Stevie Wonder interview Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan

For more than five decades, Stevie Wonder has been a powerful musical force. He’s won 22 Grammy Awards and sold more than 100 million albums and singles. Wonder, who’s 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, ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan spent some time with the legendary artist, who was named a United Nation’s 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. I’d 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 Nations.

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 it’s 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 they’ll 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 it’s concluded. Stevie’s 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 your—I guess I’ll 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 that’s 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 I’m believing that nowhere in the Qur’an 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: —there’s no way we can find peace with the ego. There’s no way. It is completely the opposite of everything that spirituality, Allah, God, stands for. And until we get rid of that, we’ll only move but so far. And that’s everywhere in the world.

Cooper: I think there’s a song here about ego. We’ll 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 they’re 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 organization’s trying to do—it’s 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 what’s great, you don’t. For example, for me, with the Grammies last time, I was very, very disappointed to know that John Legend’s album was not nominated. It was a great album. You can tell it by the way they’re playing the single now, and the single’s old, meaning it’s been out for a long time, and people like the song. But it’s my opinion that a lot of that has to do with politics. So I think that even though we’re talking about two different things, unfortunately, the idea of people saying to you, “We’ve got to start at the grassroots level,” I understand that. I really do, and I wish that it didn’t have to be like that, to get through.

But unfortunately, again, ego brings about fear, and it brings about distrust. And there you go. It’s 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. I’m just looking forward to the time where the world is accessible, because that’s the right thing to do, be accessible to everyone.

Cooper: One of the things that ABILITY Magazine has afforded us is that we’re traveling and doing stories, whether it’s accessibility or integration of people with disabilities into existing organizations, it’s continually opening doors. Whether it’s 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: It’s an ancient city in Jordan built inside a mountain range, taking a horse and carriage to get there. It’s incredible. The reason they invited us to go see that was, they’ve now made a carriage that’s 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: That’s great.

Martirosyan: They’re thinking about a world peace festival of music and art in 2015. Obama was there last year for the first time.

Wonder: That’ll 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, it’s 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. We’ll continue to have dialogue with you, and you can participate at some level if you’d 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 what’s 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 they’re making apps that also allow you to read Braille.

Cooper: I’ve 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 there’s another one that has a camera inside the glasses, and you can actually say if you have someone who’s 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 haven’t seen that one yet.

Wonder: That’s 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 the spectrum.

Cooper: We talked to the inventor, and he’s 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 area.

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 you’re pointing at. For instance it detects if there’s a bus coming and what number it is. It’s interesting, to say the least. I do think that your problem always is the economics of it.

Wonder: That’s the other thing. These things cost a lot of money. What I’d 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 doesn’t 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 various governments.

Cooper: Have you tried VOICEYE technology for print?

Wonder: The voice—?

Cooper: It’s called VOICEYE. Coming out of South Korea. They had a booth at CSUN. They’ve got some of the Korean government putting VOICEYE code on the right-hand top page of printed material, and then your smartphone scans that code.

Martirosyan: Something like a QR code, but it’s 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 that’s 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! What’s 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" on our Facebook page.

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Excerpts from the Stevie Wonder Issue Jun/Jul 2014:

Shayne — Meningococcal Septicemia

China — Love of Music

VOICEYE — Accessible Code

Stevie Wonder — Isn’t He Lovely?

EARN — Statistics

Japan — Aging is Changing a Country

Articles 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... subscribe

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