March, Women’s History Month, marks the commemoration and celebration of women who have achieved renown in many fields. Following are a few performing and creative artists, present and past:
Esteemed actor Judi Dench (born in 1934) first revealed her struggles with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in 2012. She acknowledged that she is one of “’thousands and thousands of people all over the world” contending with this condition, the most common cause of vision loss for adults over the age of 50. Since her initial diagnosis, Dench has experienced gradual vision loss, while continuing her work on stage. She has noted that “’I’ve got to teach myself a new way of learning…I’ve realized that I need to know where it is on the page…I’ll teach myself a way…’” Most recently, appearing on “The Graham Norton Show,” Dench explained that “her deteriorating eyesight is making it difficult for her to read scripts” and that “’I need to find a machine that not only teaches me my lines, but also tells me where they appear on the page.’” Read more about Dench and her journey with AMD in the Los Angeles Times article on her deteriorating eyesight.
Country music artist Terri Gibbs has recorded eleven studio albums and “has charted” 13 singles on the Billboard country singles charts between 1980 and 2017. She was born prematurely in 1954, with sight, but lost her vision in an incubator accident, was diagnosed with retrolental fibroplasia [now called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), according to the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health] and declared blind at six months of age. Gibbs, whose “parents wanted her to be treated no differently from sighted people,” sang and played the piano as a child, attending public school in Augusta, Georgia. Her first single release, “’Somebody’s Knockin,’” was a hit as well as the title of her debut album in 1981. Additional details can be found in a Wikipedia piece on Terri Gibbs.
Contemporary vocalist in contemporary jazz Diane Schuur has received a number of accolades for her work, including two Grammy Awards, for “Best Jazz Vocal Performance,” for “Timeless (1986) and “Diane Schuur and The Count Basie Orchestra” in 1987, and Grammy nominations for several more. She has been blind since her premature birth in 1953, losing her sight due to retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). At the age of three, Schuur was “picking out tunes on (piano) keys with two fingers…,” and, by age six, “was giving regular command performances amid her corduroy jumpers.” Her formal piano study began at the Washington School for the Blind, finishing her studies in public schools and, eventually, studying voice at the University of Puget Sound. Schuur launched her professional career in the Pacific Northwest, eventually expanding her horizons to such performance venues as the Boston Pops, Houston Symphony, the Toledo Jazz Orchestra, and the Philly Pops Orchestra. Learn more at Diane Schuur’s website.
Due to the fact that her mother, Crown Princess Juliana (later Queen of the Netherlands), contracted rubella, also known as German Measles, during pregnancy, Princess Christina of the Netherlands (1947-2019) was born “nearly blind,” although her vision subsequently improved through medical treatment and customized eyeglasses. She pursued a career in music, studying teaching theory in the Netherlands and classical music vocal teaching in Canada. After moving to New York, the Princess taught singing and recorded and released several CDs, in classical and Broadway genre. Later, she completed dance therapist training, eventually sharing her knowledge in dance/sound therapy with people who were blind. Additional details are available in the Wikipedia listing for Princess Christina of the Netherlands.
Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926), who “succeeded in what was then a predominantly male profession” is “best known for her representation of women’s experience, with a particular focus on the relationship between mother and child.” At the age of 56, due to cataracts and diabetic retinopathy, Cassatt began experiencing vision problems that impacted her work, switching from oils to pastels, which “demand less precision.” As her vision loss advanced, the “meticulous lines” of her earlier work became “strident, bold strokes of color” and her canvasses grew larger “to accommodate for her loss of acuity.” For more information, read the UK Disability History Month webpage on Mary Cassatt.
“One Heart One Vision:” A Podcast Celebrates Women
Poet Monica Williams, who is blind, shares her story of “turning tragedy into triumph!” during this podcast, airing since March 7, 2023. Williams chronicles her journey, growing up in Florida, speaking about her family, her challenges, and emergence as a poet and grant writer. Her interview can be found on One Heart One Vision, a regular program, hosted by Jovan and Yasheta, who are blind. Their motto, “Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you can’t have vision,“ underscores the themes of the episodes of their podcast, which cover timely topics and current events. Tune in here to this episode where “The Ladies Kick Off Women’s Empowerment Month with Blind Poet Monica Williams.”