Peripheral Vision: Stephen Letnes’ Story

November 14th, 2019 By Marisa Jackels

Stephen Letnes stands in front of an HBO step and repeat banner while attending a TV industry event.

Stephen Letnes approaches the world in the same way he approaches parties; circling around from the outside, gathering information, working his way in.

“I like to get the broader picture of where I am in the first place. I see everything on the outside — where they’re serving drinks, VIPs on the outskirts, and where certain people congregate. Eventually, I work my way inwards,” he said, speaking over the phone from his home in Minneapolis.

It’s a tactic that came in handy recently, as Stephen found himself in the upper echelons of Hollywood celebrating his Emmy nomination for scoring a short documentary, Beneath the Ink. As he attended Emmy pre-parties and post-parties, rubbing shoulders with celebrities and shaking hands with producers and directors, he used this method to stay informed on all the goings-on of each event.

“I’ve found it gives me a more informed perspective than most people who have traditional eyesight,” he said.

It’s the same way, too, that he uses his vision. Stephen was born legally blind, and his peripheral vision is better than his central vision. He uses something called e-centric viewing to help him gain a better understanding of where he is looking.

“What I do is I’ll turn my head to the side so that I can see your face, and where your eyes are. Then I’ll turn and face you so that it seems as though I’m looking you in the eye, even though I can’t see you. It helps make people feel comfortable,” he said. “It’s a skill I learned a long time ago. Because I had to.”

At 15, he fell in love with a girl named Lucy and composed his first original song. “And what better way to get into writing original music than love?” he mused.

Accepting Blindness

Stephen was born with retinitis pigmentosa, which lead to being vision impaired from a young age and nurtured his fine-tuned appreciation for harmony and tone. He learned violin at four using the Suzuki method and moved to the piano at seven, wowing audiences with performances of Rachmaninoff and Grieg. At 15, he fell in love with a girl named Lucy and composed his first original song.

“And what better way to get into writing original music than love?” he mused.

He went on to compose and release a handful of albums and continued performing as a pianist after majoring in Social Studies Education at Concordia College. However, he never considered pursuing composition as a full-time career.

“I’d been a pianist my entire life but I never dreamed of getting into the film industry. Because I’m from Minnesota, it’s ‘not what you do,’” he said. “I didn’t allow myself to dream that big.”

He hit a breaking point when he was diagnosed with macular degeneration in his 20s. The diagnosis felt like a slap in the face.

“I went into a deep, dark, black hole,” he said. “I didn’t know how to handle it. I thought, ‘I could go completely blind, and I’m not far enough in my late 20s as it is.’”

At the time, Stephen lived off of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and State Disability Insurance (SDI). He moved into a friend’s unfinished basement and fended off the spiders. He kept to himself, not wanting to be a burden or have awkward social situations. He realizes now — he was in denial.

“I pushed it away for many years. I didn’t want to believe that something was happening to me. I didn’t want to be a victim,” Stephen said. “I was lost, and I was broke. Capital ‘B’ broke. Bottom of the barrel.”

Then, a friend reached out. He offered Stephen a place to stay with him and his family while he decided what to do next. It was the turning point that Stephen needed. He realized that he needed to stop running, and face his situation head-on.

“I didn’t get anywhere until I actually accepted that I was vision impaired and sight-challenged,” Stephen said. “I have to accept that I do have this particular challenge, and there are parts of my life where I’m going to need assistance and support. So what am I going to do about it?”

The first step, he said, was learning a new way to communicate. He started practicing how to ask for assistance when needed. He knew communication was the key to teaching people what he was also teaching himself; to look at him and see not the disability, but the person.

“By accepting I had a sight challenge, I learned not only what to ask for, but how to ask for it,” he said. “This ultimately taught me to become a more effective communicator, which has greatly impacted my entire life.”

With a renewed drive, Stephen considered his career options. This time, he allowed his dream to be as big as he wanted.

“I thought, ‘I have nothing left to lose’,” he said. “I want to try film music.”

“Time is not my problem.”

As Stephen began researching the tools he needed to begin publishing work as a film composer, he encountered another obstacle: cost. With limited income, it took months for him to save up the $200 he needed for his first sample library, EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra: Silver. It was the cheapest software he could find that still sounded decent, he said.

As he began sharing his dream, another friend reached out of their own accord and offered to give him a non-interest loan so he could afford the basic composition tools to get started.

“That non-interest loan allowed me to get the tools that I couldn’t afford, which lead me to get the tools for this whole journey that I’m on,” Stephen said.

His first composition opportunity came from a friend who ran an acting academy. He had a stack of 30 short student films that needed scoring. What’s more, it needed to be done in 14 days. Stephen was intimidated.

“As someone learning to deal with his sight challenge at the time, I feared that it would take me more time with certain tasks. I was really intimidated that I would never have enough time. I thought, ‘I’m a sight-challenged person, I can’t do this!” he said. “But I said, ‘Yes. Give them all to me.’”

He finished the project in 11 days. It was his own personal trial-by-fire, a fair initiation into the rigors of the film industry that he would go on to encounter. But it taught him an important foundational lesson.

“Time is not my problem,” he said. “That was a fear created by other people that I no longer believe. Now, years later, I’m at a point where when it comes to time, I can compete with anybody.”

“I keep shaking hands, I get out of my comfort zone, I keep walking the perimeters of parties,” Stephen said. “Eventually, you find yourself at the center.”

The Able Artist Foundation

And he does. Today, Stephen has scored over 120 films. This includes Beneath the Ink, which, in addition to the Emmy nomination, won Best Documentary Short in five different film festivals across the country. The sensation of seeing your work recognized is one Stephen hopes everyone can experience.

“When I began to see some success from my work, I thought, ‘This feels amazing! How can I share what I’m feeling with other people, in a way that will empower them?” he said. “I knew people need the tools, just like I did. I wanted to find a way to make the tools affordable for the B/LV community.”

This desire led him to start the Able Artist Foundation in 2016, a non-profit dedicated to providing financial support and mentorship to career-minded artists with disabilities so they can build successful careers. At the start, Stephen began reaching out to businesses in the music and art-related industry to see if they would offer 50% off to individuals with a disability. After one brave business owner said yes, more followed.

Today, the Able Artist Foundation has over a hundred members across 13 countries, and partners with 25 companies that offer discounts on their products to individuals with disabilities.

Stephen’s hope is that he can continue spreading the word and bring on more partners, ultimately to give those with disabilities more time and resources to start the career and get hired.

“If people are spending their time waiting and saving money to buy these tools, they’re losing time they could be spending using those tools to make music and create art,” Stephen said. By reducing the cost of the tools, I’m hoping to give people back their time — so they can take their career to the next level.”

Stephen Letnes on a brightly-lit TV set wearing a blue shirt and smiling at the camera. To his left is a TV displaying the CBS North Dakota Today logo.

Building Life

Part of this, he knows, is educating employers that people with a disability are an asset, not a burden.

“I realize that employers think when bringing on someone with a disability, that they will have to solve those issues,” Stephen said. “That is the furthest from the case. We’ve already figured it out. We’ve already tackled all the crap that a normative person never has to deal with. And wouldn’t you want to hire someone like that? We’re all problem-solvers. We’re all creative thinkers. We have to be.”

What better way to begin changing employers than to become one? This is Stephen’s next step, as he is currently producing and hiring for a documentary of his own. The focus is on family and roots, exploring his heritage in the rugged beauty of Norway. He’s hired Cy Dodson as director and is putting together a production team. (You can follow along with his project on Instagram, @stephenletnes.)

His long-term goal is to one day produce a film with a team and crew where at least 30% have a disability. As he is sharing the film with fellow producers, he’ll mention it casually. “Oh, and nearly half the crew happen to have a disability.”

“That way it will show the quality of work we can produce, and how it’s just the same — if not better — than anyone else. It’ll help people take that step in their mind, that we can broaden the pool of eligible people in the film industry,” Stephen said.

In the meantime, Stephen continues producing music. He continues advocating for the blind and low vision community and people with disabilities through the Able Artist Foundation. He continues writing love songs on his piano. And he delights in making new connections — “like this one, with Aira!” he said. In other words, “building life,” as he put it.

“I keep shaking hands, I get out of my comfort zone, I keep walking the perimeters of parties,” Stephen said. “Eventually, you find yourself at the center.”

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