My Disability Pride: Music, Songwriting, Advocacy

Celebrating Disability Pride Month. Graphic of individuals with different disabilities and assistive devicesby: Jennifer Msumba

The “dis” in disability implies that someone is less able to do things. And while that might be true for some aspects of my life, I have realized that, in my case, autism has provided me with more abilities in many areas.

As a kid, I was diagnosed with challenges that go along with autism, such as sensory processing disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. These challenges were very hard for me to deal with as a child. I struggled with what I called “getting stuck” on things and would spend hours repeating words or actions in order to soothe the urges inside my mind. I also was extra sensitive to my environment. Whether that be loud noises, crowds, or busy visual stimulation, I took it all in — yet had nowhere to put it. I would eventually burst into meltdowns of epic proportions, leaving my family, teachers, and even doctors perplexed at my behavior. I did not understand myself yet, and I could not verbalize my pain.

A young Jen Msumba, wearing a red a blue jacked and a baseball cap

Jen as a child.

But whenever I heard music, my eyes would dance along to it, and my breathing would keep the beat. I was entranced. I could copy songs I heard exactly on the piano. I was extremely sensitive to others as well. My empathy toward animals and people in distress caused me to feel what they were feeling. I would take on their emotions, especially their distress, and feel it a hundred times stronger in my mind and body. This raised my anxiety, and I did not know how to deal with such a gift. I only felt the burden.

I spent years inside what I called glass — a thick, syrupy layer between me and the world. I went through depression, and I thought things were never going to get better. But there was a small spark inside me that would not give up. I would later realize this was the light I was given to shine in this world.

I spent years in sometimes abusive institutions, group homes, and “schools.” I was eventually put to work in a sub-minimum wage adult workshop. I bundled popsicle sticks into sets of twelve and put a rubber band around each pack for a national food company. I got paid a penny a bundle, which was combined with everyone else’s paycheck. So no matter how many sticks I bundled, I was paid the same as the person next to me sleeping on their desk. Yeah, not very motivating.

Little did these doctors and staff members know, but I actually have a genius IQ. My mind was always busy with ideas, and I knew deep down inside that I was capable of so much more. That all of us in that workshop were capable of more. But they chose not to see it or have the patience to help us cultivate our skills.

Fast forward to today. I have been living in a much more independent situation where I am allowed access to my musical instruments and technology. Once I got unfettered access to the internet, I blossomed. I started posting piano videos and watching other people’s video tutorials. I realized I could learn to do anything I wanted to. My thirsty mind soaked it all in. My passion for music was re-ignited! I slowly acquired recording equipment, software, and knowledge. I began writing songs, and in these songs, I poured out my stories and all of those emotions and observations that my sensory-sensitive mind had taken in over the years. I joined songwriting groups online and was told time and time again that I had a real lyrical gift. A different and bright future shined in my eyes!

Jen at a convention with a name tag, wearing a jean jacket and smiling

Jen at a film festival.

Today, I realize that my autism, my disability, has enabled me to view the world in a unique way. And the things I have been through because of autism, although very difficult, have shaped me into the person I am. That little girl with two braids in her hair that hated herself is gone. I love who I am now. I have a blossoming career as a songwriter for film, television, and advertisement. I have acquired representation with a company that pitches my music to these different mediums. I was hired to write the theme song for the Easterseals podcast Everything You Know About Disability is Wrong, which is a huge honor. It was also a challenge … try fitting that title into a song, lol.

For this theme song, I used my knowledge of how it feels to be underestimated and patronized for being disabled. The frustrations. Being called an “inspiration” simply for existing as a disabled person. I harnessed my years of being targeted with that rhetoric, knowing I was not alone.

I have also become a speaker. I speak to young people in high school and college, as well as at companies and disability organizations. I incorporate music as part of my speeches, which I have found really engages the audience and helps us connect. And also, it’s just fun! The positive feedback I receive after speaking lets me know that I am making an impact on disability and how folks with autism are viewed and treated. This, along with the memoir I wrote, Shouting At Leaves, is helping to shape a new narrative around autism and disability, one person at a time. As we all work together in the disability community to bring change, we are helping ourselves, as well as future generations, to be seen as an asset in the workplace and the arts instead of being pushed into the corner, as my lyric in my song
“Atypical” goes:

When I was young they diagnosed me atypical
Treated me like I was an imbecile
But I’m showing out now
Making all them sad cats sit back and meow
I take a bow

Don’t put baby in a corner
You can push me back all the way
I’m moving forward

I’m a child of God
I’m truly happy inside this isn’t a façade
Broad strokes
Don’t paint me with
I’m very specific in my craft, wordsmith.

Jen on stage with an acoustic guitar

Jen on stage.

Do I have disability pride? Heck yeah! I would not want to be any other way than who I am. Because of my disability, I am strong. Because of my disability, I am empathetic. Because of my disability, I am successful in a way that looks good to me. Did I have to take the long road? Yes, but I have landed exactly where I am supposed to be.

Jennifer Msumba is an author and award-winning musician on the autism spectrum. She won her way onto the stage of Fenway Park on August 24, 2023, as part of the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism STARS of the Spectrum event. Msumba’s newest album, Atypical, illuminates her life story. From Highway 93, a sparse acoustic arrangement about her first psych hospitalization at age 15, to young adult longing for relationships, highlighted in the humorous yet revealing Minus Your Girlfriend, We’d Make A Great Pair. Jennifer has now found herself exceeding even her own expectations, outlined in the folksy anthem Up, which wraps her album in the most uplifting way.


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