The entrepreneurial spirit is contagious. It comes with high hopes and visions of success and requires a particular hustle and grind. There’s no physical requirement to start a company or foundation, just a strong work ethic and mental stamina. Zippia reported in 2019 that there are over 31 million entrepreneurs in the U.S. But what about people living with disabilities who seem to live the underdog story? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with disabilities are self-employed at a rate nearly twice that of their nondisabled peers. The 2019 American Community Survey reported that approximately 700,000 workers with disabilities were self-employed, enjoying the flexibility and opportunities entrepreneurship has to offer.
Grace Fisher, founder of 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 inclusion, education, creation and self-discovery. In the process of broadening others’ lives, it has helped her continue to create and produce music and films along her journey.
At 17, preparing to attend Berklee College of Music, Fisher became paralyzed from the waist down due to a rare condition called Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM) that, since 2014, has affected 682 people. After a brief pause, she learned to continue composing music by using a mouth stick. She has since written music for four symphonies and has released a couple of documentaries, most recently A Critter Fable—a short film. She has won many awards, including best composer at Venice Shorts, the women filmmaker award at Best Shorts Competition and best score at the Los Angeles Film Awards.
“We just started another program with two speech therapists, and it’s a social program,” Fisher shares. “One thing that I don’t want is this to be a dance class for kids with disabilities. Kids with disabilities should just be included naturally in dance classes. … It’s really important for all of us to be included in the same space. Growing up, I think we can all relate; if you see someone different or in a wheelchair, you’re not supposed to approach them or ask what happened. But those are questions that, at least me personally, I welcome because I think it’s important for people to know. … Being educated from a young age about people that are different, about people that have a disability is something that needs to be recognized.”
By the time Fisher applied to college, she fluently played the piano, cello and guitar. Accepted into Berklee College, she was on the path to a career as a performance artist. However, Fisher had to be rushed to the hospital on her 17th birthday due to severe spinal pain. Within the five-minute ride, she lost the mobility to walk and, by nightfall, couldn’t breathe.
Diagnosed as the 101st person with AFM, her family knew it would be a journey to recovery. “I got back from the rehab seven months after my graduation, and it was the time when all my friends were going to college,” Fisher shares. “I was a driven individual. So looking back on my situation did not put me in a state that was healthy. And looking at the future with what tests or procedures I may have was a scary thing, too. So becoming very focused on the present and my family was very pivotal. That helped me focus on the present, like, ‘what can I do in this moment to make my situation a little bit better?’ Sometimes that was going outside for just ten minutes to get some sunshine. At first, everything was difficult for me, but eventually, I became happier and more comfortable in my new body.”
While adjusting to a new lifestyle and future, Debbie Fisher, Fisher’s mom, noticed that she didn’t lose her sense of humor—by the time she left rehab, she had all the nurses laughing. While in recovery, Fisher learned how to paint using a mouth stick. She quickly adapted the technique to conduct music through the computer. Without the ability to play, she turned to composing, production and creative avenues for musical expression, including animation and multitrack recording.
A Winter Music Showcase is an annual live concert that Fisher produces 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 symphonic orchestra. This December will mark her fifth showcase.
Additionally, while Fisher created her new future, she knew she wanted to pay forward the kindness and generosity she received while in the hospital. So, eight months after coming home from the hospital, Make-A-Wish Foundation approached her. GFF was born through this wish—Fisher’s desire before she turned 18 was to help other children with disabilities through art and music. As the Foundation plans on going national, currently, it focuses its efforts on Southern California. With the mission to make everyone feel included, Fisher’s latest short, A Critter Fable, was designed around some of the Foundation’s children’s art creations.
As Fisher and her family continue to navigate life’s pivots, they focus on the following essential steps:
- Take time when situations seem overwhelming to enjoy the small moments. This habit will help things feel less stressful and put everything into focus.
- Focus on your strengths and expertise. Doing so will help keep you motivated and excited about what you’re working towards.
- Pay it forward. In helping others, you help yourself and learn something new.
“I got comfortable with my new body by putting my energy into other things like focusing on art and music,” Fisher concludes. “Looking outside of myself and helping the kids I work with has really helped. It’s not an overnight process either. It took some work on my part to change my focus and change what I thought was important to me before.”