to Exceptions, your music, or the community in general?

Perseverance and resilience are more important than artistic or musical skill. There are many people with talent. But the people who succeed are the people with perseverance and resilience. For every job I’ve gotten—and I’ve played in 47 states and internationally—and for every project I’ve developed, I’ve been turned down two or three times. So keep it up: keep asking, keep seeking, keep looking. If you are a writer, or a musician, or any sort of an artist, it’s in you. And it’s a gift. Even if it’s something that you just enjoy personally, and you don’t have a way to give it away to others—Exceptions is that way. It is an opportunity for people to be read, to be heard. To understand that people want to know what they’ve done, want to read it, want to hear it, want to experience it. And it’s a beautiful thing. I think it’s vital and essential that people try, and that’s where the resilience comes in. It’s about doing it and then doing it some more. If that’s who you are—do it, and live it, and be it. And give it away. Find ways to be of service to others. It’s a wonderful way of life.

InterviewsCraig Pearson