Disability isn't always the most interesting thing

December 11, 2015 • Posted in blindness, radio, Uncategorized by

My first opera experience last night was a huge success, and while I work on paring that grand experience down into a piece short enough to publish here, as long as we’re on an orchestral bent, how about I share some thoughts about Steve Inskeep’s interview of Itzhak Perlman on NPR’s Morning Edition a couple weeks ago.Itsaac-Perlman-hqdefaultI’ve heard Itzhak Perlman perform on the radio and on television, but without being able to see the renowned violinist on stage, I had no idea he had a disability until I heard that radio interview and learned that Perlman contracted polio when he was 4 years old. He’s used crutches ever since, and when he was asked about his disability during the NPR interview, he said it has nothing to do with his performance. “I can’t walk very well, but I’m not onstage to do walking,” he told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “I’m on the stage to play.”

I thought it was a great answer. Steve Inskeep, however, kept pushing with follow-up questions: Does it make any difference to you that you sit rather than stand during solos? Did polio limit your options, and that’s why you gravitated to playing the violin? So you’re telling me that people expected no less of you because you couldn’t walk?

I know that those of us who have disabilities are in the minority, and its human nature to be curious about how and why we do the things we do. But isn’t one or two questions enough? Before asking one of his many, many disability-related questions during the interview, Inskeep acknowledged that the particular one he was about to ask would be “surely an unanswerable question” and then went on to ask it anyway. “Would you have been the same musician that you are had you not been stricken with polio at a very young age?” Perlman’s answer to the surely unanswerable question was just another example of what a gracious and self-aware man he is:

“I think yes. You know, a lot of people like to think that polio was an inspiration in what I do. I think that music has to do with what kind of passion do you have. If I was destined to be a musician, it would have happened.”

So hmm. Maybe the reason I didn’t know that Itzhak Perlman had a disability has nothing to do with the fact that I can’t see him. It’s just that his disability is not the most important – or most interesting — thing about him.

Cheryl On December 11, 2015 at 7:19 am

Beautifully written, Beth.

bethfinke On December 11, 2015 at 11:17 am

Well, shucks. Thanks, Cheryl — I guess I was inspired….


John Simonds On December 11, 2015 at 7:36 am

I am delighted that you enjoyed the opera. Mary Jo went last week as well and loved it all. best wishes john simonds

bethfinke On December 11, 2015 at 11:18 am

Wow. Mary Jo must have been at opening night. She and I will have to trade notes. Thanks for your encouragement, John. Safe travels in the new year, we’ll miss you in class.


Bethsclasses On December 11, 2015 at 7:56 am

Yes, our weaknesses do not define who we are. Thank goodness.

bethfinke On December 11, 2015 at 11:19 am

Thank goodness for sure!


Monna Ray On December 11, 2015 at 9:54 am


It takes a skilled person for a good interview doesn’t it? I would find Steve Inskeep’s interview offputting. You have to have a passion for the arts and keep your ego out of the interview. I love to listen to Jeffrey Brown on the News Hour when he interviews authors and musicians. He shows such an interest in the artist and their art.

People with disabilities are people after all. I must constantly remind myself that you have a disability, Beth. You have a vibrant life and never mind the disability.


bethfinke On December 11, 2015 at 11:24 am

Monna, When someone says something like “Look over there!” or “did you see that woman behind the counter?”commits some other supposed faux pas, I always take it as a compliment — it reassures me that blindness isn’t constantly on people’s minds when they are out and about with me. Your comments here –and in person, when we have the good fortune to be together

Benita Black On December 11, 2015 at 12:28 pm

People with physical disabilities don’t exist to inspire the non-disabled. I find it off-putting when non-disabled people express that they find inspiration in the accomplishments of the disabled. To me, it means that they do not look at them as real people.

bethfinke On December 11, 2015 at 12:36 pm



Marilee On December 11, 2015 at 12:50 pm

I heard that interview also and at the time I also thought enough with the disability questions! I was so happy to hear Perlman’s final answer!! Anxious to hear more about Bel Canto

bethfinke On December 11, 2015 at 12:58 pm

Thanks for confirming my impression of that interview, Mare. At first I thought perhaps I’m just over-sensitive, but when I found myself continuing to think about it all these weeks later, I turned to bibliotherapy and decided to write about it here. All the positive comments I’m getting to this post is gratifying. Stay tuned for Bel Canto review…


Sheila A. Donovan On December 12, 2015 at 2:28 pm

Shaking my head at the ignorance of the interviewer. People are people, not a disease. One question is enough!

bethfinke On December 12, 2015 at 3:58 pm

Oh, I don’t accuse the interviewer of being ignorant, I think he just had an idea of what IP’s answers would be and didn’t know how to adjust when they weren’t the answers he expected. In the end, not good journalism.


Mel Theobald On December 13, 2015 at 5:12 pm

Beth, I’m a huge opera fan. From my perspective the human voice is the ultimate instrument and the violin comes very close to mimicking it. There is nothing like a live performance to drive that point home. So when Inskeep harps on disability, he seems not to have any understanding of the passion you describe. Perlman is a genius and it is that same quality that keeps me reading what you write in these weekly essays. It is our humanity that surfaces in the arts. Writing for you is what music is to Perlman and what painting and photography are to me. From literary expression to sound to vision, our lives are enriched when anyone transcends the spiritual essence of life, no matter what form it comes in. As always, thank you for enlightening all of us.

bethfinke On December 14, 2015 at 12:49 pm

“From literary expression to sound to vision…” Thank you for this beautiful comment, Mel. Happy holidays!,


Deborah Darsie On December 23, 2015 at 7:55 pm

I was disappointed in Steve Inskeep’s series of interview questions on Mr. Perlman’s disability. Why so many questions that essentially had the same answer.

Aside from that, I have never been to an Opera. You made me really want to go. I just have to get long-term employment. Minor detail, right?

bethfinke On December 24, 2015 at 2:17 pm

Nope. *Major* detail. For some reason the hottix folks offered extremely low-priced tickets that night (well, low priced for an opera, I guess) My ticket was only $29.


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