… is not capable of learning an instrument.

Mike Lawson • Perspective • September 8, 2017

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I saw this image posted on Facebook by my friend, Julie Duty, founder of United Sound. It was, in a word, heartbreaking.

SBO profiled her amazing non-profit in the March, 2016, and their amazing work of creating a program that allows special needs students to participate in band and orchestra, and gives these students and their “general ed” students the chance to work together, bond, and learn so much from each other, well beyond the ability to play music at their individual level. Please refer to the back issue online at sbomagazine.com/digital-archives.html, where you can learn all about what they do, in case you missed it the first time. This image is a permission slip that would have allowed a child to participate in an after-school program where they would learn to play an instrument, with the assistance of a typical three-to-one student peer learning situation. And even if the part they play is four notes in ten measures, it is going to be a part written for their ability within the arrangement and those four notes are going to count. My heart sank as I read it. Why would any parent return the slip with this written on it? 

I can tell you why. I have a special needs daughter who is now 24. First of all, we mourn. First it is an overwhelming grief, and all of the five stages come into play. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And they come in waves, out of order. We are afraid to think that they might try and fail. We mourn they may not grow up to live independently, marry, give us grandchildren, drive a car, manage their finances. We worry. We cry. We work hard for the best outcomes. We hope for the best, go to IEP meetings, strive to make sure their rights are enforced by the school districts. How dare anyone suggest that we get our hopes up that our child might be able to participate in a band program, when they can’t tie their shoes at 14? When they can’t tell you the difference between a quarter and dime? 

As parents, we are often told what our children will not be able to do. One of the places we hear that, oddly enough, is sometimes from special needs teachers. I experienced this with my daughter, who wanted desperately to sing in the school talent show and was told no, until I got my papa-bear growl going, hired her a vocal coach, and let the administration know she was going to be performing next year. She went on to sing in front of hundreds each of the next four years, winning the “Director’s Choice” certificate, and wowing the audiences with her stage presence, repertoire, and charm. If I had accepted that “she wasn’t capable” of doing this, her high school years would have been very different.  

United Sound has experienced enthusiastic band directors stepping in and creating awe-inspiring moments proving that many special needs students of even severe disabilities are capable of participating in a meaningful way in their band program with proper support. Ironically, it is sometimes the special needs teachers who are often far more skeptical of what United Sound’s program can do than the band directors, looking for a way to be more inclusive of students with special needs. 

Children with intellectual or physical disabilities are capable of a lot more than they often appear to be. An extreme example might be Helen Keller, blind, deaf and mute. Go visit unitedsound.org, watch videos of students who look a lot like kids in your special needs classes that you have likely never met. They are not relegated to banging on a triangle or cymbal. They are playing strings, brass, woodwinds, and yes, percussion. Show the videos to your special needs teachers. And never let anyone, another teacher, or parent, or co-worker, ever tell you a child isn’t capable of learning an instrument at their own level. 

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