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A Vision for the Future: An Interview with Casey Harris of X Ambassadors

October 11th is World Sight Day (WSD), an annual day of awareness, spotlighting global attention to blindness and vision impairment. To help raise awareness for World Sight Day, I recently spoke with Casey Harris, the incredibly talented keyboardist for the rock band, X Ambassadors, where we discussed his journey from a visually impaired childhood in Ithaca, NY to playing in front of sold-out arenas and collaborating with the likes of Eminem and Imagine Dragons.

Casey Harris, X Ambassadors - Photo by Danny Lowe

I’ve been singing and nodding my head to X Ambassadors “Renegades” for a few years now, but I was only recently introduced to the video. The song is quite simply about the importance of being yourself and the video follows a group of talented people, who accomplish amazing feats and who happen to have a disability.

As someone who works in the disability employment field and who sees the struggles people with disabilities face on a daily basis, I was immediately overcome by a sense of pride and awe at what the video’s central message was. For me this video the perfect storm of happiness, the merging of my two passions – finding success for people with disabilities and music.

After watching the video, I was also surprised to learn the band’s keyboardist, Casey Harris, was visually impaired. Casey was born with the genetic condition, Senior-Loken syndrome, which affects his kidneys and retina and led to his visual impairment. But for Casey, like most people with significant disabilities, he was able to succeed with natural supports and tools.

“My vision was, obviously, always a major part of my childhood, but I was lucky enough to grow up in Ithaca, New York, where they had a really incredible school and an open-minded school district. They didn’t have much experience with visually impaired students, but they were very willing and helpful to tap into adaptive technologies,” describes Casey. “Of course there were obstacles yet it never felt like a huge burden to be visually impaired because I had these amazing people around me helping me to live a normal life because the school district was very willing and help to work with me and try new things.”

Casey and his brother, lead vocalist of the X-Ambassadors, Sam Harris, grew up in a house full of music, where they soon discovered that they could actually make a living out of music or at the very least give it their best shot. “My mom was a great singer and accompanist, so there was always music. Our dad always claimed he played the record player really well, which he did, to be fair. So, they both had a huge musical influence on me and Sam.”

Casey left high school with his brother, together as aspiring musicians. While they pursued their music career dreams, they also understood the need for a backup plan and knew they would need jobs. “The opportunity came out of the blue after a story my uncle told that while living in England he was getting his piano tuned, and the tuner who came was blind,” says Casey. “Apparently, in England, a lot of the tuners are blind and that got me and my mom thinking that, you know, I love pianos, and I love anything technical or mechanical. I'm a huge science and engineering buff. So it was like this dream job suddenly presented itself to me.”

As with any passionate and driven jobseeker, Casey focused on his career interests and did some research to find a great match. “We found this amazing school, which unfortunately closed about a year or two ago, out in Vancouver, Washington, that was established to specifically to teach blind and visually-impaired people how to tune pianos. Through the grace of government assistance, I was able to afford the program, and a few years later, moved to New York and started working at a Beethoven Pianos as their floor technician. That paid the bills for a solid five, maybe even six years before we started making any money as a band. Even after I left the piano store, I continued to tune pianos here and there just to make extra pocket change until we really started touring. I would highly recommend to anyone who is visually impaired and musically inclined at all that piano tuning is actually, believe it or not, still a pretty lucrative career that it is something you can learn to be really good at, and it's a very satisfying job.”

The X Ambassadors have been impressing fans worldwide since 2009, even touring and opening for popular rock bands Panic! At The Disco, Jimmy Eat World and Imagine Dragons. In 2015, they truly went viral with “Renegades” topping the charts and accepting numerous awards.

For most individuals with disabilities, life’s day-to-day activities can be challenging and overcoming those challenges is a constant part of their daily routine. For a person with a visual impairment it can be tough traveling to new environments and learning where things are located. Casey has been touring the world visiting different venues, stages, hotels and but he has always been able to accommodate himself to his surroundings.

“While all venues are sort of created equal, they are also completely different, every single one of them. I guess one of the side benefits is that I've gotten really tough. I don't feel any pain anymore, man. Obstacles are no thing. In all seriousness, the change in location, specifically for people who are blind and visually-impaired, a constantly changing environment is one of the most difficult things to adapt to. What I do as a visually impaired person is develop a mental map or a mental outline of my surroundings so that I can navigate them easily and smoothly. Every time you come to a new place, you've gotta completely draw a new map. So I do my best. I'll go in before sound check and walk around a little, walk the way to the green room and the way to the stage and that sort of thing, try and learn my way. But as anyone who's visually impaired will tell you, it takes more than just a single walkthrough to learn a place. So, even today, it's a bit of a struggle. But once again, I'm very lucky to be surrounded by really amazing, great, good-hearted people who are always willing to take the extra time and help me map out my surroundings and help me figure out where the catering is, where the food is at lunchtime, that kind of thing. Because it's always different, and in order to adapt, you've gotta have people around you to help you adapt.”

Many jobs and work environments sadly are not designed with people with disabilities in mind, creating the need for the individual to adapt, utilize natural supports, and in some cases lean on reasonable accommodations to be successful. The music industry is no exception. Casey discusses some of his personal struggles in the studio. “I think that software developers who develop audio software and plugins need to make them adaptable. The more modern a plugin or a piece of recording software is, I've found, the harder it is to make it adaptable, to either magnify it or get the screen reader to work with it, anything like that. I can't tell you how often I feel, in writing and recording sessions, I feel like a klutz, like a second-class musician because I'm not able to pull up these sounds and tweak these sounds that takes two seconds for the other producers in the room to do because the software is so unadaptable. One of the biggest things to help visually impaired people especially, compete in the modern music production world is to make production software more accessible. I think that's a huge thing that needs to be done.”

Casey is passionate and enthusiastic about life and emotes positivity. “We were just always taught that if you can make a difference, you should make a difference. Wherever the opportunity strikes, you've gotta seize that opportunity and try to make the world a better place.”

Recently Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson discussed his battle with depression as a young adult and shortly afterward teamed up Ruderman Family Foundation to call for disability inclusion in Hollywood. The X-Ambassadors are also active advocates and difference makers who are involved in the community with Wounded Warrior Project and also participating in Bedstock.

Casey, himself, is excited to get involved and inspire people when the work life slows down a bit. “I always say it's the Spiderman effect. When you suddenly realize that you have this power, this platform, that people actually listen to you, then along with that comes the responsibility to try and influence them, to try and influence the world to be a better place. I think that's something me and my brother would do regardless, but because I'm visually impaired, I'm much more aware of the challenges for the disability community and what sort of challenges they face and what things I can do to help the cause.”

Casey and the band have been hard at work this year playing shows across the U.S. and putting the final touches on their much-anticipated follow up to “VHS,” “Joyful,” set to release in October. In addition to a busy work schedule, Casey recently married his girlfriend of five years in March and they are expecting a new addition to the family soon. “I'm doing a lot of work at home to get things taken care of. I can imagine in a year or so, getting more involved in the community would be absolutely something that I would be very interested in pursuing outside of the band, doing what I can personally to try and spread the good word and to try to lift people up as much as possible.”

Just like people without disabilities, people with disabilities can accomplish incredible feats and climb to the top of their professions. Many people dream of being a rock star but few have the determination to follow through. Casey is a great example of somebody who chose to follow his dream with tenacity and who is now using his voice to help others. Be like Casey!

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