The entrepreneurial spirit is contagious. It is associated with great hopes and visions of success and requires a particularly hectic pace. There are no physical requirements to start a business or foundation, just a strong work ethic and mental stamina. Zippi reported in 2019 there are over 31 million entrepreneurs in the US. But what about people with disabilities who seem to be living the underdog story? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities are almost twice as likely to be self-employed as their non-disabled peers. That American Community Survey 2019 reported that approximately 700,000 workers with disabilities were self-employed and taking advantage of the flexibility and opportunities that entrepreneurship has to offer.
Grace Fisher, founder of the Grace Fisher Foundation (GFF), music composer and filmmaker, connects children with disabilities to music, art and dance. The foundation provides an accessible space for community involvement, education, creation and self-discovery. In the process of expanding the lives of others, it has helped her continue to create and produce music and films on her journey.
At age 17, while preparing to attend Berklee College of Music, Fisher became paralyzed from the waist down due to a rare condition called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), which has affected 682 people since 2014. After a brief hiatus, she learned to continue composing music using a mouthstick. Since then she has written music for four symphonies and most recently released a number of documentaries A Critter Fable – a short film. She has won many awards including Best Female Composer at Venice Shorts, the Women Filmmaker Award at the Best Shorts Competition and Best Original Score at the Los Angeles Film Awards.
“We just started another program with two speech therapists, and it’s a social program,” shares Fisher. “One thing I don’t want is for this to be a dance class for children with disabilities. Children with disabilities should simply be included in dance classes as a matter of course. … It’s really important that we’re all included in the same space. Growing up, I think we can all relate to that; If you see someone else or someone in a wheelchair, you should not approach them or ask what happened. But these are questions that I at least personally welcome because I think it’s important for people to know. … Being educated at a young age about people who are different, about people with disabilities, needs to be acknowledged.”
By the time Fisher applied to college, she was fluent in piano, cello, and guitar. By the time she was admitted to Berklee College, she was well on her way to a career as a performance artist. However, Fisher had to be hospitalized on her 17th birthday due to severe back pain. Within the five-minute drive, she lost the mobility to walk and was unable to breathe by nightfall.
As the 101st person to be diagnosed with AFM, her family knew it would be a journey to recovery. “I came out of rehab seven months after graduation, and that was when all my friends were in college,” says Fisher. “I was a driven person. So looking back at my situation hasn’t put me in a sane state. And it was also scary looking into the future at what tests or procedures I might face. So it was very important to focus very much on the present and my family. It helped me focus on the present, like, “What can I do right now to make my situation a little bit better?” Sometimes just going outside for 10 minutes to get some sun . Everything was difficult for me at first, but eventually I became happier and more comfortable in my new body.”
As she adjusted to a new lifestyle and future, Debbie Fisher, Fisher’s mom, remarked that she didn’t lose her sense of humor — by the time she left rehab, she made all the nurses laugh. During his recovery, Fisher learned how to draw with a mouthpiece. She quickly adapted the technique to conduct music through the computer. Without the ability to play, she turned to composition, production and creative avenues of musical expression, including animation and multitrack recording.
A winter music showcase is an annual live concert produced by Fisher in Santa Barbara, CA featuring orchestral, contemporary, choral and small group ensembles. In 2018, the showcase featured an original piece, Waltz of the Waves, for a symphony orchestra. This December marks their fifth showcase.
Additionally, as Fisher created her new future, she knew she wanted to pass on the kindness and generosity she received at the hospital. Eight months after she got home from the hospital, the Make-A-Wish Foundation approached her. GFF was born out of that desire – Fisher’s desire was to help other children with disabilities through art and music before she was 18. With plans to go national, the foundation is currently focusing its efforts in Southern California. With a mission to make everyone feel included, Fisher’s latest short film a critter fable, was designed around some of the children’s foundation’s art creations.
As Fisher and her family continue to navigate life’s linchpins, they focus on the following essential steps:
- When situations seem overwhelming, take time to enjoy the small moments. This habit will help make things feel less stressful and bring everything into focus.
- Concentrate on your strengths and competencies. This will help keep you motivated and excited about what you are working towards.
- To pay in advance. By helping others, you help yourself and learn something new.
“I adjusted to my new body by putting my energy into other things like art and music,” concludes Fisher. “It really helped to look beyond myself and help the kids I work with. It’s also not an overnight process. It took some work on my part to change my focus and change what I previously thought was important.”