How ‘America’s Got Talent’ contestant Kodi Lee shattered stereotypes about disability

If you haven’t seen Kodi Lee’s May 28 performance on “America’s Got Talent,” it’s worth a watch.

The 22-year-old Lee is blind and has autism. His rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” brought the crowd to its feet – and thrilled viewers at home.

“Loved this moment so much! Stood up and cheered in my living room!” Oprah tweeted.

Much of the media coverage portrayed Lee as someone who, in developing his musical ability to such a high level, overcame all odds – a common though sometimes troublesome trope used to describe people with disabilities who achieve any measure of success.

Lee is certainly an exciting talent. But as someone who teaches a course on the intersection of disability and music, I was moved by other aspects of Lee’s performance as well.

[embedded content] Lee stunned the judges during his May 28 performance on ‘America’s Got Talent.’
One challenge for people with disabilities can be that others tend to conflate their disability with their personality and identity. Their disability becomes the defining aspect of who they are, which can prevent people from realizing that those with disabilities can have rich interior lives.

So listening to Lee sing about love – mature, adult love – I heard a 22-year-old man whose voice and delivery brimmed with emotion and rang with authenticity.

“I’ve been so many places in my life and time,” he begins. “We’re alone now and I’m singing this song to you,” he croons, evoking deep intimacy and connection.

Infantilizing and de-sexualizing people with disabilities is still commonplace – as though physical or intellectual disability should necessarily exclude the ability to feel desire and the longing to be desired.

Lee shatters these notions. To sing these lines believably means to have lived them or to have imagined their truth.

Perhaps the most joyful aspect of Kodi Lee’s performance, however, is rooted in the dimension of time.