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 sitting next to Lia Martirosyan 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. ie performing at the Global Citizen Festival together with 60,000 activists in Central Park, they lifted their voices to end extreme poverty.
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 righthand 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 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?
Cooper: It takes the publishers. I happen to publish the magazine, and even though we’re on the web and have other forms of content, I wanted the print to be as accessible as possible. When we found out about that technology, we decided to keep testing it. It actually started with the Andrea Bocelli issue. If the government, for example, starts to do this and some leading companies, it can become standard practice. It takes a little extra time but doesn’t cost much. VOICEYE is trying to create the standard so that people who are blind know where the code will be per page, always in the right top portion.
Wonder: So it’s in the righthand corner?
Cooper: Yes. We’re not putting it there yet, because it’s still in beta, and we’re doing it more for low vision and people with reading challenges, so if you have dyslexia or low vision, you can scan it. We’re going to put the higher resolution code on the cover that you’re on— this will be the first time. It may have to be placed over your face.
Wonder: (laughs) I don’t see why you shouldn’t do that.
Cooper: We’re going to put it in the righthand corner. It will read out loud everything on the cover, but on this one we’ll have it go to the web. For that, there’s another company called Capti Voice that we’re working with. They have a playlist you can use on your iPhone that you can put different URLs on and whatever you’re doing, you can be listening to all the webs you ever put on your playlist out loud. It was built for people who are blind.
Wonder: Are you saying it would read every page?
Cooper: Right now we have our editorial pages already coded, but it’s not in the standard place, because we have too much artwork. The placement for our magazine is on the bottom middle of each editorial page. But as I previously mentioned, the standard will be for any printed material, whether it’s an IRS form or text book, should be the top righthand corner. The code will be put—
Wonder: So you’re saying now it’s set up so you have to see it to get to it?
Cooper: Yes, but starting with the Stevie Wonder issue, we’ll put a code on the cover. The code will read out loud everything that’s on the cover, only the cover, but also will have a link to the web, and it will include hearable articles from the whole magazine. You have to be web connected. Our editorial code now has the content in the code.
Wonder: You’re saying that certain parts of articles you can do, but you can’t do the whole article?
Cooper: For the technology as it is, it’s already high density. So to be able to read out 750 words, let’s say a whole page of text, which is a lot of data to hold in a small 2 dimensional box. For example, a QR code can give you all the information on a business card. But the VOICEYE code gives you the content of a whole page. There is no other technology like that right now.
Wonder: So then a person wouldn’t have to worry about scanning the page and reading the—
Cooper: Again, that’s just for the print. We already have all that on the web anyway. The web, whether it’s Jaws or whatever you’re reading, can read any HTML that’s up there. That’s pretty accessible once you get to the web. The question in my mind had always been, how do you make the page more accessible, rather than going to Braille? As you know, not everyone who’s blind can read Braille. Plus, it’s expensive to print a whole magazine that’s all in Braille. It’s just not feasible or cost-effective. You can’t afford to do it. The solution was using VOICEYE technology. As Lia said, we’re now the first magazine in the world to do that. When we’re done with this, I’ll show you a sample.
Wonder: Oh, great. That’s exciting.
Cooper: The technology’s really coming along, in every aspect.
Martirosyan: I was ready to jump into some musical questions. What are you working on now? Anything you can share with us?
Wonder: I’m working on, like, three different things. One, the next project that I plan to release, “Through the Eyes of Wonder.” The next thing I’m working with is a project myself and David Foster are working on together. David has had this idea for a long time of me doing some of my old songs that I’ve done, previously recorded songs, with a symphony orchestra.
Martirosyan: Oh, beautiful.
Wonder: So differently than “Natural Wonder,” this will be songs done in the studio with some members of the London Symphony Orchestra and others. The third is, I’ve been writing this since 2006, when my mother passed away. I promised her I would do an album called “Gospel Inspired by Lula.” So I’m hoping to get that done, too.
Cooper: So you have—
Martirosyan: —not too much on your plate?
Wonder: Just a little bit. Not much.
Martirosyan: A daily routine of yours would be waking up and going to the studio?
Wonder: My daily routine really is how to spend so much time playing the harpejji. I’ve been practicing on that, working with that.
Cooper: Interesting instrument.
Martirosyan: It is a very interesting instrument, and the first time I’ve seen it. Having dexterity issues with my fingers, I’m on a quest to find different types of instruments that can actually be incorporated and made my own. Anyway, I thought that was a pretty unique instrument. How long have you been playing it?
Wonder: Almost two years now.
Martirosyan: How do you prefer it to all the other instruments you play?
Wonder: Well, it’s a different kind of instrument. I love it. But it’s definitely a different kind of instrument, sort of in between a guitar and something else.
Martirosyan: Have you written any songs with the harpejji yet?
Wonder: Oh, yeah, a lot of songs. Nothing that has been released. But yeah, definitely. An instrument is very much like a painter, where there’s different colors. Every instrument brings out another kind of thing with it. This instrument definitely does bring out some other things.
Cooper: What do you think of when you say “colors”? What’s in your mind when you talk about paint and colors?
Wonder: I think visual expressions, moods. I understand the difference between light and dark and bright, I understand those concepts based on what I’ve been told. But as well as what I’m able to imagine.
Cooper: So the clothing you’re been wearing and your wonderful collaborator, he’s choosing the colors that he thinks are your personality and somehow you’re communicating this?
Wonder: I think it’s not so much—he knows that I like texture, so I go with feeling the texture and with hearing him describe what it looks like. I’m with it or not with it. I’ll express that.
Martirosyan: It’s unmistakable.
Wonder: There are five of us. We’re close.
Cooper: So they live in Detroit?
Wonder: They’re here.
Cooper: They’re in California now?
Martirosyan: Are they all in music? Or just you?
Wonder: Just me.
Cooper: How about your children?
Wonder: They are. My daughter is a music director at my radio station. She sings as well.
Martirosyan: How’s the radio station going? You’ve had that for a few years now.
Wonder: It’s doing pretty good. She’s been a great asset to the station.
Cooper: Other than music, what are your hobbies?
Wonder: I love sports. When I’m able to go bowling, I like that. I love air hockey. When the playoffs happen, I love basketball. When I’m able to, I go roller skating. But my most favorite thing is music. I love music, a lot.
Cooper: Did you ever try playing golf?
Cooper: Have you tried anything that you wouldn’t typically think a person who’s blind can do?
Wonder: Not really. I’m probably sure that if I were given something, the opportunity to learn a new sport, a new way of doing something, very similar to the harpejji, that was a very visual instrument. My challenge was to learn how to play it.
Cooper: It looks complicated. We looked at the keyboard and the strings and the buttons. It’s like a combination computer, piano, guitar put together in some way. It’s a pretty impressive machine.
Wonder: It really is. It’s 16 strings. They make one with 24 strings, but those are mostly bass strings. But this one here, with 16 strings, you play it with both hands. You basically tap the notes, and you position the notes to create a chord. It’s pretty exciting.
Martirosyan: Can you tap them with anything other than your fingertips?
Wonder: No, just your fingers. But it’s not hard that you have to tap them.
Cooper: Can you tap with the knuckle?
Wonder: If you’re able to get them in the position you want them, yeah.
Martirosyan: Maybe people in a similar situation as me could have something like a stylus to use. That would be interesting. I wanted to share something, a quick story with you. When my grandmother moved here from Armenia, one of the first ways she started learning English was through my translating a song, one of your songs. It was “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
Wonder: That’s wonderful. So your family’s from Armenia?
Martirosyan: Yes sir.
Wonder: That’s wonderful.
Martirosyan: That was a fun way that I connected with her, because I love the song, too. It was a cool learning modality.
Cooper: Have you been to Armenia?
Wonder: No. What is the relationship now with Armenia and Russia?
Martirosyan: Superficially good relationship. There isn’t too much going on right now. I think Russia’s currently preoccupied with other situations.
Cooper: Lia speaks a little Russian.
Wonder: How do you say thank you?
Martirosyan: “Spasibo.” Have you been to Russia?
Martirosyan: What’s your favorite place of all the places you’ve gone, all the countries you’ve visited?
Wonder: I like Africa, West Africa. That was fun, going there. I like Brazil; it’s always fun in Brazil.
Martirosyan: I feel like Brazil has a lot of energy.
Wonder: Oh, yeah, they really do. What was most impressive with me about Brazil the very first time I went was how much they love music. I love that.
Martirosyan: Did you write anything inspired by that type of music, that type of energy?
Wonder: I’m sure a lot of my stuff, whether it’d be “Don’t You Worry About a Thing.”
[Plays some rhythms from the song]
Wonder: That was something I did back in the day, when I first came, I did some stuff that was never released as of yet that was inspired by the music.
Cooper: Back to the world peace situation, music is a common denominator throughout the world. There are different forms of it, but the theme, the rhythm, the rhyme, the harmony of it all, you’ve encompassed that in most of your music. You’re a perfect person, if you will, to be a representative for world peace.
Wonder: As much as I’ve been blessed to do, this is for me when I want to do what I really want to do as far as helping people. Obviously helping people with disabilities, I want—my desire is to in my lifetime be a very integral part of getting this country and the world completely accessible to everyone with any disability. There should be nowhere that we can’t go, and there should be nothing that we can’t do. Considering that we have the disability, whichever one it might be, we will be so on point with being able to do that we need little to no assistance.
Cooper: Another thing we’re doing about accessibility is, we’ve partnered with a nonprofit called Amara, and they do crowdsourcing for captioning videos in multiple languages. Our ABILITY Team has close to 200 hundred volunteers in different countries, different languages. This crowdsourcing with volunteers for captioning in multiple languages is another example of bringing content access for people who use CC. It’s another example of technology coming together to bring the world together.
Wonder: That’s great, because the only way we can be on the same page is to know what the other is doing. We can agree that we agree.
Cooper: I agree. Do you agree?
Martirosyan: I agree.
Wonder: [Sings the word Yay] piano notes
Cooper: I noticed that you had also worked with a broad range of different disability organizations. Special Olympics, you did something with them, Paralympics, sometimes people confuse the two, I’m always surprised. Are you talking to people like Tim Shriver? Do you know him?
Wonder: Oh, yeah, I know Tim. We’ve done his foundation, and we’ve done others. My thing is basically anything that brings to light conditions that the world needs to look at, and the world needs to cheer with their accomplishments, I’m all the way there.
Cooper: Do you remember which Paralympics you went to? You didn’t go to the one in Russia recently.
Wonder: Greece. It was great in Greece. I remember every night we’d go to the disco club. It was crazy, that little disco place.
Martirosyan: What was accessibility like in Greece?
Wonder: I’m usually traveling with people who will show me around, so it’s difficult for me to know to what degree they had it set up. I was happy to know that they were committed to hosting that event. I think every time there’s an opportunity to make people aware of something, and a country steps up and says, “OK, we want to, we say that we’re supportive and we host the event and we’re committed to doing everything that we can to join the family of helping people with disabilities to go further.”
Cooper: Are you going to the CRPD (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities)? Each year they’ve been holding the CRPD event at the UN. Did they ask you to attend this one?
Wonder: Yes, I am attending. I’ll be there at the opening.
Cooper: That would be great. We’re having a panel ourselves during the conference that will be discussing assistive technologies. Matter of fact, the magazine will be there; we’ll be distributing this issue at the UN.
Wonder: Oh, great!
Cooper: There’s also a conference in DC called the M-Enabling Summit. It brings all the technology companies together, Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, they’re all there, and it’s about bringing the cell phone. This year more people will access their smartphone than their desktop. It’s a shift in where we’re getting our information. So this M-Enabling Summit is talking with governments and big business to make sure that everything they do is accessible on the smartphone platform, both Droid and iPhone. And of course Apple and Samsung will be there.
Wonder: You think that Samsung are trying to do as much as Apple?
Cooper: They’re trying. There’s something that came out about how their newest line is more accessible than in the past. I haven’t read it yet. I just saw a press release.
Wonder: The speech is good. It’s a little clumsy, but it’s not bad.
Cooper: I’ll demonstrate how the scan works real quick. I’m opening up ABILITY Magazine. I’ll use the smartphone—
Wonder: Which one are you using?
Cooper: A Samsung. I’ve always been an Apple person, but when it came to the phone, the Samsung. For me it’s a little bit better than the iPhone.
Wonder: Maybe because I’m—I am fairly good with typing, using my hands with the phone, even as much as I use the focus button.
Cooper: On this phone, I downloaded the VOICEYE app. It’s a free app, and there’s a stand that is used to put the phone on, to stabilize it.
Wonder: That speech that I heard is different from the Samsung phone. That’s not the same as Samsung, right?
Martirosyan: Yes, it’s the same, using TTS, from his phone. I think he has a newer version of Samsung.
Cooper: There are new voices coming out. That Capti that I was telling you about, which you can use on your iPhone, when you download Capti and then put the different URLs that you want to listen to later in a playlist, you’ll have different choices of really nice voices.
Wonder: When’s that coming out?
Cooper: The new voices, I’m not sure yet, I’ll keep you posted.
Wonder: Okay great!
Cooper: Speaking of voices, I don’t know if you remember, but we mentioned that Lia is an opera singer.
Wonder: Yes, I do remember that. You should sing at my annual Holiday Toys for Kids fundraiser.
Martirosyan: I’d love to.
[Turns to everyone in the room]
Did everyone hear that? It’s not everyday Stevie Wonder invites you to sing!
Cooper: Before we end our conversation, I know there was a time that you were looking at maybe some operation through Johns Hopkins? Anything coming through, a potential operation?
Wonder: No, I was not eligible for the technology they’re working with. It was because after X amount of years, the actual nerve begins to die, the use of it. So because of my—
Cooper: —it atrophied?
Wonder: Yeah, we call it retinopathy or something like that.
Cooper: So you did get tested?
Cooper: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Wonder: I want to thank you for coming and seeing a little bit of my world and allowing me to speak again on my commitment to life and spreading the message and the word about how we must make the world accessible. The world, not just one particular country or city or area, but the entire world, accessible and available for every single one with any disability. If you’re commitment is not there, it is nonforgiving, as far as I’m concerned. So let’s handle it. Let’s do the damn thing.