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Music-making is out of tune with disabled children’s needs

OHMI music makers

4 min read

Children with disabilities are encouraged and enabled to participate in sport. That same drive must be applied to helping them reach their full musical potential

Amid all the attempts to bring an equality of opportunity to people with disabilities, there is an area of human life that has been all but forgotten – making music. For many, the barriers are seemingly fixed and insurmountable from birth, then reaffirmed through their school years. The very idea becomes like an inaccessible foreign country. “It’s not for me,” is the inevitable assumption. But there are solutions.

The problem itself is starkly demonstrated in whole-class teaching in primary schools. Jane is an eight-year-old with cerebral palsy. Like most disabled children, she attends a mainstream school (SEN/D children make up 14 per cent of state school pupils). In a whole-class music lesson she sits alone with her crayons while all the others get to grips with their instruments, possibly a recorder or flute, clarinet or even violin. She’s excluded because, with very few exceptions, all musical instruments need two dexterous hands and arms to play.

This is not just an issue of principle, but one that affects the lives of a very large number of children in the UK. One in every 400 is affected by cerebral palsy; one in every 1,000 has hemiplegia; 15,000 under the age of 16 have arthritis; and there are 31,000 pupils with a physical disability in mainstream English schools. 

The problem was all but ignored in the government’s New National Plan to shape the future of music education (2020), of which school standards minister, Nick Gibb, said: “All children, regardless of their background, should get the opportunity to play musical instruments.”

Until relatively recently this has been impossible, although, perhaps responding to the work of the OHMI Trust and others, he added: “We can only achieve this if we reflect on the latest advances in music and work together with experts in the music industry, specialist teachers, as well as reflecting on young people’s experiences.”

“It’s not for me,” is the inevitable assumption. But there are solutions

In fact, the solution to the problem is within our grasp and being slowly – frustratingly slowly – rolled out by the OHMI Trust in collaboration with Creative United.

The objective of the OHMI Trust is simply expressed: to enable children and adults with physical impairments to play the instruments they want to play, whether at school, in the home or in a professional ensemble.

We are concerned with full participation, not the segregation that comes with bangers, boomers and squeakers traditionally pushed at children with disabilities, but with the standard instruments enjoyed by the able-bodied.

We do this by developing adapted instruments, emulators, and enabling equipment. There is, tragically, still no other organisation in the world with a similar objective.

In 2019, OHMI and Creative United launched the Inclusive Access to Music-Making programme, together with Nottingham Music Service. The objectives were twofold: to identify the needs of physically disabled pupils; and to provide accessible instruments, enabling equipment, and staff training.

Our most recent survey in Nottingham shows that 65 per cent of schools have pupils who need additional support. It also established that barriers remain distinct.

We are a small charity dealing with a large and complex issue. The lack of suitable instruments means that parents of children with disabilities often write-off participation in music-making. Lessons are then not requested, so teachers, music hubs, and even SEN/D co-ordinators are not aware of the need. Even when they are, many do not know about the options now becoming available.

We are concerned with full participation, not the segregation that comes with bangers, boomers and squeakers traditionally pushed at children with disabilities

Low participation then leads to another difficulty: our instruments, being made in quite small quantities, can be expensive. A one-handed clarinet, for example, costs around £6,000 at the moment but would fall to a fraction of that if we could invest in scaled-up manufacturing techniques.

It is a cycle of problems that OHMI seeks to break at every juncture. Our instrument hire scheme makes it more affordable to acquire instruments. Where an adapted instrument doesn’t exist, we work with instrument makers to create one.

A problem that has long been ignored as insuperable is finally, as with sport and other areas of life, being resolved. Now we just need more help from government to bring “music education for all” into every classroom.

Dr Stephen Hetherington ​MBE is chair of the OHMI Trust

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