The National Federal of the Blind Web site reports that about 1.3 million Americans are legally blind, and of those only one percent were born that way. The vast majority of the blind lose their vision later in life, primarily due to diabetes, glaucoma or macular degeneration.
Rebecca Kragnes, 34, of Minneapolis, was one of the rare few. “I’m a mystery child,” said Kragnes in a telephone interview. “They don’t know why I am blind. I was just born blind and also had birth defects with my hands. I suspect it had something to do with the farm chemicals my dad used.”
Kragnes was born in Sioux City, Iowa, and at age three was sent 250 miles away nine months out of the year to a school for the blind, where she would learn Braille and was educated until age 12. After the sixth grade, her parents mainstreamed her near home.
By age five, she had begun piano lessons.
“My grandmother was an extremely talented musician,” she said. “She had a piano and organ at her home, and I went there on weekends. She and I often played duets.”
Over time, Kragnes acquired enough talent to major in music in college, but decided against it. “For one, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life playing somebody else’s work,” she said. “I have a huge interest in composition, and wanted to combine the styles of pop and classical into something different.”
Also, the stereotype existed of blind people being only musicians, such as Ray Charles, Jose Feliciano and Stevie Wonder, she said. She wanted to prove to people that she could do more than play piano. So along with minoring in music, she majored in counseling at Briar Cliff College and later earned a Master’s degree.
To shorten a long story, Kragnes married, moved to Minneapolis, and in 1998 during a period in which she and her husband were unemployed she launched a professional musical career. Since 2000, she has released four CDs of her unique free-flowing piano music, which sounds similar to “New Age” music. Another album is in the works. She also has a weekly piano gig at a Minneapolis restaurant, and plays at her Catholic church.
To parents of a blind child, she said, “Let your child find his or her own interests, but be realistic about it.”