When he was in high school, Ray Heisler asked a fellow student for help; his electric wheelchair was broken and Ray needed a push out to the bus. The “friend”– or so Ray thought — obliged by racing the chair down the hall, faster and faster, bent over laughing as Ray urged him to stop. Rocketing toward a row of lockers, Ray tried to use his foot as a brake, but the momentum just lurched his body forward. With friends like these, it’s no wonder hope looked elusive.
“The terrible part is that the way I coped with bullying was by becoming a bully,” Ray tells us. “I’m not proud of having been a bully, but I’m proud to learn from my experiences and do my part.”
Ray had a lot to say. Having struggled with addiction and suicidal depression, he knew what hopelessness felt like; but when a particularly supportive teacher helped him set his poetry to music, Ray discovered what support felt like. The power of someone believing in him.
Two albums later, “The Wheelchair Poet” is spreading the love.
He now mentors young people through Dreams for Kids DC, offering support to at-risk youth and kids with disabilities, letting them know he believes in them, too, and is set to launch the anti-bullying campaign Stop It Before It Starts. His most important lesson learned from experience? “It sounds cliche,” Ray says, “but, if you see something not right, please say something. Don’t ever be afraid to say something. Change starts with one person.”
Photo: Ray in his element, performing on stage! (Gedalia Vera)
ACT: Can you give our readers a quick run-down on what exactly Cerebral Palsy is and how it affects you?
RAY: Cerebral Palsy is caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain. It can affect people in different ways. With me, I cannot walk, I need to use an electric wheelchair. And I’m paralyzed on the right side of my body. It also hampers my ability to read and write.
ACT: You’ve been called “The Wheelchair Poet.” What does your creative process look like?
RAY: My creative process is a little bit different than your average person due to my disability. The first thing I like to do is use YouTube — there’s a lot of interesting stuff out there that spurs my music. Most of the time, I go to the mall and “people watch” because believe it or not, you can learn a lot about a person just by watching in a natural environment.
ACT: Care to share any favorite lyrics you’ve written?
RAY: The one line I use the most is, “The student has become teacher. Now it’s time to reach them.” And that quote pays respect to the teachers and mentors that I have had throughout my life.
ACT: You’ve written about your struggle with addiction and feelings of hopelessness. How long did it take to feel hope again once you started on the road to recovery? What keeps you on the path?
RAY: To be honest with everyone, there are periods of time (even to this day) where I feel hopeless. But today, I have more good days than bad. It’s a day-to-day process for me as it is with everyone in recovery. What keeps me clean is the team I have around me, who I know will help me through the tough days. If you asked me four years ago what keeps me motivated, I wouldn’t have an answer. If someone told me I would be giving this interview right now four years ago, I would’ve laughed in their face and told them to dream on. The most important thing that keeps me motivated is seeing how many lives I’ve touched through my music and my poetry.
ACT: If you could collaborate with any contemporary musician, who would it be and why?
RAY: Wow, I’ll answer this question two ways. I’ll give you one past and one present day artist. John Lennon. And the reason I chose him is because he was such a forward thinker. With him, I could just sit there, watch, listen and be happy. As far as the present day artist, that would be Kina Grannis. And the reason I chose Kina Grannis is because in my opinion, she is one of the best at writing off of pure emotion, which I think the music industry is lacking. These days, 99% of artists are more worried about a hot beat and a catchy hook, but Kina takes song writing back to it’s truest form.
Learn more about Dreams for Kids and mentoring opportunities by clicking on the links below. Check out Ray Heisler’s albums on Ray Heisler’s albums — and learn more about his upcoming Stop It Before It Starts campaign.
Support Dreams For Kids
Learn how you can help Dreams For Kids, an org that empowers at-risk youth and those with disabilities.
Half of Us offers resources and support for young people suffering from depression and mental health struggles.