Gaelynn Lea: Advocating for Disability Rights Through Music

Richard Porter

Gaelynn Lea plays the violin upright like a little cello.

Gaelynn Lea isn’t your typical artist. She was born with brittle bone disease, a genetic disorder that results in very fragile bones. The classically trained violinist and songwriter won NPR’s Tiny Desk contest in 2016. Lea uses her music as a platform to advocate for disability rights. She’ll perform in Birmingham for UAB’s Social Spotlight Festival. She shares more about her condition and how being a wheelchair user hasn’t stopped her from performing.

Interview Highlights

Living with brittle bone disease:

“A bunch of them [bones] broke before I was born and healed kind of bent, so my arms and legs are bent at a 90 degree angle.  I’ve never walked and I’ve needed a wheelchair pretty much my whole life. I have really great parents. They’re both still living and they’re amazing people and they did a good job of just saying whatever I wanted to do that if I really wanted to do it I would figure out a way, which I think is pretty common if you have the right support. It’s just learning how to adapt things to work for you. So I did a lot of different activities growing up and then I got involved in music around the age of 10.”

Finding a love for music:

“An orchestra came to my school when I was in fourth grade and I really loved the way it sounded and I wanted to try it out. So we tried all sorts of instruments the cello and then we tried playing the violin regularly but it didn’t work out. Then, together we came up with this idea that I could play violin upright like a little cello and that ended up working for me. I hold my bow like a bass player, an upright bass player. I started performing first through classical music in school and then I went to traditional fiddle music and then in 2011 I started writing my own songs as well.”

Appearance at UAB’s Social Spotlight:

“This year the goal is to raise awareness about disability rights. By winning that Tiny Desk Contest back in 2016, I also had a chance to start speaking publicly about disability rights and accessibility in the arts and different topics that are important to me. So the coordinator thought that it would be a good fit to have me perform as a part of this festival just knowing my background in activism and music kind of simultaneously.”

On music and advocacy:

“I think art has always been a really important part of activism. It’s certainly not the only way but it’s a good way to reach people. So the more artists that we see with disabilities or the more diversity we have in the arts, I think, the more messages that get out there into the mainstream and I think that’s really important.”

Gaelynn Lea will perform at the Alys Stephens Center Friday, February 8th at 7pm.

Lea will also have free performances at Seasick Records on Saturday, February 9th at 3pm and Beloved Community Church at 6 pm.