The winner of America's Got Talent season 14 has inspired the world. Blind and autistic singer and musician, Kodi Lee, wowed millions with his tremendous talent and delighted with his infectious personality.
Kodi’s audition playing piano and singing Leon Russell and Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You” won judge Gabrielle Union’s Golden Buzzer in the first episode, as she exclaimed she is “so happy Kodi came into all of our lives. You changed the world. Who you are makes the world a better, more beautiful place,” and added as a new mom herself, “We have to stop putting limits on our children. We have to keep believing in each other.”
As Kodi continued to impress in the following weeks with his emotional renditions of Paul Simon's “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Calum Scott’s “You Are The Reason,” the audience began to routinely chant Kodi’s name.
Judge Howie Mandel said Kodi is a great inspiration, and fellow judge Simon Cowell said he will remember this moment for the rest of his life, adding,
“We are nothing without people like you. You are one of the most extraordinary people and talents. God bless you.”
Judge Julianne Hough was moved as well, responding,
“You have changed our hearts. You have changed our mindsets. You have changed our lives. Everybody needs a voice and an expression, and I really feel your heart, your passion. I heard you and I felt you, and that was beautiful.”
In an interview before the finale, Kodi revealed auditioning for America's Got Talent was his idea, explaining, “This show was meant for me. I love performing. I have music in my head. And show my talent to the world.” Kodi’s mother, Tina Lee, recalled they discovered Kodi's musical gift at a very young age, when she realized, “He's an entertainer!”
While viewers were regularly brought both to tears and their feet, Kodi touched hearts again with his finale performance of Freya Ridings’ “Lost Without You,” which he said was about love for “mommy.”
Gabrielle Union said,
“Kodi has changed the world. The whole world would be lost if we had not found Kodi Lee. Thank you for blessing us all, Kodi.”
After much applause and praise, when asked how he felt, in lieu of words, Kodi fittingly responded with jumping up and down in excitement. His mom said playing, recording and performing music is Kodi’s “happy place.”
Before finale results were announced, Kodi again performed Scott’s moving duet, this time with Leona Lewis, and again was met with what had become a customary standing ovation and the audience chanting his name, and in turn, Kodi flashed his usual broad smile and jumped with joy.
Music helps Kodi express himself.
His brother explained, growing up, Kodi “couldn't express love the way we expressed it towards him. Music was a big turning point. Once he started playing those keys, it changed everything.”
Kodi’s sister added, “Music was his way of expressing his emotions.” Kodi shared he feels frustrated when he has difficulty communicating, but said music makes him feel better, adding, “I tell people I love them through my songs. I speak to them.”
Kodi's mother explained, “Through music and performing he was able to withstand living in this world because when you’re autistic, it’s really hard to do what everybody else does. It’s actually saved his life— playing music. Since Kodi was born, he's had to face many obstacles. He has all these talents, but he has trouble communicating. The thing that made Kodi really happy was music. It was something of his own that gave him joy.”
Performing music has also helped Kodi adjust socially, including meeting new people and being in crowds.
As music brought Kodi joy, it brought Tina hope, recalling, “Now I know how to help you as your mom. With all of the hardships he's had, he taught me anything is possible.”
Kodi was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, and survived life-saving surgery when he was just five days old. Despite his condition leaving him legally blind, and being diagnosed with autism at age four, Kodi’s musical passion and talent triumph over his challenges.
Kodi’s mom recalled when he was just two years old, his father began playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the piano, and “Kodi just reached over and started playing it himself. And we thought, ‘Oh, my gosh! He has perfect pitch, perfect memory and perfect timing.’ ”
Now 23, Kodi has learned six instruments, including being mostly self-taught on the piano, starting lessons just four years ago, when his mom succeeded in gaining funding and access for his musical training after his high school graduation. Kodi loves all genres of music, and he has also studied tap dance, for which, not surprisingly, he has a natural talent as well.
Dr. Darold Treffert, a psychiatrist and the medical consultant for Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning role in Rain Man, has studied Savant Syndrome over fifty years, and stated, “[Kodi] does fit the definition of a prodigious musical savant. I’ve been following his career a bit. He is blind and has been given a diagnosis of autism. Yet, he has this spectacular musical ability.”
Kodi is one of just 25 people in the entire world who possess such a keen ability for musical expression, perfect pitch, and an audio photographic memory, which means he can recall music after hearing a song just one time. Kodi has mastered classical works by Chopin, Bach, and Mozart, and he can also perform rock, pop, and R&B.
A Southern California native, Kodi's first performance was at Disneyland when he was invited at just six years of age to join a music group for the day after they heard him drumming along and singing. In addition to local music events, Kodi has performed at the Special Olympics and Carnegie Hall. Kodi will perform in Las Vegas as part of his America's Got Talent winnings. Kodi’s official website chronicles his performances, even worldwide.
Both Kodi and his mother have been touched by messages from autistic children and their parents about what Kodi’s performances have meant to them. It is inspiring to see such unique lives celebrated so publicly. Unfortunately, those with disabilities are instead often met with inaccurate, negative preconceptions. It is incongruent to be inspired by the same lives that are otherwise wrongly viewed as less valuable, or even deemed disposable in the womb.
Appallingly, parents are pressured to abort babies diagnosed with anomalies, and babies with disabilities are regrettably aborted at alarming rates. However, as technology advances, including fetal testing to diagnose autism, families should be equipped with more resources and support to provide the best care for their children. Science should be a tool for improvement, not eugenic elimination of vulnerable lives.
Frank Stephens, a man with Down syndrome, testified last year before a congressional committee,
"We are giving the world a chance to think about the ethics of choosing which humans get a chance at life."
Despite fallible misdiagnoses, fetal surgical treatments, babies’ astounding ability to correct abnormalities in the womb, and countless medical miracles and remarkable lives defying the odds, sadly, the bigoted presumption is perpetuated that lives with disabilities are less desirable. However, parents should be provided accurate information, helpful resources and support, including encouragement from others sharing the joys their children contribute. Children with disabilities are not just valuable to their own families, but to society as a whole.
While discrimination against vulnerable lives with disabilities is among the world’s worst human rights abuses, real progressive policy would cultivate a culture that protects the most vulnerable, upholds equality and the right to life, and embraces diverse contributions of all lives.
For example, though people with Down syndrome may have a higher risk of leukemia, they also have a higher chance of surviving it, uniquely contributing to research for a cure. It is sobering to realize invaluable information has been immeasurably lost with the countless babies aborted, in addition to the heavy loss of their individual precious lives.
Unlike seeking a cure for cancer, seeking to eradicate disability is not ridding a person of a harmful affliction, but trying to remove an integral part of who a person is. Unique passions and talents are inherent in countless lives faced with challenges.
For instance, “Autism is a human variance. It is not a disease. There have been autistic humans for all time. Some of these people are the people who have lifted society through their single-minded love for science or art or literature.”
Further, “It is hard to understand the callousness of thinking that the child was a mistake of nature and it was okay to terminate its life,” as implied by discriminatory abortions based on diagnosed disability. Rather, “it is our limited understanding of these special people that is the problem.” For example, “the social impairments between autistics and the neurotypical world go both ways,” as neurotypicals also require “effort to understand the autistic,” and early detection should help advance such understanding.
Ironically, abortion supporter and comedian Amy Schumer, whose husband was diagnosed with autism, responded to a follower who had asked how she would “cope with the possibility that your child will be on the spectrum,” by retorting, “How I cope? I don’t see being on the spectrum as a negative thing. My husband is my favorite person I’ve ever met. He’s kind, hilarious, interesting and talented, and I admire him. Am I supposed to hope my son isn’t like that? I will pay attention and try and provide him with the tools he needs to overcome whatever challenges come up like all parents.”
Just as being neurotypical is not better than being neurodivergent, and being autistic is merely a different way of being, the negative insinuation that disability is something to be “coped” with perpetuates harmful attitudes, misunderstandings, discrimination and even abuse of individuals with disabilities.
Schumer added that upon her husband’s diagnosis, “It dawned on me all the characteristics that make it clear he is on the spectrum are all of the reasons I fell madly in love with him.” Similarly, for many with disabilities, it is coupled with their most beloved strengths and traits.
Thus, children with disabilities at any age are also not defined by their diagnoses. Their value is not “wrapped up in the challenges [they] face. Like every human being on the earth,” their lives are not “determined by just one aspect. They have equal inherent value as human beings.
No diagnosis, disability, or condition can undermine the value of extraordinary lives. Andrea Bocelli's mother was pressured to abort her son diagnosed with disability that led to blindness. She courageously refused, and thankfully the world is blessed with his amazing talent and passion. His mother recalled it was his blindness, in fact, that led him to music, proving all lives have purpose.
Bocelli’s own pro-life views are not merely anti-abortion, but pro-life in the fullest sense:
“I am not only fighting against something, I am fighting for something— and I am for life.”
Other talent competition shows have also celebrated those who have overcome challenges. The recent winner of So You Think You Can Dance, Bailey Muñoz, was born premature and spent his first seven years of life battling health complications, but is now an impressive dancer. The show’s finale also highlighted Phoebe Kochis, who has Down Syndrome, but enjoys bringing happiness to others through her dance.
America’s Got Talent celebrated others who have overcome challenges as well, including 11-year-old cancer survivor and violinist, finalist Tyler Butler-Figueroa, and the third place winner, comedian Ryan Niemiller, who integrates his physical disability into his comedy. While such lives like theirs and Kodi’s are extraordinary, embracing them should be customary.
Supported by his whole family, Kodi said,
“My family is always there for me. My mom is always there for me. Thank you, mom, for all the help. My dreams are coming true.”
He shared his gratitude for his special relationship with his mother by performing a touching song in her honor for Mother's Day, the same month he won the Golden Buzzer— which he called a “magical” experience. Tina explained she became emotional on stage because she kept thinking of all Kodi’s dedication, rehearsal and effort.
“It was just a proud moment to see that. He’s worked so hard. It’s hard to explain, but as a mom it was like, ‘You got him where he wanted to go.’ I just love him to pieces. He is unbelievable. Kodi finally gets to show the world who he is.”
With his signature short, upbeat phrases, Kodi expresses his excitement after winning America's Got Talent with exclamations such as “Wow! I feel amazing! Thank you!” With his monetary prize, Kodi said, “I will buy lots of grand pianos in every color."
Kodi’s mom added, “He would love to collaborate with other great musicians and bring love to the world through music and entertainment. He would continue to achieve his lifetime goal of being a professional musician for as long as he can."
Kodi is committed to building his music career and says, “I’m going to keep performing for everybody. I like to make people happy.”
And to that, millions who have come to admire this remarkable young man and all he represents, say, “Thank you, Kodi” and “Heck, yeah!”
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