Oct 7, 2007
Songs speak to those with disabilities

Remember the song “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and how the man tells the
woman to go ahead and dance as long as they leave together at the end of
the night? A huge Drifters’ hit in the 1960s, it’s been picked up by Dolly
Parton, Emmylou Harris and others — and you’ll probably be singing it in
the shower now that I’ve mentioned it.

It’s a romantic snapshot. She dances. He watches. And when the music’s
over, they put their arms around each other and go home.

Anthony Tusler likes to tell the backstory: The songwriter was Doc Pomus,
a blues singer who had polio and used crutches and a wheelchair. His wife
was a Broadway actress who liked going out on the town.

Tusler, who’s been in a wheelchair since he was injured as a kid,
considers the song real poetry.

“He talks about something universal that men don’t usually voice. He
discloses that he feels vulnerable. But the part that really gets me is
how he says with complete certainty that he knows she’ll go home with him.
I love his confidence.”

The tune is one of the stars in Tusler’s music collection that includes
songs that are either performed or written by people with disabilities or
speak about what it’s like to be disabled. He was inspired a few years ago
when a disability conference in
San Francisco included a dance, and he
sought out appropriate music. He said he tested the songs for their
dance-ability, hopping around his living room in his wheelchair.

“Hopping?” I asked.

Sure, he said, like the kind of dancing everybody does in their cars or
wiggling in their seats at a concert.

Another favorite is Kenny Rogers’ anti-war ballad, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your
Love to Town,” about a guy wrecked in
Vietnam and back home worrying about
his woman.

Tusler and his wife were at dinner one night when someone mentioned
“Ruby,” and the three men at the table, all disabled, wailed the song in

For 22 years, Tusler ran the disability resource center at
Sonoma State
. But now he’s all about music and what it says about the
disability experience in particular and about the human condition in

“You can say a lot of things unmediated and uncensored in a song that
might not be OK in print,” said Tusler.

Think about Randy Newman’s “Short People,” tweaking society for its stupid
prejudices. The same song could be written about skinny people, old people
or green ones.

Tusler and his unique playlist [available at www.aboutdisability.com, his
Web site] have been featured on the BBC as well as San Francisco-area
radio shows in which he celebrates the likes of Ray Charles, Ian Dury and
Doc Watson.

“Doc Watson told [public radio host] Terry Gross that if he hadn’t been
blind, he would have been an engineer. It made me think, what building
could that man have ever built that would have been equal to the music he

Then there’s DuBose Heyward, who had polio as a child and wrote the novel
“Porgy,” about a disabled man. It became the basis for George Gershwin’s
heartbreakingly beautiful opera “Porgy and Bess.”

One more: Ice Cube’s “Ghetto Vet,” a song about a paralyzed gang fighter.
It was the first time Tusler, who’s personally more of a jazz funk guy,
appreciated rap music.

Susan Swartz writes for The Press Democrat in
Santa Rosa, Calif.