By Michael Rock
Few things bring people together as music does. For people with disabilities, especially children, access to music has numerous benefits.
Such benefits include improved relationships between children and their parents, greater auditory, literary, language, and social skills, greater fine motor abilities, increased memory, lower rates of fear and higher thresholds for pain, focus and attention, greater relaxation and sleeping ability, and general mental well-being.
According to at least one study, children with autism who engage in music therapy have greater social communication skills than those who do not. In addition, their families have a better quality of life than families with children with autism that do not engage in music therapy.
Despite these benefits, venues where concerts and music festivals take place are frequently not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even when venues do comply, there are still countless limitations, ranging from blocked views to attendants refusing to let people with disabilities have friends join them due to concerns about capacity to inaccessible bathrooms to poor quality assistive listening devices.
In 2018, an initiative called “Ticketing Without Barriers” was established to ensure that all major music events in the United Kingdom are fully accessible to people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, the metal band Korn gained recognition for helping Brandon Mendenhall, an avid fan of theirs with cerebral palsy, to jumpstart his own career in music. Mendenhall, who plays guitar for local L.A. band the Mendenhall Experiment, took up guitar to help him overcome paralysis in his left hand. His band recorded their first album in 2017.
Still, Mendenhall is hardly the first prominent musician to have a disability. Others have included the deaf classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven, gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who developed physical disabilities following a fire, the blind R&B stars Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and blues rocker Jeff Healy, country star Hank Williams, who had spina bifida occulta, Bill Withers, who stuttered, new-wave star Ian Dury, who developed physical disabilities after surviving polio as a child, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Ionni, who lost the tips to two of his fingers in an accident, and Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, who lost his left arm in a car crash.
Other musicians with disabilities include San Diego State University senior and rapper Joshua Jamal “Jashupi” Palmer, who has lupus. A public administration major, Palmer plans to establish a nonprofit after graduation to help musicians with lupus, as the fatigue that comes with the condition can hinder sufferers’ ability to work the long hours needed to perfect their music.
In New York City, Performance Space New York has partnered with Arika and the Whitney Museum of American Art to create a gathering of musicians and other creative artists and writers with disabilities to showcase their work. The event is expected to reject both extremes of disability exclusion and inclusion, and encouraging a nuanced, multifaceted view of the disability experience and its intersection with the creative arts.
In 2018, Minnesota’s Autism Support Group of St. Croix Valley won second place in a music video contest organized by the National Association of States United for Aging and Disabilities. Their video, which depicted a group of participants with disabilities performing “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, won the organization a $1,000 prize.
With all of the benefits music can offer people with disabilities both as consumers and as producers, there is no good reason to limit or deny their access to it.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.