For more than
five decades, Stevie Wonder has been a powerful musical force. Hes
won 22 Grammy Awards and sold more than 100 million albums and singles.
Wonder, whos been blind almost since birth, is a committed advocate
for people with disabilities, a courageous political activist, and
a compassionate philanthropist who's hosted the House Full of Toys
fundraiser to benefit children for nearly two decades. Recently, ABILITYs
Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan spent some time with the legendary
artist, who was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace. The
three of them sat around his piano chatting where, occasionally, Wonder
magically broke into song.
[Stevie Wonder singing and playing piano]
Chet Cooper: Thank you, what a great way to start an interview.
The first time we met was during a fundraising event for Christopher
Reeve. Do you remember the event?
Stevie Wonder: I do remember, yes.
Cooper: How did you get connected with Christopher?
Wonder: We had met some years ago, before he was a quadriplegic. At
some point we had met, I think at several award shows or something
like that. We said hello. Id seen a few of his movies. But obviously
I felt that he was a good person even then, and obviously the tragedy
of what happened, the accident that happened, was heartbreaking. We
all felt horrible for him after it. Those of us who I knew who had
a disability as well said how courageous he was to continue to be
able to fight for and do the best he could do with what he had and
supported the various causes for those with disabilities.
Cooper: I remember it was a really interesting evening. As usual,
you did a great job. Tell me about how you got involved with the United
Wonder: Actually, a very good friend of mine, Tim Francis, had been
in communication with various people from the United Nations. They
had interest in me being a part of the United Nations, a messenger
of peace, and I was so elated, I was so excited about it, to want
me to specifically be and speak for those with disabilities was an
honor for me. Without question, I said yes, yes, and another yes,
and yes on top of that yes, which adds up to another yes. The opportunity
to be able to serve and to not only have a position about how you
want for the world to be more accessible for people with disabilities
as well, to be able to have a voice and to speak aloud through being
a part of the United Nations as a messenger of peace. And its
been truly an honor.
Lia Martirosyan: Have you been able to travel as an ambassador
of peace yet, other than to the United Nations?
Wonder: I have traveled to the convention they had in Switzerland.
The organization is WIPO, World Intellectual Property Organization.
The original meeting they had, getting all the various countries to
come together, and at least agree to meet and to agree that theyll
have a meeting signing for there to be more countries that would agree
to making far more books available for people who were blind or with
low vision. The issue was, some of the significant countries were
having an issue with the various publishers, and their concern was
books being duplicated, piracy and all that. But the reality is, with
the technology we have today, there are ways around that. So my thing
was getting the countries to the table and agreeing that they would
meet, and they did do that. And a lot of the countries signed that
they would work out the legislation that would make more printed information
accessible and available.
[Stevie challenged the organization in 2013,
to conclude the accord, promising the international negotiators a
performance if its concluded. Stevies quote: While
the signing of this treaty is a historic and important step, I am
respectfully and urgently asking all governments and states to prioritize
ratification of this treaty so that it will become the law of the
land in your respective countries and states. It is humbling to know
that when the weakest among us is in need, you answered the call with
a steely determination and a steadfast courage to make a difference.
Today we all are brothers and sisters in the struggle to make this
life and the future better, not for one, but for all.]
Cooper: On the world peace portion of yourI guess Ill
say duties, have you been able to travel to some of the regions of
the world that are having peace issues?
Wonder: Not as much as I would like to. I think that to me, the issues
that we have dealing with world peace, we just need to deal with one
very simple thing, and it would go away. And that is, man has to get
rid of his ego. Because thats what is the destruction, that
is the destruction that would get an extremist group in Nigeria to
kidnap 300 young students, females, because their position is that
they feel women should not be in the Western world or literate at
all. That goes to show you how people and egos get involved that have
nothing to do with the God they serve. Because Im believing
that nowhere in the Quran or in the Bible or any other book,
for that matter, that it is for the woman or for anyone to be illiterate.
Cooper: With the ego removed
Wonder: theres no way we can find peace with the ego.
Theres no way. It is completely the opposite of everything that
spirituality, Allah, God, stands for. And until we get rid of that,
well only move but so far. And thats everywhere in the
Cooper: I think theres a song here about ego. Well
start working on it.
Wonder: (laughs) Exactly.
Cooper: Lia and I just traveled to two different locations in the
world in this last few months, both of them conflict areas. Recently,
we were in Korea.
Wonder: North or South?
Cooper: We were in South. Some people we spoke with are talking about
trying to have dialogue with the North, at the grassroots level, but
theyre having issues with the political nature of it.
Wonder: Yeah, even though the intention is not for it to be so, a
lot of times when you have organizations that do need governments
to be involved, it becomes political. Not because of the essence of
what the organizations trying to doits almost like
different awards shows or awards that are given away. When you involve,
say, record people in it, then those record people of the various
companies are going to say, Hey, you got a vote, so make sure
you vote for people just from our company, vote for artists that are
on our label. Vote for this. Vote for that.
So even though the original purpose is to get the objective opinions
and feedback to really determine whats great, you dont.
For example, for me, with the Grammies last time, I was very, very
disappointed to know that John Legends album was not nominated.
It was a great album. You can tell it by the way theyre playing
the single now, and the singles old, meaning its been
out for a long time, and people like the song. But its my opinion
that a lot of that has to do with politics. So I think that even though
were talking about two different things, unfortunately, the
idea of people saying to you, Weve got to start at the
grassroots level, I understand that. I really do, and I wish
that it didnt have to be like that, to get through.
But unfortunately, again, ego brings about fear, and it brings about
distrust. And there you go. Its such a horrible thing, because
life has gone on for a long time, and time has gone on even longer
than life, human life as we know it. I always say, time is long, but
life is shorter. We think of the many things we need to fix, like
making the world more accessible to people with various disabilities,
making medicines or treatments more available to all the world not
just for those who can afford it. We go on and on and on. Im
just looking forward to the time where the world is accessible, because
thats the right thing to do, be accessible to everyone.
Cooper: One of the things that ABILITY Magazine has afforded us is
that were traveling and doing stories, whether its accessibility
or integration of people with disabilities into existing organizations,
its continually opening doors. Whether its interviews
in Korea, Japan, China, or a meeting
with an Israeli, a
Palestinian, and a Jordanian who are looking to create world peace
in that region. Have you heard of the city of Petra?
Wonder: Not immediately.
Cooper: Its an ancient city in Jordan built inside a mountain
range, taking a horse and carriage to get there. Its incredible.
The reason they invited us to go see that was, theyve now made
a carriage thats accessible for someone with a power wheelchair
to roll up into the back of. Bringing accessibility into this old
city has them thinking of using this venue to talk about world peace.
Wonder: Thats great.
Martirosyan: Theyre thinking about a world peace festival
of music and art in 2015. Obama was there last year for the first
Wonder: Thatll be great. I really commemorate Obama for the
many things he is doing and attempting to do in breaking some of the
bridges down that have existed for years and years. I just feel that
when people like yourself go and visit these places, its the
contribution of being present to see change for good to happen. It
makes my heart smile.
Cooper: We hope to continue to do that. Well continue to
have dialogue with you, and you can participate at some level if youd
like. What kinds of technology do you like using?
Wonder: I like the iPhone, the iPad, all the various members of that
family. But I like all the various technologies that are becoming
available to make the world more accessible to people who are blind
and with low vision. I also like that more and more people are committing
themselves to close captioning so the deaf can really know whats
going on. I like the position of making buildings more accessible
by having ramps and various ways people who are paraplegic to be able
to get around. As much as there is voice output in a lot of the technology,
I like the fact that theyre making apps that also allow you
to read Braille.
Cooper: Ive seen you at the CSUN
Conference [California State University, Northridge Center on
Disabilities' 29th Annual International Technology and Persons with
Disabilities Conference] over the years. You were just there in San
Diego. Do you see new technologies emerging every year?
Wonder: This was my first time going to the CSUN in San Diego. I would
go to the one in LA before. I went one other time to CSUN in San Diego,
but it was over when I got there (laughs). I was on the road,
and I was trying to make it, but I just didnt make it. But I
enjoyed going to this last convention. It was great.
Cooper: Anything new that you were surprised that exists now, something
that took you away, where you said, Wow, I didnt expect
this to be?
Wonder: I like the glasses that Google is working on and wanting to
have the glasses be able to read print information and that information
be then converted to speech. I like that. And I like the fact that
people are using the various maps to then be able to let people know
where they are who are blind by wearing those glasses. And theres
another one that has a camera inside the glasses, and you can actually
say if you have someone whos stationary somewhere else, they
can look at you on the camera and see where you are and direct you
to where to go.
Cooper: I havent seen that one yet.
Wonder: Thats great stuff.
Cooper: Have you heard of OrCam?
Wonder: From Israel. Yeah, I saw OrCam, and I liked that too. I think
that I would like to see them involve more blind people, not just
older people, but young people, so that they really get a sense of
Cooper: We talked to the inventor, and hes pretty aware.
He said he started with low vision for a couple of reasons. One is
sustainability, because it was a more economic place to go for the
product, but that it was a more difficult and unique situation for
people who are blind. But that is their intent, to move into that
Wonder: Yeah, he came and visited us here and brought it, because
I saw the report about it on the Internet. It was impressive. I just
want to see him get with a variety of people so that he gets a wide
spectrum of real situations, if you know what I mean.
Cooper: The technology is already so incredible, the fact that
you can point at something and with visual interpretation knows what
youre pointing at. For instance it detects if theres a
bus coming and what number it is. Its interesting, to say the
least. I do think that your problem always is the economics of it.
Wonder: Thats the other thing. These things cost a lot of money.
What Id like to see happen, really, is for some of this technology
to be subsidized by the governments and by different corporations
so that more blind people or not just for the blind, but any technology
at all be more available for the person who doesnt have $2,000
or $1,500 or $1,000 or $5,000, to be able to purchase it. Part of
that will happen by there being an incentive by the companies, from
there being such a great demand based on it being subsidized by the
Cooper: Have you tried VOICEYE technology for print?
Wonder: The voice?
Cooper: Its called VOICEYE.
Coming out of South Korea. They had a booth at CSUN. Theyve
got some of the Korean government putting VOICEYE code on the right-hand
top page of printed material, and then your smartphone scans that
Martirosyan: Something like a QR code, but its a very high-density
code, and it reads out loud the full text of that page. Their article
is in this issue.
Wonder: It can read anything that has that code on it?
Martirosyan: Yes. ABILITY Magazine now is the first magazine thats
doing that to its printed pages. You can scan the editorial pages
of ABILITY Magazine and it will read out loud in 58 languages.
Wonder: Really! Whats going to take it to be in other magazines?
You can read
the complete article and the full magazine, including all of the photos
in our Digi issue, by clicking "Like"
from the Stevie
Shayne — Meningococcal Septicemia
China — Love of Music
VOICEYE — Accessible Code
Stevie Wonder — Isn’t
EARN — Statistics
Japan — Aging is Changing a Country
in the Stevie Wonder Issue; Senator Harkin — Possibilties of
ADA; Ashley Fiolek — Back on Track; Humor — Physical Torture;
Geri Jewell — Boom, there it is!; Dia— Bachelor of Arts
in Deaf Studies; China — Love of Music; Long Haul Paul —
Powder Blue Tuxedo; Betsy — NextSTEP; Japan — Aging is
Changing a Country; Shayne — Meningococcal Septicemia; Special
Olympics — Staying Active; VOICEYE — Accessible Code;
Stevie Wonder — Isn’t He Lovely?!; EARN — Statistics;
ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...