Don’t put us in a box

Itzhak Perlman performs and speaks at Harris Theater

Marca Bristo, Itzhak Perlman and Nura Aly.
“The only reason kids thought I was weird is because I practiced three hours a day.” -- Itzhak Perlman

Weird or not, the practice paid off for Itzhak Perlman, the world renowned violinist and composer who was in Chicago on January 6. The glimpse into Perlman’s childhood came on stage at Harris Theater for Music and Dance as the legendary musician spoke on stage with Access Living President & CEO Marca Bristo for an event billed as “An Intimate Conversation with Itzhak Perlman.” In front of an audience of more than 500 people, Marca interviewed Perlman for more than half an hour, asking questions about everything from accessibility in the arts and the portrayal of disability, to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and Perlman’s time at the White House as a Presidential Medal of Honor recipient. Perlman shared insights about disability and music as well as anecdotes about airline travel and the Ed Sullivan Show. Perlman, who contracted polio at a young age, never shied away from the topic of disability. Through his answers and through the stories he shared with Marca and the audience, Perlman sent the message that disability is a significant part of who he is but that it doesn’t define him.

The same held true for Perlman’s parents. Disability didn’t take center stage. According to Perlman, his parents didn’t worry about his disability, they only “worried whether or not I was practicing the violin.”

In the conversation, Perlman spoke about his travels and encounters with accessible hotel rooms. “We are not all disabled in the same way,” Perlman said. “Don’t put us in a box.” He explained that sometimes the built environment and accommodations, designed with people with disabilities in mind, don’t take into account diversity within disability.

Itzhak Perlman and Marca Bristo on stage at Harris Theater. Sign Language Interpreter on right side of image and stage

The conversation on January 6, which was followed in the evening by a performance of the Juilliard Orchestra conducted by Perlman, was a partnership between the Harris Theater and Access Living. The conversation and the concert were the final public ADA 25 Chicago sponsored events. Throughout 2015 and into 2016, more than 200 organizations hosted ADA 25 Chicago events or initiated programs intended to build a legacy of inclusion and accessibility in the spirit of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Harris Theater commitment to ADA 25 Chicago went beyond the programs with Itzhak Perlman. As part of a Capitol improvement project called the Imagine campaign, Harris Theater installed two new, high-capacity elevators in order to better accommodate disabled and non-disabled patrons. Harris unveiled the new elevators in December, just in time for the Perlman events.

Though Perlman has performed for leaders from around the world and in front of millions of people throughout his prestigious career as a musician, Perlman played the role of disability advocate in the early afternoon on January 6. On stage with Marca, Perlman spoke frankly about disability, neither hiding it or highlighting it. He sent a message that thousands within the disability community and independent living movement have tried to deliver for years. Disability is a natural part of life. No matter who we are, chances are everyone is affected in one way or another.

Here is coverage from the Chicago Sun-Times of the conversation between Perlman and Briso