On the season premiere of “America’s Got Talent,” a 22-year-old blind autistic man sang for the judges and earned the golden buzzer, advancing straight to the live shows. Kodi Lee’s voice and piano skills were exceptional, and it is wonderful to see people with disabilities succeed and be represented on reality television. But unfortunately, the way “America’s Got Talent” portrayed Lee could have been better.
It is clear that Lee deserves the golden buzzer due to his singing and piano-playing abilities. However, all too often people with disabilities are made to be inspirational characters simply for having a disability, falling into the trap of “inspiration porn,” which assumes that disability itself is so terrible that the mere act of living a normal life with a disability is inspirational. Like anything that turns another human being into a simplified foil or object of pity, the ultimate result is to deny the complex humanity of the person with a disability.
The original title “America’s Got Talent” used for the YouTube upload of the clip was “Kodi Lee Defeats Autism and Blindness With Music.” This title was problematic, to say the least. It implied that autism and blindness are burdens that need to be overcome. Disability is not a burden, rather, the societal obstacles people with disabilities face are burdensome. Thankfully, the title was changed on YouTube to “Kodi Lee Wows You With a Historical Music Moment!” This puts the focus back on his talent.
When Lee walks out on stage with his mother, it is important to note that the judges correctly asked questions directly to Lee, and not to his mother. All too often people will talk to a relative or friend instead of the disabled person.
After Lee effortlessly performs “A Song for You,” all the judges and audience stand and applaud for him. However, it is disappointing that judge Gabrielle Union does not address Lee before hitting the golden buzzer. Instead, she talks to his mother, saying, “you just want to give your kids everything.”
As someone who watched “Britain’s Got Talent” last year and was truly impressed by the way it showcased comedians with disabilities like Lost Voice Guy, this audition felt like a regression, not a progression. Lost Voice Guy did an entire show about inspiration porn and told some jokes about the subject on “America’s Got Talent: The Champions” earlier this year. Simon Cowell was honored at last year’s Media Access Awards for the representation seen on his shows.
Because of this track record, I know “America’s Got Talent” is capable of better representation than we saw in this audition. I can only hope that in future rounds, they remedy the situation and focus more on Lee’s talent and abilities.