I taught young people and adults with intellectual disabilities (ID) for many years using a variety of music courses—in addition to educational programmes—yet the music improvisation lessons were the most productive and creative in terms of collaboration, idea development, fun, social interaction, and discipline. Music improvisation exists in special schools, community and voluntary groups, and during music therapy sessions, is delivered by a range of professionals, including music specialists in schools, music therapists and music facilitators. What I have come to value immensely is ID student-centred collaborative music-making. Creating music spontaneously is one of the best ways to learn about music (Burnard and Murphy, 2017). Additionally, it can promote cognitive, physical, social, and emotional wellbeing and happiness (Welch and Ockelford, 2015).
Not so long ago, I remember how an experienced educator spoke about the dire lack of provision and creative opportunities for people with ID when they leave school, suggesting that they are just left to sit in the corner and die. Although quite shocking to hear, I agreed with her. Restricted budgets, financial crisis, overworked staff, scarcity of resources, and limited knowledge on effective, innovative and novel interventions added to the ever-growing chaos of ID provision. People with ID have had to endure inequality for too long. Lack of provision, limited participatory-led research, boredom, anxiety, stress, uncertainty, lack of social interaction and meaningful programmes have led to prolonged unhappiness for many. It's not an unusual reflection. In general, disability is associated with failure, negativity, dependency, inequality, and with not being able to do things. We feel sorry for disabled people, because we imagine it must be miserable to have a disability of any kind. But in fact, we're wrong.
I know countless ID individuals who live very happy lives. My Uncle Dessie was one of the happiest people I have ever known. He was light-hearted, upbeat, encouraging, and enthusiastic. His Down syndrome did not define him. His day was filled with the company of his large family and music. Lots and lots of music. He had a large vinyl record collection of his country classics, as well as a mix of rock and roll and classical music. As he listened, he moved. His entire body responded to the rhythms, the melodies, the texture and tones. His joy of music had a ripple effect, making others in his company smile, and move along, too. Dessie celebrated music in all its forms. He treated it with respect and love. He shared it, as well as his love for it.
Dessie was lucky in the sense that he had a large loving family who cared for him. His days were full, each day packed with another adventure.Dessie had a wonderful life. I put that down to the love, care and support of his family, and of music. This is true for all human beings, but it’s especially important for those with disabilities. The love, commitment, shared experiences, and music itself creates a world of happiness and joy amidst the struggles of life. The people I’ve known with ID all found their way to happiness, but it took time and dedication. Most of all, it took music.
I am very aware that there are those with ID today whose lives are not filled with happiness. On the contrary, they are lonely, unchallenged, unstimulated, and lacking in self-worth. Opportunities are minimal, friendships scarce, and stimulating provision, greatly lacking. Some days are challenging, difficult, and utterly depressing. Frequently, it is an uphill battle for even the most basic of accommodations to be put into place. The future is uncertain and often terrifying. Yet, this does not have to be the case. Through my experience growing up with Dessie, then later, volunteering, teaching, lecturing, and researching in the field of ID and music, it is clear that this marginalized population can achieve happiness and contentment through consistent exposure to effective music interventions.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to observe remarkable achievements among the groups of people that I had the privilege of working with. Many would have regarded these individuals as having a disability, such as Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, global developmental delay, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Angelman syndrome, Fragile X, ADHD, etcetera. These people were not necessarily seen as people but as labels. Their names were often forgotten. I was always amazed by this social phenomenon—all I saw was a human being with creative potential. An individual who needed to be nurtured through inclusion and creativity, just like everyone else.