March 27, 2023
"Freight Train" Frank Strong performing at the 2022 World Food and Music Festival
If you’re ever walking down the street in Des Moines and hear a bluesy harmonica wafting through the air, chances are, you’re probably hearing Frank Strong play.
“Freight Train” Frank Strong has been performing blues, folk, country, and Americana music for over thirty years. He’s a talented guitarist, vocalist, and harmonica player who is fascinated by the intersection of music and railroads. Having been born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the eastern end of the Union Pacific Railroad, he used railroad music to learn his instruments.
Strong has led a life of service, helping others and sharing his love of music. He has a Master’s Degree in Disability Services from the University of San Francisco. He performs live music at least twice a week and educates students on the origins of folk, blues, and Americana music as a CultureALL Ambassador. He’s produced three CDs, written a harmonica-training manual, and taught hundreds of people to play the harmonica. He is married, volunteers once a week, and lives in Des Moines.
Strong is also legally blind. Without support, reliable transportation, and opportunities to exercise independence, the Des Moines community would be deprived of his amazing gifts.
“I go out, and I do a presentation at a school, and I just happen to be blind,” Strong said. “It’s just an aspect of my existence that other people don’t have, and they don’t expect anything less from me.”
March is Disability Awareness Month in the United States. Such awareness grows increasingly important every day as the number of Americans living with a disability steadily climbs. According to the American Community Survey, over 13% of Americans live with some form of disability, a number that’s increased by nearly six million people since 2008.
“I really wish people understood that disability is not discriminatory. You can be a Jewish person, you can be a Muslim person, you can be old or young or smart or anything and still have a disability,” Strong said. “There are people becoming disabled for one reason or another every day.”
As more and more people are officially diagnosed with a disability, the need for accessible spaces and opportunities becomes more urgent. Despite legal protections, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities still find themselves disadvantaged in many aspects.
“Most people that have my disability are not employed. The rate is over 70%, when the national unemployment rate of the general public is below 5%,” said Strong.
According to the National Disability Institute, the poverty rate for adults with disabilities in the U.S. is more than twice the rate for adults without a disability. Inaccessible structures create barriers to thriving for those living with disability.
“I feel like I'm the executive director of my life,” Strong said. “And I want to run it as well as I can.”
Throughout his fifty-plus years of living with blindness, Strong has discovered strategies to enhance his independence. He relies on several supportive tools to assist him throughout his life. A television device enlarges print for him so he can read items such as receipts. Public transportation allows him to get around the city.
These supports give him access to space and information the rest of us may take for granted.
“Whether I’m paying for my lunch or reading my bank receipt, I’m still expected to be responsible for what I’m engaged in. Access to information is different for you than it is for me,” he said.
Opportunities with organizations like CultureALL engage Strong in a way that goes beyond his disability. Had these workshops required sight, we would not have the privilege of seeing him perform.
“CultureALL is a program that doesn’t define the task based on my eyesight. They hired me so I can go out and make a presentation on Americana music, which I know something about and I’m excited about that part of our culture. If I’m unable to be a part of that, then I’m not engaged,” Strong said.
Strong hopes that initiatives like Disability Awareness Month and listening to the stories of people with disabilities will promote more structural change around accessibility. The more these stories are told, the more people will understand the difficulties those with disabilities face every day.
“It’s helping to make people aware that there are people in the community that have different needs than everybody else. It's not a cookie cutter world,” Strong said. “Anyone can become disabled at any time, and I suspect if you're like me, you want the same rights and responsibilities as anybody else.”