By Mercedes Lysaker | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
It’s more important than ever for string classrooms to be places where disabled students are welcomed, included, and supported just the same as their peers. But string-specific resources on accessibility can be difficult to find, and not all student teachers learn about disability inclusion during their pre-service training. Here you’ll find some guidance about how to you can begin to make your classroom more accessible for disabled students.
When you think of accessibility, you might picture a building that has a ramp or an elevator. But the term accessibility can also refer to the general idea that a place is open to disabled people, without any barriers preventing them from fully using the space.
This is sometimes called “universal design”—the idea that a space is designed from the beginning to be accessible to everyone, especially people with disabilities. For example, in addition to ramps and elevators, a universally designed space might also feature captioned sound, audio descriptions, tactile pavement, grab rails, multiple available bathrooms, and rules prohibiting fragrances, strobe lights, or smoking. These features make the space open to people with hearing and visual impairments, limited mobility, Crohn’s disease, asthma, epilepsy, autism, and other health conditions.
Universal design ensures that absolutely everyone can fully enjoy a common space. So what might universal design look like in a string classroom? The extension of universal design into educational spaces is called “universal design for learning.” In string classrooms, you can implement universal design for learning by providing different ways (“multiple means”) for your students to learn so that at every stage of a lesson, they are offered a variety of options that are compatible with how they learn.
Take for example a typical string orchestra class. First, how is the space designed? Some things to consider for accessibility design:
- Making room for wheelchairs, mobility aids, and other assistive technologies among music stands and ensemble chairs
- Providing adjustable lighting and making stand lights available
- Avoiding air fresheners and cleaning supplies with fragrance
- Minimizing distractions like noises from next door, flashing screens, or beeping devices
- Providing flexible options for sitting and standing, even in contexts where students typically stand
Next, what equipment do your students regularly use? Think about these ideas:
- Adapting instruments for assistive devices like prosthetics or harnesses that hold a violin to a student’s shoulder
- Adapting instrument positions to accommodate a student’s disability, like holding a violin like a cello or developing different bow positions
- Providing accessories that mitigate sound, like ear plugs
- Providing accessories for rest positions, so students don’t have to hold their instruments in between activities
- Finding chairs and stands that are easy to move
Now consider how you present musical content like new repertoire or music theory. Teachers can provide options like these:
- Large print and Braille editions of sheet music, or audio recordings for students to learn aurally
- Alternative notation using shapes and colors
- Direct instructions and statements (like replacing “Would you like to play that again?” with “Please repeat those measures two more times”)
- Videos with captions, written transcripts, and audio descriptions
- Written content in plain language
You can also think about how you motivate students in your classroom. While all students will be motivated by different things, disabled students are supported when teachers don’t expect just one or two activities to motivate everyone the same way. Here are some ways to maintain motivation and engagement:
- Alternative seating practices, like seat rotations and randomized seating, instead of chair auditions
- An atmosphere of teamwork and mutual accountability instead of competition among individual orchestra members
- Call-and-response or “I-play-you-play” activities for students who want to learn by immediate imitation
And now consider how students express their understanding of what they’ve learned. Most of the time, that involves some kind of performance, but you can provide multiple means for students to demonstrate their progress:
- Hybrid performance options including lecture recitals and “informances” that demonstrate works in progress in an atmosphere where nobody is expected to silently sit still
- Ending memorization requirements, especially in programs with neurodiverse students and students with learning disabilities
- Allowing verbal and written explanations of new ideas instead of immediate demonstration on the instrument
- Final projects where students design a written lesson plan for a particular piece of music or technical skill
These ideas show how you can be proactive when designing lesson plans rather than adding accessibility features only when someone requests them. The ideas explored here can benefit all learners and make string classrooms more accessible.
Finally, you can consider how you write classroom rules and expectations. It’s easier than you might think to inadvertently write policies that are ableist (prejudiced against disabled people), but you can use the principles of universal design to write more equitable program policies, particularly when it comes to attendance, practicing expectations, and Covid mitigation measures.
While nobody wants their students to miss any instruction, strict attendance policies severely disadvantage disabled and chronically ill students. Nobody has complete control over their health, so it’s essential that non-disabled students don’t gain an advantage in terms of getting better grades, receiving awards, or attaining recognition for their attendance record. Accessible attendance policies prioritize wellness.
The string community can—and should—be a place where nobody gets left behind.
Developing healthy practice habits is key to success as a string student. However, not every practice activity is equally effective for every student, so you can emphasize the importance of building a practice routine that meets a student’s individual needs. Students with ADHD, for example, may find success with fast-paced practice plans, autistic students might thrive with a specific set of daily practice tasks in a set number of minutes, and students with chronic pain may need to set their own practice schedules to accommodate pain flares. Accessible practice policies prioritize sustainable progress.
As we navigate the Covid pandemic, we’ve all become accustomed to incorporating public health measures into our daily lives. When it comes to creating a safe and inclusive environment for disabled students, we should remember that many disabled people are only safe when the people around them continue to follow precautionary guidelines, like masking, social distancing, and investing in air ventilation when possible. That means that we have to work together to keep everyone safe by taking the highest precautions for the most vulnerable person in the room, without exception.
The string community can—and should—be a place where nobody gets left behind.
Of course, this doesn’t include everything that would make string education accessible to every disabled student—accessibility isn’t a checklist. When a disabled student comes to a teacher with requests for accommodations, we have a responsibility to meet their needs with openness and creativity.
An Open Mindset
It’s important to remember one thing: disabled students don’t have “special needs.” They’re not “differently abled.” They’re not inspirational or brave for “overcoming” their disability.
They’re just students!
They have the same needs as everyone else—to play, joke, explore, make mistakes, and enjoy a musical life. It’s on us to make sure we meet those needs so that every string student can become the musician they want to be, exactly the way they are.