Beyond the Disability: Producing the Concert That Changes Perspectives

Daily Point of Light # 7831 Jun 11, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Dee Dee Dochen. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Every February for the past 11 years, Houston residents and visitors alike flock to venues around the city for nearly a month of celebrating the talents of people with disabilities through film, art, speakers and music. The ReelAbilities Houston Film & Arts Festival is produced by Alexander Jewish Family Service Houston (JFS) in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and with the support of TIRR Memorial Hermann. It highlights talent, changes perceptions and erases stigma, and one of the most well-loved events is the ReelMusic concert. It spans genres and highlights talented musicians with different abilities—some blind, some physically handicapped, some on the spectrum, etc. While there are 11 ReelAbilities festivals throughout the US—and one in both Canada and Mexico—most are under a week and often focus only on films.

Dee Dee Dochen is largely responsible for turning what was a small jam session into the Houston festival’s most well-attended event. She’s a messaging strategist and crisis management advisor by day but knows the joy of performing herself. After being asked to chair the jam in 2018, she has produced the concert every year since. Dee Dee spends an average of 80 hours a month on concert-related work, and she also serves as a volunteer interview coach with JFS for people struggling with self-esteem and mental health issues.

ReelAbilities Festival visiting artist Mara Clawson (left) meets with Dee Dee, the 2020 Festival Chair

What inspires you to volunteer?

Two big influencers were my mother, Janet Dochen, and the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities. My mother was all about making sure that those who were the most judged, ignored or cast aside felt valued, accepted and understood. That’s the model we grew up with.

The Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities runs programs called Bridges from School to Work where they work with employers and schools to take seniors in high school with disabilities and pair them with employers to teach them interview and employment skills. When the Foundation was a client, I observed and met some of these young people and their employers. It struck me that the biggest barrier for people with disabilities is not necessarily their disability; it’s the perceptions and stigmas of others who judge them. That’s when disability advocacy became a passion.

About 28 years ago, when I moved to Houston, I got very involved with an organization called The River, which provides classes in the performing and visual arts for children with disabilities. JFS, the organization responsible for Houston’s ReelAbilities Film & Arts Festival, was connected with them, and in 2017, the then-chair of the festival asked me to chair the ReelMusic jam.

Tell us about your volunteer role with the ReelAbilities Art & Film Festival.

I produce ReelMusic. It started around 2015 as a casual jazz jam in a bar with established local musicians and musicians who had disabilities. Then, I used my music connections to build it up to a full-fledged concert at a scaled up the venue. I hired a house band and started recruiting musicians to be in the concert through music therapists at TIRR Memorial Hermann and word of mouth. We also hire an emcee, and I write the script and do all the messaging. We always talk about the power of music to lift us and connect us, and that’s what we do in this concert.
It’s become a passion to recruit musicians, get to know them and find additional opportunities for meaningful employment beyond the festival. One of my former performers, an incredible guitarist/singer/composer who uses a wheelchair, is now in my house band. I’m also often called on to be spokesperson for the festival as a whole, because I co-chaired it in 2019 and chaired it in 2020.

What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization?

I’d love to help facilitate recording deals for some musicians who don’t have as many contacts but who have talent. I am a bit of a connector, and I want to do more of that.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

I love seeing performers get the attention they deserve. And I love seeing the audience connect and give that attention. We’re facilitating awareness and performance opportunities for talented musicians, but it also transforms audience members. People are moved and excited by what they see on stage. They don’t focus on the disability, and that’s what it’s all about. We transform the way people look at people with disabilities.

Dee Dee Dochen (back right, in multi-colored jacket) directs “Thank You for Lettin’ Me Be Myself,” the grand finale of the sold-out 2024 ReelMusic convert of the ReelAbilities Houston Film & Arts Festival

What got you into performing and in what context do you perform?

I’ve always sung on the side. I was a shy kid, so I never thought I would, but music is so joyful. I went to University of Texas in Austin and sang in a pop group called Varsity Singers. And then in Dallas, right out of college, I taught school and then sang for a year in a dinner theater before getting into the hospitality industry.

When I moved to Houston about 29 years ago, someone from college connected me with a keyboardist here who’s an attorney and, later, another singer. We all have different day jobs. We had a rock and roll band for years. I’m still affiliated with them, and I’ve grown my musician circle. My favorite music to sing is jazz. I sing with great musicians and do gigs. I also sang for many years in my synagogue.

How can people advocate for more inclusive musical talent where they live?

The first step is finding the talent. I would suggest finding disability-centric organizations and asking questions. Network. Find out if there’s a ReelAbilities Festival in the city. Do they have a concert? To our knowledge, we’re the only ReelAbilities Festival that does. My dream would be to replicate ReelMusic concerts in other ReelAbilities markets. In absence of that, why not create one? Find the people, put them together and put on a show.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

See the person, not the disability. And as my mother taught us, don’t cast them aside, exclude or ignore them. Honor and respect them. Include them. We all have talents and vulnerabilities. Through ReelAbilities, I’ve found my passion, and I can’t wait to see what else I can do with it.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Dee Dee? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Kristin Park