Michelle Abadia sits at Harvard Station early each morning that her T performer permit allows, strumming her guitar and singing to an audience she cannot see.
“Music was my passion from an early age. I don’t have a memory without it,” Abadia said. “I am told that I was helping tune the piano when I was three. There’s a legend that I was humming tunes at 18 months. I can’t verify that, but I’ve been told. It’s ingrained in me.”
She lost her sight to congenital cataracts at the age of 4 after six unsuccessful eye surgeries. She has started a GoFundMe page hoping to earn $20,000 to fund her musical career and to help pay for medical bills. But her inability to see is no obstacle to her musical abilities, as her fingers dance across the strings of her guitar. She learned how to play by ear, which she said gave her many advantages.
"It’s hard when you don’t come from a musical family because they view it as a hobby," Abadia said. "My mom wanted me to excel at it, but the family thought I would change my focus once I hit college.”
She earned a double degree in language studies and music in Boston College, and went on to earn a masters in French literature and International Latin American Studies from Tufts. After that, she earned New England Conservatory masters for vocal performances.
Now she is trying to earn a living as a musician, after teaching Spanish at several colleges in the area and working as an interpreter in courtrooms.
“The commuters are half asleep, and I don’t know how effective I can be in brightening their days, but some people say the I do,” Abadia said. “It’s hard because I am my worse critic, even when people are friendly.”
As a child, she was told that she couldn't play in an ensemble by the music director she was studying under. She said this was a profound, yet aggravating sense of inspiration.
“I was told things like that, ‘you’ll never set foot on a stage,’” Abadia said. “And that was extremely motivating. I needed to be able to ‘follow choral conducting,’ and the director did not see how I could do that without being able to see.”
“The idea of singing in the subway started in Sept. 2014 so I could expose myself musically and so I could get over social anxiety,” Abadia said. If this isn’t exposure, I don’t know what else is. Playing for people in their morning commute gives me the chance to maybe make someone’s Monday morning a little brighter.”
Brightening up a person’s day became more than a pastime after she suffered what she described as a mental breakdown while working as a professor.
“I worked as a French and Spanish professor at various colleges around, such as Emerson College, Babson College, and Framingham State, while trying to be a performer,” Abadia said. “Meanwhile, the onset of mental illness was beginning to kick in.”
She said that despite her ability to achieve academically and teach on a collegiate level, her mental health issues began to increase and she knew she needed to pursue her passion in order to bring light to a sightless life.
“I have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, deep depression, some symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, among others,” Abadia said. “But since I was a child, music has been my only source of light.”
Abadia said that the misconception of performing or achieving while living with a disability is that people have told her that she needed to accomplish larger-than-life feats in order to overcome a deficiency.
“For anyone who is blind wants to be a musician, or anything, I would tell them to follow their dreams,” Abadia said. “Often, I was told ‘you have something wrong, so you have to compensate for your loss.’ And that over compensation for whatever loss it may be makes it seem like the individual meant to lose the facility they had."