“For a lot of days of this quarantine, I forget that I'm visually impaired. It's so little of an issue because I'm able to do everything that I need to and want to because I'm so familiar with everything,” says Casey Harris of the X-Ambassador’s. Hear more from the infectiously positive musician who hasn’t let living with low-vision hold him back. For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit: microsoft.com/inculture/podcast
“For a lot of days of this quarantine, I forget that I'm visually impaired. It's so little of an issue because I'm able to do everything that I need to and want to because I'm so familiar with everything,” shares Casey Harris of the X-Ambassadors. He’s found that community and inclusion are more important than ever during times of social isolation. Listen on and find out ways we can uplift each other and create a more connected and inclusive future.
For more information about Microsoft's In Culture podcast and to read the transcript, please visit: microsoft.com/inculture/podcast
Lacey Henderson: Welcome to the In culture podcast, I'm your host, Lacey Henderson. And today I am joined via Skype with Casey Harris. Casey plays keyboards in the band, X Ambassadors. He also has a visual impairment caused by Senior-Loken syndrome and he is currently in LA at home with his wife and his new baby. Casey, thank you for joining me today.
Casey Harris: Oh, it's my pleasure. I always say, "Caused by Senior-Loken syndrome," too, because I think the visual diagnosis is a form of, let me see if I can remember it, Leber's congenital amaurosis, I believe.
Lacey Henderson: There's no way I would remember that.
Casey Harris: Yeah, exactly, yeah. I applaud your saying the technical terms and making it accurate though.
Lacey Henderson: I try, you've got to respect the disability. I always say, "You got to honor it and acknowledge it, but it doesn't need to run the show."
Casey Harris: That's right, I like that.
Lacey Henderson: So, I mean, even speaking of disability, I guess just to touch on this real quick, I feel, especially with visual impairment, there is this crazy misconception about blindness, that it's just cut and dry, black and white, and there's actually a range of visual impairment. What's your specific experience in that realm?
Casey Harris: Yeah. I mean, sure, it's hard for I think a lot of people to even visualize blindness, let alone some sort of stage in between sight and blindness.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah.
Casey Harris: I totally understand. I mean, it's hard. I always say it's hard for me to describe my vision to other people, mainly because it's been the same my whole life so I don't really have any baseline to compare it against.
Lacey Henderson: Oh, that's fair, yeah.
Casey Harris: But as far as I can gather, I mean, I have a really narrow field of vision, it's pretty much only straight ahead. And it's what the sight people call 2,200 vision, which is basically... the layman's definition I've heard is that what most people see at about 200 feet, I can see at around 20 feet, which is sort of a rough way of describing it. But contrast for me is probably the most important thing. If it's a high contrast situation, or if I'm looking at a high contrast picture, I can usually figure out what's going on right away. Whereas if its got a lot of colors and shades that are really similar, it takes me a long time to figure out what in the world I'm looking at.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. Yeah, so the monochrome outfits right now it'd be hard for you to distinguish.
Casey Harris: Yeah. Is it charcoal or is it black and doesn't really matter?
Lacey Henderson: Is it a baby's breath or beige?
Casey Harris: Exactly. And do they look good together?
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. Who cares? Honestly, who cares?
Lacey Henderson: So growing up, I mean, I've always spoken before, I try to have a little bit more dynamic questions about growing up with disability. Do you think that there were obstacles for sure that you found that were different that you had to deal with than your brother? But were there things maybe that you were better at than your brother growing up?
Casey Harris: Yeah, I mean, I was certainly was better at staying out of trouble for the most part up, until my teen years at least.
Lacey Henderson: Is there a specific story that you think of? Because I've heard you mention that even in other interviews, just kind of reference to that, and I'm, give me the T, tell me.
Casey Harris: Yeah. There was one incident that me and my brother vividly, remember where I was... being a bad kid and sick of school, didn't want to go to my classes, wanted to just take a nap. And there was this little service hatch in the handicap stall of the bathroom, and so I just opened it up and lo and behold, it went to this little crawl space that goes up into the ceiling of the school. So I took my backpack and crawled on up, and that became my like daily routine for a solid couple of weeks before someone caught me. It was bad. It was pretty bad.
Lacey Henderson: That's like something you see in a movie where you're, nope, not going to school.
Casey Harris: I learned, man, I learned all that. The roof ducts, I learned my way through the whole ceiling of the school. It was great, up until it wasn't.
Lacey Henderson: Up until it was definitely not fun when I got caught.
Casey Harris: Exactly. Oh yeah.
Lacey Henderson: Do you think there was a part of you, during your rebellious teenage years, because I know I had little wild flare myself, do you think that there was a part of that, that was maybe underlying some, what's the word I'm looking for? Just angst about being the only person with a disability in your community?
Casey Harris: I think it's funny, because I think it was... yes, it was about the disability, but I think it's more about the consequences. I think that I had a real craving independence and for... when you're visually impaired, especially when you're young and visually impaired, you need help doing a lot of different things, a lot of things that the rest of the kids can just go out and do. I wasn't able to just, I don't know, go to the local gas station unless I learned the route and that kind of thing, and I had to have someone help me learn the route, so I think that was a big factor in that, something like this mysterious duct into the roof, it's, there's no one around to tell me how to do it. There's no one around to tell me where to go or to show me how to do it, I'm just going to explore. And I think that sort of sense of freedom and independence was something that I was really chasing a lot as a kid. I think I'm still to a certain extent in certain cases, chasing it. But yeah, I mean that sense of... even to this day, there's nothing to me that feels more liberating than, say finding my way around a place all by myself without GPS or without any assistance. Ithaca is one of the very few places where I know enough of the city where I can do that for most of the town. But, in every city that I've lived, there is an area where, if I was left to my own devices and had no technology, I'd be able to find my way around. And that always, I think more than almost anything else, brings me a really deep sense of satisfaction and independence.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. I mean, it's funny. You're, I still do... I catch myself... we don't fundamentally change as people that quickly, but I think... so as a leg amputee, I've noticed too, I think with people with various forms of visual impairment, it's weird because you can kind of camouflage in with society, but you can't quite nail it. So you're, "No, I can't help... I'm only fooling myself."
Casey Harris: And it's that last 10% that sometimes just, can niggle at you a little bit.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah, for sure.
Casey Harris: And just make... it's not even so much that it bothers me. I think it's more... I guess what I'm trying to say is that when those moments happen and they happen I'm sure for all of us once in a while, where it's not even just that... it's not that you can do that extra 10%, it's that, that extra 10% doesn't matter if you know what I mean?
Lacey Henderson: Yeah.
Casey Harris: Who cares if you know those other people are doing this or that, I'm doing me right now and it's exactly what I want to do, that kind of feeling, that's really... I think that's what I've been chasing to a certain extent.
Lacey Henderson: Well, and I think, I don't know thinking about this time too, with quarantine and lock down and everything. I mean, you're now I guess in an environment that, it's your house. You know your house better than you know yourself sometimes. I think we see in society, people are not adapting well to quarantine. Some people are not handling it well, and I think it's been interesting because I've considered it too. As people growing up with disabilities, maybe there's actually an upper hand that you have having grown up always adapting to things. And maybe right now, too, it's like, this is your moment. You're the most independent, doing all your music, producing as much as you can.
Casey Harris: That's true. For the most part, it's weird. This is a strange way to put it, but for a lot of days of this quarantine, I forget that I'm visually impaired. It's so little of an issue because I'm able to do everything that I need to and want to because I'm so familiar with everything and I'm here with my wife and my kid. It's a strange thing to be in so much of a comfort zone that I forget that I even have any sort of visual impairment.
Lacey Henderson: To the outside world it's so funny, because I think people don't realize that everybody has a routine and you just get used to your daily routine. And same with us. For me, putting my leg on and then putting my shoes on is not...
Casey Harris: That's all part of it.
Lacey Henderson: I don't make a little joke every single time I do it because it's like that's the process.
Casey Harris: Socks are funny sometimes, but the joke wears thin, so to speak. Boom.
Lacey Henderson: I wasn't ready for jokes today.
Casey Harris: I just made that one up right now.
Lacey Henderson: That one was good. That was organic. I liked that one. But it's like you get to the point where disability doesn't run the day every day and that's a perception I think people forget. And I know with you, with your band X Ambassadors, I would argue you guys are getting big enough now that you've transitioned to pop music, pop culture.
Casey Harris: I guess so. It's weird to think that.
Lacey Henderson: You're a rockstar.
Casey Harris: It's weird because it doesn't feel like that. I'm just some guy who does piano.
Lacey Henderson: You are the loveliest person, first of all. I'm like, I could just make the rest of this about how warm and just wonderful and welcoming you are. But you are also a rockstar in the world eye, which is crazy. But pop culture, even though music is subjectively an auditory experience, a lot of pop culture is so focused around image.
Casey Harris: It's so focused. And I would say even more so now in the age of social media, I mean everything's about pictures and videos. Everything is... I don't get much out of photos and some videos are fine, but I have Facebook and Instagram and starting to maybe dabble even in TikTok just because those are the mediums with which people are communicating, I'd say even more than with words these days or just with pictures. It's weird because the music thing I've got down pretty well. I can write music, I can play music live, but one thing I, and actually the rest of the guys too, along with me, are starting to realize is that's really only maybe a third of the package. You really need everything else. Music videos, other sorts of content, you need to get yourself and your own face and your own sense of fashion out there. It's really, it's like it's a lot. And I'm starting to sort of get a handle on it, but a lot of it, it feels like, I don't know, it feels like if I was trying to critique fine art. I can learn the words. I can learn the terminology. I can even figure out when to apply them, but really I have no idea what I'm talking about.
Lacey Henderson: I feel like that's a current thing with a lot of people right now. A lot of people know a lot of words, but we're not saying anything, you know?
Casey Harris: Absolutely. Yeah, exactly. And it is weird, like you said, because it's the music industry, which it's music, you listen to it with your ears, but man, there are so many visual things that people use to bring themselves into that music. And to, as an Avenue, I guess, to the music. I can't tell you the number of people I know who, and this is of course back in the nineties, people used to go around and just pick whatever CDs had the coolest looking covers.
Lacey Henderson: I would do the compilation ones because they were also cost effective.
Casey Harris: That's true. And then now it's like you can scroll through playlists and they have the little thumbnails next to the tracks and sometimes little videos and you don't even have to listen to the songs before you decide which ones you want to listen to, if that makes any sense. I'm not saying...
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. Well, I think it's selling... it sells a fantasy almost. And then like the majority of the world, the sighted world is visual. I was telling you earlier, before we started recording, I was telling you how I downloaded the Boom app that you guys made with Microsoft. And I was swept up, I was so swept up that my boyfriend's talking to me and he's like next to me and I had no idea because I was in Bushwick and it was nice to get out of the house, to be honest.
Casey Harris: Exactly.
Lacey Henderson: It was captivating to me because it was that same feeling that you get being presented with a fantasy. But I was just staring at brown desk while I was...
Casey Harris: Exactly. I'm so glad to hear you say that because that's sort of... It was really the concept behind the whole app was a music video without videos. Because for the song itself it's really cool, but it's also like it's a platform that, I think, could be adapted. The spatialized audio combined with gyro following moving audio, depending on which way you're facing.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah, so the music video experience that you had with Boom was just, it was really cool, and it really did feel like I was actually, it felt like I was in the video, to be honest, which has been a fantasy of mine.
Casey Harris: Oh, hell yeah.
Lacey Henderson: I'm really excited about that. It was a great way to start my morning. But do you think that app, do you think there's space for just the industry as a whole to use tools like that to create different experiences with music?
Casey Harris: Yeah. Well, I think that there is such an untapped potential for various forms. Of course these days everyone's all about content content, but it's all pictures and videos. I think that there's such an untapped, I don't know if market is the right word, but an untapped realm of other content that can go along with music or as a promotional tool and that sort of thing. That's, yeah. The Boom app is sort of delving into that. Obviously the only artist I can physically control or have an influence on is my band. But the technology is there. I'm hoping the Boom app sort of demonstrates, because it's really, it's going to have to be one of those things that artists do mostly themselves is incorporate new forms of communication and connection with people into their content. The technology is there. I'm hoping that Boom at least can be sort of, if nothing else, a demo of the other sort of things you can do with technology, because you can do a lot with technology these days other than just take pictures and video.
Lacey Henderson: You've created this app, you've had that experience. Do you see, maybe after quarantine, maybe after lockdown, when you can like go on tour again and live your, quote, normal life, whatever that's going to be at that point? What could be better? What do you think technology can do that's better after lockdown, after all this is said and done?
Casey Harris: I think it's... I don't know how to put this, but I think as amazing and as Star Trekkie as technology is with connecting people, there's something, and maybe it's the bandwidth and the latency, maybe it's the audio being low quality and not spatialized, who knows what it is, but there's something that really could use improvement. I think not just for visually impaired people, but I think it will make the experience for everybody who uses that kind of thing to connect with people. I think there's a long way to go and there's a lot of improvements that could be made as far as making those sort of programs feel more real. And I think the audio is one of the big departments that no one's paid enough attention to, and that could be really tapped into to make any sort of person to person connection feel more like face to face. Because that's really, honestly, that's, as far as I'm concerned, and hopefully as far as everyone's concerned, the ultimate form of communication is face to face.
Lacey Henderson: Do you think that coming out of quarantine, coming out of stuff, is it possible or would there be a way that we change our mindset? Not just on sightedness or visual impairment, but just like in inclusion as a whole?
Casey Harris: Well, fingers crossed, I try to be always an optimist. I think that in general, the quarantine is forcing people to care about each other a little more, if that makes any sense, be it caring about your elderly neighbor and worrying whether they're staying safe, or caring about the guy who used to work at the electronics store that you'd go to and now probably doesn't have his job. I definitely know that it's forced me to really think about other people and other people's situations more. I'm hoping that's a mindset that a lot of people take away from this. Yeah, we're all individuals, but we are better and stronger when we are a community. That's such a bland word to use, community. But when people, I guess, just care about each other more, when people pay attention to what life is like for other people than themselves, I think that's a really big takeaway. I'm hoping that a lot of people do.
Lacey Henderson: Yeah. That's not exclusive to disability or not. That's just being people.
Casey Harris: That's just like being good human beings, honestly.
Lacey Henderson: Lesson one in humanity.
Casey Harris: Yeah, exactly.
Lacey Henderson: Well Casey, thank you so much for taking time out of your day, getting this all set up to talk with me. If you, the listeners want to learn more about Casey and everyone that we feature on the In Culture podcast, checkout microsoft.com/In Culture. You can also find us on Instagram @MicrosoftInCulture. And I do recommend getting that Boom app. It was cool. So thank you again so much, Casey.
Casey Harris: Thank you. I'm so glad you liked it, dude.