Earlier this year Musinc ran a training event on “Disability Awareness in Youth and Community Music Practice” for music leaders working in Teesside.

Often our fears and discomfort about interacting with disabled people are based on a lack of knowledge, uncertainties and stereotypes that can influence our attitudes, this is certainly true for music leaders who can be fearful of offending or upsetting or feel that they don’t have “specialist” knowledge of conditions.

Musinc wanted to help music leaders to feel more confident when working with disabled people whether they are a participant in a workshop or a colleague.

Rather than choosing a training provider “off the shelf” we decided to work with local music practitioners from the disabled community; Kev Howard is a disabled musician, music leader, photographer and disability rights activist, Alison Trelfa is a blind music teacher/musical director and singer/songwriter. Neither Kev nor Alison had experience of delivering disability awareness training, but they did have lots of experience as disabled musicians and Educators. We worked with them to develop a training session from their unique perspectives, whilst supporting them to develop the skills and confidence to deliver the training; CPD for all involved!

This was a grassroots approach to raising disability awareness with Teesside based music leaders; training developed for music leaders by music leaders from the disabled community; this proved to be really successful and we’d like to share this experience here.Let’s start with some reflections from Alison:

The fact that I live with my disability daily meant that I could speak sincerely and with experience of how this impacts me directly rather than imparting knowledge from an external resource. Living with my visual impairment is something that for me is normal, and it was essential for me to convey to the rest of the group that this is the case. So often people are prone to feeling pity or sorry for what is wrong and this is in part due to the differences between a medical and social model.”

As Alison hadn’t delivered training before I was curious about how she felt, did she have any trepidations, burning issues to cover or any particular points she wanted to make?

As a disabled person, I wanted to come across as confident and assertive, offering help and guidance in a comfortable and engaging manner, hopefully ensuring that the group felt at ease with my delivery and able to take on board what I was saying without worrying about political correctness, am I going to take offence, etc. It was important for me to explain that engagement with the disabled person rather than support workers was paramount and clearly understood and that we are just as able to carry out tasks albeit that they might have to be presented in a different way or format.”

Kev felt somewhat overwhelmed to begin with but felt more confident with support, once he got his “teeth stuck in” he really relished the opportunity and enjoyed the experience of working collaboratively:

As I was preparing for the talk, I could draw on my own experience of being disabled from birth, and working with disabled people for much of my working life, I had to seriously think about how I would be able to convey this into a cohesive talk. I found this really challenging because although I have done many talks about my working practice, I had not delivered a co-hosted talk on disability awareness before. Although this was all a little bit daunting, the support I received from Musinc was very rewarding. Working with Alison meant that I gained a much greater understanding of someone who was blind; how Alison’s experiences mirrored my own in so many ways, but were also vastly different in others, we had so many common shared experiences, and it was great to be able to talk freely about these, then bring certain elements of this into the talk.

However Alison and Kev may have felt about delivering training for the first time, Musinc practitioners were deeply engaged in the session and many made comments about how the informal approach made them feel comfortable whilst the content was thought provoking and informative.

The Disability Awareness training was incredibly insightful, especially with the guest speakers.”

The verbal content was brilliant and extremely relevant as we covered a lot on why Disability Awareness is vital. Both deliverers had some form of disability, so were speaking from direct experience.”

Kev has worked for many years delivering workshops in day centers for disabled adults and other community settings with the aim of engaging disabled people in music making who may not unusually have the opportunity to make music collectively as a disabled community, he was keen to share his knowledge and experience:

There are many ways of finding engagement in music for disabled people. Some issues are easy to solve, others are not, and I think the talk highlighted this, but also as a base line for the music leaders, it was an insight into disabled people and how we can help engage people to enjoy music, regardless of disability. As a friend of mine said to me when I was just 17 when asked what instrument I played, I said I don’t because I have only the use of one hand, and only have three working fingers. His response to that was “That’s not an excuse not to play an instrument”; those words have stayed with me, and over the years I have learned many instruments from Didjeridu to Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer and Steel Bodied Dobro Blues Guitar.

A music leader teaches a young male student to play guitar by pointing out where to place their fingers on the fretboard.

A Musinc workshop at MyPlace Middlesbrough

Through the training Musinc practitioners were able to hear first-hand from the life experiences of Kev and Alison, exploring barriers they faced and discussing how this can impact emerging disabled musicians or disabled music educators at the beginning of their career. It was clear that both Alison and Kev really valued the opportunity to share their experience and unique perspectives with other music leaders, as Alison says:

It was an honour for me to be chosen by Musinc to speak about visual impairment because it gave me the chance to be certain that information given to group members about issues surrounding visual impairments was accurate. Even within the trainee teacher stage I met with great resistance from educators who did not feel that I would be able to manage a classroom full of teenagers because I cannot see them, so if this resistance exists at this level, it leads me to wonder what chance do disabled students have within school if teachers are not given positive models by which they can empower the needs and abilities of disabled students as we move to an integrated society?

This is something that Musinc are seeking to address, following the training Musinc have established a Disability and Music Network and are now working with Alison, Kev and other music leaders to develop CPD for teachers around disability awareness in music.

I’d like to leave the last point with Alison:

When an organisation such as Musinc goes above and beyond to be inclusive, believing they can do much more to include disabled music makers, both at student and leader level, it fills me with hope for disabled musicians in the future and gives me a greater feeling of worth to be recognized as an equal professional musician. Using musicians such as myself who live with disability to inform their practises going forward rather than adopting online policy templates will in the end pay them dividends I feel. They are not just looking to have a box ticked and signed off, and for that I applaud them.”

At Musinc we really wanted to celebrate this work, I hope sharing this experience is useful and informative. Thanks for reading and keep on grooving!

– Written by Tim Coyte, Musinc Workforce Development Coordinator

Please note: I have written this blog with the help and support of disabled musicians and have also referred to published material from national disability organisations such as Drake Music to ensure that our terminology is as up to date and inclusive as possible, if any readers prefer to use different terms or have any objections to the language used around disability please contact tim_coyte@middlesbrough.gov.uk; we want to get this right!

Musinc provides professional development opportunities for emerging and existing music leaders, teachers and practitioners. View our opportunities here. To join our network, please contact us on musinc@middlesbrough.gov.uk.