What you didn't know about Stevie Wonder's "braille joke" at the Grammys

The Motown legend is also a legendary advocate for literacy

Stevie Wonder at the 2016 Grammys flanked by Kirstin Maldonado and K.O. Olusola of the band Pentatonix

Kirstin Maldonado and K.O. Olusola of Pentatonix flank Stevie Wonder as he jokes about reading off the winning Song of the Year, “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. Photo credit: Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images (SFGate.com)

February 16, 2016

Getting public attention for accessible books can be an uphill road sometimes. Believe me, I know. Putting published works into the hands of people who cannot read traditional print has been my lifelong mission. But sometimes, someone throws a gate wide open and invites everybody in. That’s what happened on Monday, February 15, at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards. The man at the gate was Stevie Wonder.

When he declared, We need to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability," the star-studded crowd went wild. Moments earlier he had them laughing and cheering over braille. Braille! Opening the envelope to read the Song of the Year winner (Ed Sheeran) – written in braille for Wonder who is blind – the singer razzed the audience, You ca-an't read braille. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! You can see the video here from The Hollywood Reporter.

Suddenly, braille was the coolest topic at the Grammys. I confess, even I never saw that coming. But it wasn’t the first I knew of Stevie Wonder advocating for braille and universal access to the written word. Here’s the backstory.

As president of the American Council of the Blind, and as a member of the international Accessible Books Consortium – in addition to my role as director of the Perkins Library – I have seen Stevie Wonder act as a literacy ambassador numerous times. He has been an unflagging proponent of the right of every individual to learn, enjoy reading and, of course, delight in music.

Wonder has been a buoyant and fervent spokesperson for accessibility for many years. He was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2009, and he spoke of his commitment to access for all in 2010 when the United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization began deliberating the Marrakesh Treaty, which aims to facilitate global access to published materials for people with disabilities.

Wonder called for world leaders to enact “a declaration of freedom for all people with disabilities” by creating a treaty to end what many refer to as a worldwide “book famine” for people who cannot read print because of a disability. At that gathering, he began to sing, but stopped short! He said he would finish the song only when the treaty was concluded.

When the Marrakesh Treaty was signed in 2013, he spoke warmly and sang triumphantly.

At the Marrakesh event press conference, Wonder said, I will not be done with my commitment until my life is done. I will not be happy until everyone on this planet is able to see in the various ways they are able to.

So, while it was a wonderful (pun intended) surprise to see the crowd cheer and the nation embrace Stevie Wonder’s shout out to accessibility, it was no surprise at all that he was the one to do the shouting.