The 2022 Special Olympics USA Games will conclude on Saturday with a musical performance that doubles as a meaningful message of support for disability visibility.
James Ian, a singer/songwriter who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), will perform “Spaces” during the closing ceremony at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney Resort. Ian said his performance will take place days after the 25th anniversary of his initial SMA diagnosis.
The severity of SMA varies, but its most common effect is that muscles and nerves become progressively weaker over time. Between 10,000 to 25,000 people in the U.S. are living with SMA, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Ian said “Spaces” incorporates themes that relate to the SMA community and empowers people dealing with disabilities. The music video accompanying the song has enjoyed success since its release, garnering nearly 750,000 views on YouTube.
Last year, when the song was released, Ian told MM+M that “Spaces,” and the broader SMA My Way initiative, was about presenting a more nuanced view of individuals with disabilities.
“Disability is often underrepresented or misrepresented in media,” he explained in November. “What we heard from our conversations with the community was that disabled people are labeled as ‘inspirational’ or ‘brave,’ rather than considered as artists or considered for what they do… We wanted to represent the community a little more thoughtfully.”
In a conversation this week, Ian said that the involvement of members of the SMA community in crafting the song was “satisfying” and “validating.” He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic was a significant factor affecting the community, mentioning that many have expressed concerns that lifting mask and vaccine mandates leaves some of the most vulnerable patients exposed to the risk of infection.
“There are instances where we are more susceptible to COVID and there needs to be attention to that,” Ian said. “We need to do more to protect people with disabilities, including SMA, and think about that when we roll back mandates or stop enforcing certain protocols.”
As for the Special Olympics opportunity, Ian said it would be an honor to perform “the most meaningful song” of his life and musical career before the assembled athletes.
“I’m excited and touched to be able to do this because SMA is a huge part of my identity,” he said. “To share this song on that stage with athletes who have various disabilities and are showing their talents to the world is a cool, full-circle kind of thing to tie it all together.”