Charting the intersection of music and disability

In this blog entry, Alex Lubet, author of Music, Disability, and Society, explains how he came to write about disability studies in music. 

After a two decades long-career, as a composer, performer, and teacher, I first became interested in disability studies as the result of a music-related injury, spinal neurosurgery, and especially years of return-to-work issues.  Music, Disability, and Society is the culmination of a decade of research.  It includes examples from many kinds of music and numerous disability identities, as they intersection in places including Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Taliban’s reign of terror, a school orchestra of blind women in Cairo, Egypt, the jazz scenes of Europe and the US, the world’s classical concert halls and conservatories, and finally Minnesota, where I have lived, taught, and made music for over thirty years.

Although, on one level, Music, Disability, and Society reads like a series of distinct accounts of quite different encounters between music and disability, these stories are united by a single theme, which I call “social confluence theory.”  Simply put, the theory argues that, in contemporary, globalized society, identity can no longer be understood as an individual’s fixed state or category, but something that shifts constantly, based on the context of each of our momentary encounters, or “social confluences.”  It is possible, even probable, that each of us will shift identities – how we are regarded and even how we regard ourselves – several times a day, and often in surprising ways.  

For example, the musicians of the aforementioned “blind orchestra” have (with the assistance of their beloved, sighted “maestro”) transformed what is typically the world’s most vision-centric musical ensemble – wholly reliant on sightreading print notation and visually tracking the movements of a baton-wielding conductor – into a performance culture – a social confluence — in which these women’s virtues of memory work, extensive rehearsal, and intense listening render them, as musicians, wholly able.   Elsewhere, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban’s ultra-harsh interpretation and enforcement of Islamic law, including a code of vices and virtues that repeatedly decries music in any form, transforms those whose gift of and love for music is so strong that they literally cannot resist performing and listening — who would be regarded almost anywhere else as gifted and talented — into hunted sociopaths, subject to brutal punishment and sometimes even death. 

Such surprising turns of identity also sometimes turn up in the least exotic locales.  Among these are American schools of music, where there are only rarely students or faculty who would be identified as “disabled” according to such typical criteria as those included in the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Those with obvious physical or sensory impairments are simply not admitted or hired, while others, with “invisible disabilities” (mental disabilities or performance-related injuries such as mine) rarely claim such an identity or seek needed accommodations or treatment, for fear that such disclosure would harm their careers.   But ours is a society that thrives on competition that unfortunately sometimes devolves into name-calling, stigmatization, and bullying that is sometimes manifest in labeling “inferiors” as disabled, by calling such names as “retarded.”  In music schools, this often takes the form of bemoaning the presence of and underserving international students who are musically gifted, but English-language-challenged, and who thus struggle with their academic coursework.  These talented, hard-working students thus become surrogates for those people with disabilities who are excluded from enrolling at all.

Music, Disability, and Society is the first sole-authored book in the emerging field of disability studies in music.  As such, it is only a beginning, though, I hope, a rich, complex, and useful one.  There are many more stories to tell.

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