Singer James Ian partners with Genentech to counter misconceptions about people with disabilities

Ian performed his song “Spaces” at the closing ceremony of the 2022 Special Olympics U.S.A. Games in Orlando.

Singer James Ian screenshot for the music video for Spaces
Ian started working on the song and music video last summer.

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, CA: As a child, James Ian would run slower and fall more often than his peers, which his family attributed to his asthma. 

Ian also started learning piano at age five and “was always very drawn to the arts,” he said.

He leaned into that interest when he learned that his slow pace wasn’t caused by asthma but by spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic disease that causes weakness in the voluntary muscles, such as the shoulders and hips. 

“Around the end of high school, beginning of college, I became very much to myself,” said Ian, 39. “I just kind of wanted to hide my disability. I wanted to hide from people, to not really socially interact. And during that time, I really relied on music. I started writing songs and lyrics.”

These days, Ian is taking the opposite approach. Rather than use music as his retreat from public life, he is using it to counter misconceptions about people who have disabilities such as SMA.

Ian, who is based in Los Angeles, last month performed his song “Spaces” at the closing ceremony of the 2022 Special Olympics U.S.A. Games in Orlando, Florida. The song, which was part of a collaboration with biotechnology company Genentech, presents people with disabilities as trailblazers rather than individuals defined solely by the additional challenges they face. 

“People call us inspiring just because we have a disability without even looking at our achievements, our talents, our personalities,” Ian said. “In Spaces, the meaning behind that was: we are in all the spaces that every other person is, whether you have a disability or not. And we are doing really great things in those spaces and enjoying our time in those spaces.”

Ian started working on the song and its music video last summer around Southern California. The video, which was released in November, shows Ian walking gingerly down the sidewalk, carrying a guitar on his back and entering a building.

He then takes a stage and sings lyrics such as “Spaces, spaces/ I’ll leave my mark on these places/ Spaces, spaces/ you can see it on my face, yeah/ I’m not invisible, I’m an original/ I’m so much more than what you see here.”

It also shows people with disabilities engaged in actions that may strike some people as surprising, such as a man in a wheelchair marrying a woman who is able to walk or a woman in a wheelchair raising children who are able to walk.

When explaining why Genentech collaborated on the campaign, Michael Dunn, senior director of marketing at the company, pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic showing that one in four Americans has a disability.

“We all know [media] representation…doesn’t happen at that rate,” Dunn said. “The goal here was to highlight real achievements by the SMA community, whether they be teachers or artists or musicians.”

The music video has been viewed more than 745,000 times on YouTube. 

In addition to doing music, Ian is also acting and modeling, he said. However, his SMA has worsened. He can no longer get up on his own if he falls and tires more easily when walking. But he still has high hopes for himself and others in the SMA community

“I really hope [Spaces] shows that I'm a capable musician and a capable actor,” said Ian. “I hope it just shows that I can be trusted with really important work."

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