Working with Disabled Students

Mike Lawson • Performance • April 17, 2014

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Strategies for including students with special needs in standard ensembles

Because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it is becoming more and more prevalent that students with disabilities are participating in traditional music programs. Before, it may have been a situation where educators could say, “No, this student isn’t able to be a part of my class.” And now, legally, they can’t say that. That has created a thirst for information on how to work with these special needs students and incorporate them into ensembles and classes. A lot of people have a hard time with that because, for example, they might not be able to imagine how a student in a wheelchair could participate in the marching band. However, once it’s shown to them how it might be possible, the teachers tend to become much more willing to try to make it happen.

The first step I would suggest music educators take when working with students who have disabilities would be to go to the American Music Therapy Association’s website (, which features many resources on this subject. Also, a simple web search can yield lots of techniques that really work.

The main thing is that people need to focus on similarities rather than differences. What we’ve found with special needs kids is that they’re a lot more like typically developing kids than they are different. People often see someone with a handicap and make all kinds of assumptions about what that person can or can’t do when, in truth, that person might be able to do all of those things – he or she just might go about doing it a little differently.

One example of this is a time I had a girl in a wheelchair in a class, and I was having everybody accompany me in a song we were rehearsing. This girl could not move her left side at all, but she kept insisting that she wanted to play the cymbals. I kept thinking, “She can’t do that – she only has one hand. How could she play a two-handed instrument?” So I wouldn’t let her play. One day I was working with another student and while I had my back to her, she went into my bag and got out the cymbals, put one between her knees, and used her hand to hit it with the other one. I was stunned. She knew all along that she could play the cymbals, and she did great at it. I just had to let her show me what she could do.

Let your students be creative. We tend to be very prescriptive about how we teach, especially in music, about exactly how students should do everything. Students with disabilities need to think creatively about ways of doing things to accommodate themselves, and we’re not used to that. Give them an opportunity to be creative, and give them an opportunity to be more like typically developing kids than to be different.


Dr. Michelle J. Hairston is the chair of the Music Education and Music Therapy department at East Carolina University, as well as past president of the American Music Therapy Association. 



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