A Special Relationship
In today’s world, our special needs population continues to fight for opportunities, provision (also known as “accommodations” in the States), equality, independence, contentment, and happiness. Although some progress has been made, their journey is often a long, hard struggle full of overwhelming fear, worry, doubt, and frustration. Those with disabilities and special needs are often forgotten. Made to feel unworthy or useless. A burden. And yet, if effective, stimulating, inclusive, and creative provisions were consistently made available to this demographic, it would improve their quality of life exponentially. That’s far from a burden. It’s an opportunity.
A 2015 surveydiscovered that 44% of the approximate 2,000 adults questioned were unfamiliar with intellectual disabilities(ID). This is somewhat surprising as there are an estimated three-million people in the States with ID. The findings conclude only 56% of those polled say they know someone with ID. Furthermore, only 13% of respondents have a friend with ID and 5% work with someone who has one. These statistics suggest a societal divide for people with intellectual disabilities. Personal relationships seemed to reap greater understanding; participants who knew someone with ID were twice as likely to be inclusive.
Millennials with intellectual disabilities, along with their families, friends and advocates, continue with the daily struggle of equality, recognition, effective personalised planning, and innovative opportunities that will grow and develop their unique capabilities. Although society has made some progress regarding innovative and inclusive opportunities for these specialpeople, we still have such a long way to go. Many with ID must consistently negotiate a range of environmental, societal and attitudinal barriers in order to participate in music activities outside formal education (Kaikkonen and O’Neill, 2014; Nilsson, 2014). This suggests that music educators, facilitators, and researchers are well placed to promote openness to diversity by encouraging greater accessibility in various forms. Hairston (2014) claims that students with ID rarely get opportunities to create and produce their own musical performance, while Rickson (2014) recognizes prevailing tendencies within the public domain to view ID musicians as vulnerable and in need of protection from the patronizing attitudes and behaviours of others. With regard to equal opportunities, Akoyunoglou-Christou (et al. 2014) refer to the potential of inclusive music education to develop independent musicians who are able to create and perform music in the same variety of ways as their non-disabled peers. Rickson claims that that the Western view of music-making has led many people to believe that persons with ID do not have the talent, knowledge, skill, expertise, or even the ‘right’ to participate in music programmes. Case studies from the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have demonstrated how other disadvantaged and marginalised groups find a source of well-being and support through their musical activities as well (Pitts et al., 2015).
From 1994 until 2005, I was Leader-in-Charge of Maiden City Gateway Club, the affiliate of Mencap. Ninety students with intellectual disabilities were registered with the club. As Leader, I began to implement music projects and stage productions, as well as promoting the member-capabilities in the public arena. The aim of doing this was to gain an insight into the relationship between music and ID: The processes involved in music projects, the final products, as well as audiences’ perceptions, reactions, and opinions. At this stage of my career, I believed that a relationship between music and ID existed. The relationship between ID and music has, for many years, been discussed and investigated (Knight et al., 2019; Martinez-Aldao et al., 2019). Music has been recognised as a powerful tool for students with ID in structuring learning, influencing choices, focusing attention, promoting social interaction, and managing mood (Thompson et al., 2019; Abramo, 2015). I was persistent in exploring the relationship by producing numerous and varied music projects. The music projects were popular, with most Gateway club members expressing a desire to participate. The coordination of all participants alongside accommodating individual capabilities and talents was a huge challenge. Why? In hindsight, I wanted a quality production. I believed in the music and ID relationship. I believed that producing high quality music output was achievable. I accepted that public audiences were glad to see “special” musicians gaining an opportunity to perform. By staging high-quality music events, I trusted that the audience-perception of both music and ID could change. And, after many years of producing and directing music events, audience- perception began to change, albeit slowly. Audiences became aware of creative potential, the musicians’ capabilities, as well as the unlimited power of music. The many music projects which I initiated, developed and led affirmed my belief in the strong relationship between music and ID. I carried this belief through the next stage of my career, teaching in both the formal and informal education sectors.
The Music Teacher
Intensive and differentiated music training sessions revealed special capabilities and potential in all the Gateway club members. This revelation cascaded into my formal teaching, both in special schools and further education colleges. To understand this phenomenon further, I developed self-constructed baseline assessments for individual students in order to gather vital information that would allow me to assist in the development of a skill, such as singing, sustaining a rhythm, composing a melody, or, aural awareness. The baseline assessments measured seven elements of music, namely: Rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, form, texture, and dynamics. Most of the students I have taught over the years have displayed an interest in music, demonstrated an ability to participate in group music-making, and have responded well to differentiated instructional teaching methods. Furthermore, performances received positive feedback from public audiences. That’s when I proceeded to ask myself a further question:
Why are the performances being received with such acclaim?
In order to answer this question, it’s important to acknowledge that the audience consisted of family and friends who were thrilled that their son, daughter, sibling and/or friend was on stage performing anything as they did not normally get such an opportunity. Insight into audience make-up, perceptions and expectations revealed that quality of output was irrelevant. The main consideration for the audience was the opportunity that was provided which allowed an ID individual to grab the experience of performing in front of an audience. I continued to initiate, develop, and lead music programmes in formal and informal education settings for many years. During this time, I focused on both small and large group music-making, often involving improvisation.
After many years of research and working with children, young people and adults with intellectual disabilities, I realized the intensive draw to music. Although many of my students enjoyed listening to music by themselves, as they found this a type of escape from difficult times, obstacles and burdens, the common thread was friendship, social interaction, and collaboration. My students felt happy and their self-worth and self-determination increased. Music improvisation in a group format was key to their happiness.