Stevie Wonder has been making music and bringing joy to people for decades. It’s difficult to find anyone that doesn’t at least appreciate his contributions to the musical world. And the most memorable thing about his person is that he’s blind. But he wasn’t always blind, at least before the world knew his name. This is the story of how Stevie Wonder became blind.
Born With Vision
That’s right, Wonder wasn’t born blind, although he had lost his sight by the time he became famous. And once he began making music, his talent was undeniable. It helps that he can seemingly play every instrument. In the 70’s, Wonder won the Album of the Year at the Grammies three different times.
Making A Difference
Wonder isn’t just a skilled musician either, but also an activist. He was about the campaign to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday. In 2009, the United Nations made Wonder a Messenger of Peace. And in 2014, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
The Greatest Album Of All Time
Of course, Wonder is best known for his music. Even other famous musicians are fans of his. Elton John told Rolling Stones that, no matter where he goes, he takes a Stevie Wonder album with him. This album was called Songs in the Key of Life.
Wonder never let his disability hold him back. Being blind wasn’t even the only adversity his family had to face. Wonder had grown up poor, and his father was allegedly an alcoholic who abused Wonder’s mother. But life would eventually improve. His family moved to Detroit and he blossomed into a fine, young man. At some point, The Miracles’ Ronnie White discovered Wonder at age 11. He managed to get him an audition for Motown Records’ head Berry Gordy Jr. And, of course, the rest was history.
12-Year Old Genius
Wonder’s first album was released before he was even a teenager. Soon after, he also recorded a live album, Recorded Live: The 12 Year Old Genius. The 70’s are what were referred to as Wonder’s “classic period”. He quickly released multiple, peerless albums, which truly made him a musical prodigy in the eyes of the people.
Song In The Key Of Life
Between 1971 to 1976, Wonder released Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and, the album that Elton John loved so much, Songs in the Key of Life. It proved to be a seminal moment in Wonder’s career. Slate’s Jack Hamilton referred to the album as “a monumental work of American popular culture”. The album didn’t just produce good music, but also tackled a huge number of important topics. He touched on religion, love, betrayal, social inequality, and divorce. He didn’t just push the boundaries of pop music sonically, but with his lyrics. And he did it all while blind.
Embracing His Disability
While blind, Wonder doesn’t seem to even view that as a negative thing. He says that it allows him to access areas of his mind that musicians with sight just can’t, revealing this in an interview with The New York Times. In that interview, Wonder said, “It’s played a part in that I’m able to use my imagination to go places, to write words about things I’ve heard people talk about. In music and in being blind, I’m able to associate what people say with what’s inside me.”
Learning The Piano
During an appearance on Larry King Live in 2010, Wonder touched on the subject of learning how to play music as a blind kid. “Obviously, sound was very important to me,” he said. “So, when I was able to, you know, to touch that thing, what’s called a piano, I was curious about it.”
The Words That Changed Him
Larry King spoke of George Shearing during his interview with Wonder, a jazz pianist that was blind like Wonder. Shearing had once said that he didn’t consider being a blind a handicap, a sentiment Wonder shares. Wonder then revealed that he actually knew Shearing too, regarding him as a great man.
The Creative Process
King asked Wonder another question during their interview; “When you write a song, where does it come from? I mean, you don’t see colors. You don’t see people. You don’t know what a television set looks like. You feel a piano, but you’ve never seen a piano.” Wonder’s response was simple; “I honestly think if I were to, you know, see a piano or to see someone or all the other things you mentioned… I think I’d be pretty close to where I imagine it to be. I think I’ve got a pretty good imagination. And I think that, you know, we really feel before we see. We really hear before we see.”
Does He Miss It?
Wonder was faced with a similar line of questioning when interviewed by Oprah back in 2004. She asked him, “If you’ve never seen, can you miss it?” Wonder gave a thoughtful reply in regards to his experiences, saying, “I miss what’s associated with seeing. I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss being able to drive somewhere with my wife and kids alone or, back in the day, with my girl. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I just have to work it out.”
A Good Sense Of Humor
Wonder continued to say in the interview, “Because I’m living life, aware of what everyone else is doing. I have a vivid imagination.” But Wonder still has a good sense of humor about his blindness, saying, “And growing up, I was around people who weren’t afraid to say, ‘Man, why are you lookin’ over there? What’s wrong with you? I’m over here. You need to keep your head still.'”
The talk next turned to Wonder’s reputation when he was a child. And he admitted that he wasn’t exactly known for his piano skills. “I was known as the blind boy who was always making noise, beating on walls, hitting on boxes, singing and playing the bongos from morning till sunset on the front porch. People were like, ‘give us a break.'”
Everything Has a Sound
Wonder also gave insight on his daily life as a blind person. He mentioned how he developed a “facial radar”. This ability allowed him to hear the noises reverberating off of objects nearby. He went on to explain, “If you close your eyes and put your hands right in front of your face, then move your hands, you can actually hear the sound of the air bouncing off your hands.” Oprah actually asked him if everything had a sound, and he went on to elaborate; “Yes. Everything has a sound in terms of its placement. In other words, there are many things in this room, and they make up how this room sounds — how dead or alive it is acoustically. If you took this desk out, the audio picture would be different.”
And, of course, the topic of Wonder’s sight was once again broached in a 2012 interview with The Guardian. He was asked if he had ever felt as though he was at a disadvantage because of his blindness, or because he was born black. And the musical artist responded, “Do you know, it’s funny, but I never thought of being blind as a disadvantage, and I never thought of being black as a disadvantage.”
Crediting His Faith
Continuing his Guardian interview, Wonder said, “I am what I am. I love me! And I don’t mean that egotistically. I love that God has allowed me to take whatever it was that I had and to make something out of it […] The genius in me is God — it’s the God in me coming out.” Considering the fact that he wasn’t born blind, that’s an admirable way to think about how his life ended up. There was a possibility that he never became blind in the first place.
Back to the interview with Oprah, she actually asked Wonder if he had any memories of color. And that led to the two speaking of the mistake that had taken Wonder’s sight. Wonder revealed, “When someone mentions a color, I associate it with my understanding of what that color is. I may have been able to see for a short time after I was born.”
Memories Of Sight
Oprah picked up on this and asked, “Weren’t you put in an incubator and given too much oxygen?” Wonder confirmed and elaborated on the event; “Right — I was premature. My doctor didn’t know what’s known now about the right amount of oxygen, so I was given too much, and an area of my eyes was destroyed.”
On Life Support
In 1950, Stevie Wonder — or as he was known back then, Stevland Hardaway Judkins — was born six weeks early in Saginaw, Michigan. He was placed in an incubator for life support. And when he was seven weeks old, the baby had lost his sense of sight. And it was because of a doctor’s unfortunate mistake.
A Tragic Mistake
As Wonder described, from too much oxygen being pumped into the incubator, abnormal blood vessels grew in his eyes. The vessels spread to the retina and the blood vessels ultimate hemorrhaged. This damaged the retina and it detached.
The Primary Cause Of Blindness
This condition is known as retinopathy of prematurity. According to the National Eye institute, it generally affects premature babies who weigh less than three pounds. It also happens to be one of the primary causes of blindness in children. Despite how unfortunate this may be to some, Wonder still looks that the event with optimism, even considering it something of a lucky escape.
Holding No Grudges
“A girl who was born one minute before me actually died,” Wonder revealed to Oprah. “She couldn’t withstand that much oxygen.” Despite the catastrophic mistake, Wonder has been clear that he feels no ill will towards the doctor, nor has he been bitter about the loss of one of his senses. “Once I went to Saginaw, Michigan and visited the hospital where I was born,” Wonder went on to say, “There was this big hoopla — they gave me a special award. I think people were scared I was planning to sue that doctor’s ass. But he didn’t have any intent to harm me.”
Comforting His Mother
A story within the lore of Wonder’s early childhood was that he had told his mother, “Don’t worry about me being blind, because I’m happy”. Oprah, of course, asked if that was true, and Wonder confirmed, “I said something like that.” He went on to explain that he hated seeing his mother upset over his condition, and that he just wanted her to know he was okay. “She thought God might be punishing her for something. She lived during a time when things were particularly difficult for a woman in her circumstances.”
Important Life Lessons
However, Hardaway had still given her son crucial life lessons. According to Wonder, himself, he said that they were “to persevere, to never be ashamed [and] to not let my past bury me.” These mantras are the source his self-confidence and happiness, no matter what other obstacles life may put in front of him.
Bullies Didn’t Bother Him
Wonder admitted to being bullied as a child. However, when he spoke about them, he said this; “kids used to make fun of me because I was blind. How can I climb this tree and get an apple for this girl? That’s what mattered to me.” Although, the young Stevie didn’t let a perceived disability get to him. His mother had taught him better than that.
The way his mother had raised him caused Wonder to reject the idea that he was disabled. She let him make his own mistakes, but would be there when he needed her. “[My mom] didn’t bind me up. She wasn’t like, ‘Don’t step there!’ or ‘watch out, you’ll fall!'”
Learning On His Own
Wonder continued, saying [My mom would] tell me to be careful, but I was going to do what I was going to do. She was just fast enough to catch me. She knew I had to learn — and the more she allowed me to do, the more she could let go.” And that approach to parenting paid off. At least, one could assume with incredible career that Wonder has lived.