Don’t Let Physical Disabilities Stop Students

More students with physical disabilities, orthopedic conditions, and fragile health are participating in school music programs. Elise Sobol, chairperson of Music for Special Learners of the New York State School Music Association, offers some advice.

Assistive Technology

“Technological advances such as the innovative SoundBeam,” says Sobol, “allow 100% accessibility to students with even the most severe limitations to experience the joy of making music, exploring sound, creating compositions, and performing expressively.”

  • The British SoundBeam system translates body movement into digitally generated sound and image. This technology is available in the U.S. through SoundTree. Click on “Music Education,” then on “Music Therapy.”
  • “Although it may be challenging for teachers to find adaptive instruments to suit the individual needs of their students,” Sobol says, “the music market catalog offerings are expanding.” See distributors such as West Music, Music Is Elementary, Musician’s Friend, among others.

Instructional Strategies

Sobol finds the following helpful:

  • Make sure the class content will support students’ IEP requirements.
  • Build motor skills (through consultation with goals of assigned occupational and physical therapists).
  • Enhance vitality by building self-esteem through music.
  • Design lessons that build on reduced or limited strength.
  • Ensure accessibility to and inside classroom or performance space.
  • Make the environment safe and secure. Organize instruments, props, AV equipment, etc. to permit wheelchair access. Intercom allows calling for help in case of a health alert.
  • Always follow school policies for universal precautions and protections against infection.
  • If a paraprofessional or teacher aide is not assigned to specific student, use a buddy system.
  • Assess student capability—what a student can do—and adapt musical instruments with materials such as Velcro (e.g. to hold a triangle on the wrist) to enhance student’s ability to play. Design, create, and invent for individual and unique situations.

Books to Read Aloud

Sobol has found success with the following:

  • Knockin’ on Wood: Starring Peg Leg Bates, by Lynne Barasch—Inspirational. For building disability awareness and as an educational tool for success in the performing arts.
  • Puppies for Sale by Dan Clark—About a puppy with a missing hip socket and a boy with a leg brace, it promotes positive character development.
  • What’s Wrong with Timmy? by Maria Shriver—About a child with disabilities and forming new friendships.
  • I Am Potential: Eight Lessons on Living, Loving, and Reaching Your Dreams by Patrick Henry Hughes and Patrick John Hughes—Born without eyes and malformed limbs, Patrick became a member of the marching band at the University of Louisville.

Elise S. Sobol teaches at the Rosemary Kennedy School, Wantagh, New York (for students with multiple learning disabilities, including those with autism and developmental difficulties) and is the chairperson of Music for Special Learners of the New York State School Music Association. Her strategies appear in her book An Attitude and approach for Teaching Music to Special Learners, 2nd edition, 2008, MENC/Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Linda C. Brown, September 8, 2010, © National Association for Music Education (