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How Music Can Teach Children With Disabilities Skills for Success

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Music is an important form of self-expression, particularly for students who are blind. Though I’m classically trained, the fact I loved to sing depressing Italian arias during a time in my life when I was feeling so much loss is not a coincidence. Music gave me a way to comprehend and express what I was going through. Technical training gave me access to analytic skills, team work, self-reliance, advocacy and more. The very same ethics are being learned at Lavelle School for the Blind.

Lavelle is one of two schools for the blind within New York City. Together, they serve the population of blind children who are residents. Lavelle accepts students with cognitive and complex disabilities who also need services for blindness. This need for intertwined services has led Lavelle to invent a curriculum to support the unique needs of its students.

Part of that program is the inclusion of music classes. Eric Nilson is the current
instructor teaching this often-overlooked piece of education. Through music and
music groups, students are learning real-world skills such as social skills, analytics, self-expression, and a taste of success. “I like to prepare students for tasks by having tasks that are doable so they can succeed and enjoy doing it.” Nilson said of his program. “I teach them how to take the pressure off. We’re all here to help each other out.”

Since Nilson joined the education team at Lavelle, there has been a yearly Talent Show to allow students to showcase a year’s worth of vigorous work. This year’s performance included standup comedy, solo musical performances, group music performances, and even yoga and ballroom dance demonstrations. The goal of such a showcase is to provide an opportunity for students to go through the process of preparing for a performance in front of the entire school community. There is no litmus test to perform, no standard, simply a student’s willingness to prepare and present themselves on stage.

This means all the students’ needs must be accommodated. To ensure that each student who wants to participate can, there need to be a host of professionals on hand, and group performances accommodate for the verbal and non-verbal students alike. In a singing group, this is important because not all students will be able to express themselves through their voice. For these students, finding instruments for them to play, or using their own body as the instrument, ensures they can be fully engaged.

Nilson uses a variety of techniques to work with his students. Pulling from his time as a speech language teacher and a general music teacher, Nilson created a program that fit his students. It was a challenging task, because many of the students are in the middle of working on their social skills, which can make group work difficult both in and outside the classroom.

Nilson has found that his music classes help students develop these crucial skills. “In order to perform as a group, you have to support each other and there is no room for put-downs. That’s my number one classroom rule.” Nilson said of his teaching style, “It has helped kids start to have empathy for others. Help students put themselves in the place of someone else, be aware of what they say and how they say it.”

Lavelle students take on challenging and achievable music goals, and work their way up. They learn to self soothe, and manage their own difficulty in self-expression through music. This program, in turn, assists the rest of the school’s goals — to help students reach their fullest potential in blindness skills, living skills, advocacy, communication, and other areas. It does this by providing a supportive atmosphere where students can be themselves, and use alternative forms of communication. This, in tandem with the existing arts program, is the necessary ingredient for Lavelle students to achieve whatever their individualized goals are — both academically and socially.

None of this would be possible if Nilson had not taken a unique approach in educating his pupils. Whereas so many mainstream classrooms expect children to mold to the curriculum, Nilson allows his students to thrive in ways that are more natural for them. Though some of Lavelle’s students have gone on to support themselves as part-time musicians from music instruction, Nilson’s goal isn’t to shape his students into musicians. The purpose is to give an empowering platform for a group of children who are so often labeled as “unsuccessful” for not achieving the conventional definition of success.

Lavelle is also a tremendous example of what music has the power to do within the disability community. Though I’m now best known for my activism surrounding STEM inclusion, my music training is what initially helped me build confidence in myself. Not all students are destined to work in a robotics lab, but I believe all students are fully capable of reaching their highest potential if they are given the right tool set. Music is a key component in their tool belt. Without it, I believe students would not be nearly as successful. It is my hope that as we strive toward a higher tech society, we don’t forget about the importance of fundamental arts programs that have spurred creativity for thousands of years.

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Thinkstock image by Katerina Andronchik.

Originally published: July 24, 2017
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