My Path: Disability in the Academy

We continue with the second in the series of blog posts from officers of the Music and Disability Study Group (MDSG). We will be taking a break in July, and return with another blog post in August. As always, we welcome responses and comments. Any questions about the blog series should be directed to its editor, James Deaville.

My Path: Disability in the Academy
by James Deaville

My Story

My interest in disability (and music) was kindled in the aftermath of my first episode of clinical depression, which occurred over the holidays of 1999-2000. A cluster of distressing and tragic events in late 1999 conspired to push me over the edge – my genetic code predisposed me towards the condition, for both sisters and my mother struggled with severe depression. Once recovered – I had a recurrence in 2014-15 – I began to consider musicians who likewise had invisible disabilities, studying the impact of these hidden impairments upon their life and works and upon the judgments of society. This research led to my chapter on madness (and Robert Schumann and Wolf) in the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, which had its origins in various papers I delivered about the medicalized myths surrounding Schumann’s madness. More recently, my attention has turned towards representations of madness in film, beginning with Schumann bio-pics, and now I have begun addressing how music supports such filmic narratives, for example in It’s a Wonderful Life (Georg Bailey’s manic episode in Pottersville).

I ventured into disability studies in music after having received tenure. Today, with the increasing validation of disability studies by organizations like the AMS and SAM and publications like JAMS and Journal of Musicology, young scholars have less reason to shy away from disability-related topics for their dissertations. Despite this apparent acceptance of disability studies as a valid field of research, however, post-secondary institutions remain sites where academic advisors and service-providing offices are ill equipped to handle the diverse disability needs posed by students ranging from first year through the PhD, and new and veteran staff and faculty. Furthermore, administrators seem more interested in managing risk and liability than ensuring that faculty and staff are adequately accommodated and (when necessary) receive proper treatment. The insufficiency, unevenness, and inconsistency of support for people with disabilities within the educational institution can represent the most daunting challenge on campus, a challenge that I have experienced firsthand.

The Problem

Though universities and colleges have taken increasing responsibility for the accommodation of disabilities among the student body over the last decade, incoming students – arguably the most vulnerable segment of that population – receive the lion’s share of attention and support. It is true that “students with disabilities are frequently not prepared to thrive in a postsecondary setting.” (Lawson, Gould & Conley 2016: 299) However, as we work our way up the education ladder, support becomes ever scarcer and harder to access, under the perception that “students don’t need accommodations anymore when they’re in graduate school.” (Mullins & Preyde 2013: 155) A recent study identifies isolation and the accompanying emotions of loneliness and depression as endemic to the doctoral experience; institutions nonetheless lack structures and cultures of support for PhD students, in the belief that advanced students can create their own coping mechanisms (Janta, Lugosi & Brown 2014).

By the time you get to the faculty level, the institutional expectation is that faculty (and staff) should know where to go to get help. Thus the burden falls directly on new appointees to arrive at the appropriate accommodations for their disabilities, having to negotiate a complex web of unfamiliar offices. (Deaville, 2009) You might have to work with the departmental timetabling rep for finding suitable teaching spaces and times, the university Equity Officer to ensure fairness in the accommodation process, and the union steward to address a grievance over a failure to accommodate. Should you have an invisible disability that impacts your performance in the classroom, you might also have to deal with the Dean, Human Resources, and an off-campus counseling service. And because stigmatization does not cease its pernicious effects at the gates of academe, some colleagues have decided not to reveal their disabling conditions at all. For example, a university organist once confided to me that he could only hear out of one ear, but he did not reveal his condition within the department for fear that he might lose his position.

Indeed, musicians pose unique problems for accommodation in the academy: just carrying out our work of practice and performance may cause physical injury and disability that might not be remediable (think of Robert Schumann). If the musician is already disabled, “it becomes imperative to find a way of presenting their disability in a nonthreatening way,” or “try to pass as nondisabled,” as Joe Straus argues. (Straus 2011: 128). These are not practices a musician would normally learn at university, nor do we receive training in coping with excessive performance anxiety, one of the major impairments that hindered my development as a cellist (the other was a repaired tendon in my left hand, caused by an accidental cut sustained while I was in high school). Still, I shy away from claiming music as a discipline that necessarily requires greater accommodation for visible and invisible disabilities in post-secondary institutions, not least because “each case of disability is unique.” (Lee 2006: 98)

Towards a Solution

It is crucial that those of us in academic positions of authority and privilege (tenured, in administration) advocate for understanding and accommodation for disabled colleagues and students. Specifically, we might share our own narratives of disability with classes (as appropriate), both to remove some of the stigma surrounding disability and to model a willingness to engage in dialogue about the topic. We should also agitate for adequate disability support services and accommodation policies on our campuses, which should be working towards compliance with the provisions of the UN Disability Convention of 2006, especially regarding accessibility. (Melish 2007).

I envision the AMS Music and Disability Study Group as serving a central function for members of the society and the public-at-large in informing research, encouraging activism and furnishing a personal “port of call.” (Bassler 2017)  Our website provides a wealth of information and of links to other resources for those who are interested in pursuing music and disability as an area of research and/or need to develop a case for improved services, accessibility and accommodations at their home institutions. Our panels and sessions at the annual meetings of the AMS provide a safe space for presenting and discussing disability-related issues and for networking with colleagues engaged in similar research and activism. And of course the officers of the study group – Samantha Bassler and Jessica Holmes, co-chairs; Beth Keyes, Secretary/Treasurer; Michael Accinno, social media officer; and myself, blog editor – are prepared to  answer any questions that our readers might have regarding music and disability.

James Deaville edits the blog of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group (AMSDSG) and has been an active member of that group since its founding. He has published on the topic of music and invisible disability in Music Theory Online (August, 2009) and in the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies and has delivered papers on it in various fora, including the AMSDSG. He taught the first (seminar) course in Canada on Music and Disability last fall (2006), at Carleton University in Ottawa.


Bassler, Samantha. “Music and Disability at the American Musicological Society and the   Intersection of Disability Activism and Music Studies.” AMS Music and Disability Study Group Blog (May, 2017).

Deaville, James. “More Than the Blues: Clinical Depression, Invisible Disabilities and Academe.” MTO 15, nos. 3-4 (2009).                               

Janta, Hania, Peter Lugosi and Lorraine Brown. “Coping with Loneliness: A Netnographic Study of Doctoral Students.” Journal of Further and Higher Education 38, no. 4 (2014): 553-571.

Lawson, Dana L., Sarah A. Gould and Melanie L. Conley. “M330-335.cDaniel Step Ahead: A Summer Transitional Program for First Year College Students with Disabilities.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 29, no. 3 (Fall 2016):

Lee, Theresa Man Ling. “Multicultural Citizenship: The Case of the Disabled.” Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law. Ed. Dianne Pothier, Richard Devlin, 87-106 (Vancouver, BC: University of Vancouver Press, 2006).

Melish, Tara J. “The UN Disability Convention: Historic Process, Strong Prospects, and Why the U.S. Should Ratify.” Human Rights Brief 14, no. 2 (2007): 43-47.

Mullins, Laura and Michèle Preyde. “The Lived Experience of Students with an Invisible Disability at a Canadian University.” Disability & Society 28, no. 2 (2013): 147-160.

Straus, Joseph. Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

AMS Music and Disability Study Group Blog

Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts from members of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group (MDSG) and the Society for Music Theory Music and Disability Interest Group (SMT MDIG). Each post will include information about the person’s research and history with the study/interest group, their future plans within music and disability studies, and their vision for the discipline. We intend for these blogs to appear in a monthly rhythm, and welcome responses and comments. Any questions about the blog series should be directed to its editor, James Deaville. We begin the series with a blog post by Samantha Bassler, co-chair of the MDSG.

Music and Disability at the American Musicological Society and the Intersection of Disability Activism and Music Studies

by Samantha Bassler

The inaugural meeting of the AMS music and disability study group was at the 2013 annual meeting in Pittsburgh, with a panel on recent research by Chris Macklin, Stefan Honisch, and myself, as well as a breakfast organizational meeting for business. Blake Howe delivered an introduction to music and disability studies, which was later published on the AMS blog, Musicology Now. Before the MSDG’s official formation as an AMS study group, many musicologists studying music and disability were active with the Society for Music Theory Interest Group on music and disability, founded by Joseph Straus, and joint AMS/SMT conferences included meetings with both musicologists and music theorists present. The 2016 publication of the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies includes contributions by both music theorists and musicologists.

The threefold mission of the MDSG highlights the scholarly and activist influence within our discipline and our Society, and through those means it intends to support disability studies and activism more broadly within the wider culture of the United States and beyond. We are an international group that uses music scholarship as our means to challenge the status quo and to augment traditional studies of music, but also as a lens through which to view culture and to advocate for the social model of disability. We want to make people aware of the discrimination faced by disabled populations, and also of the legal support enacted by governments to protect the rights of disabled people.

Presently, my academic work in music and disability studies is, broadly-speaking, to use disability as a lens for understanding cultural studies of music (mostly early-modern English music). I am currently working on a book chapter that explores disability and music as narrative devices within seventeenth-century English plays, and I am also in the early research stages of a monograph that explores the intersection of disability, gender, and musical performance in the early modern period. I have new ideas about the intersections of music and disability all the time, and think of new projects frequently. As a disability rights activist, I am an advocate and resource for fellow academics (and anyone else!) with autoimmune diseases and other invisible illnesses. Activism is an important component to disability studies, and I don’t think it is possible (or helpful!) to fully separate oneself from activism when doing scholarship about disability studies. I try to create accessible classes that integrate the wide range of students in them, and “out” myself as a disability rights activist at the beginning of each semester, in order to encourage students to acquire the appropriate accommodations for their disabilities and to ask me for help if they need it. I make sure my syllabi clearly state the name and location of the disability services offices at their university and explain the procedures for acquiring accommodations.

It is important to pursue activist work alongside our academic pursuits in disability studies, especially under the current political climate, but also because of the increased visibility of disability in popular culture. As musicologists and music theorists who conduct disability studies of music, we are responsible to (gently) remind our colleagues of ableism and of the accommodations and respect owed to students, colleagues, and others who are disabled. As an example, a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, written by Charlotte C. Gill, came under fire for insinuating that music notation is too elitist and exclusive. The author writes,

For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement. While there are routes into musical careers for the untrained, and many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally, there are also dozens of choirs and amateur collectives that put a huge focus on musical notation.”

While many professional musicians and academics objected to this essay by signing a petition and a response in The Guardian, and even started spirited debates with the author on Twitter, there were those of us within the AMS MDSG who recognized a thread of disability throughout the piece. One paragraph struck me plainly as reading like the description of a possible disability:

“The patterns and figures of music don’t easily unravel in my mind. I suspect that’s the case for many other children and adults; some get notation, others don’t. Neither is indicative of talent, but while we do not find lateral, inclusive ways to engage people – as well as loosening our ideas of what constitutes musical ability – we are losing masses of would-be performers.”

Disability studies and activism enable us as academics to occupy two spaces with respect to the issues raised in this article. Not only are we music academics and professionals with an interest in upholding rigorous intellectual exchange within the academy, but we are also responsible for educating about music. An understanding of the accommodations required by different learning disabilities gives educators the tools to craft more accessible classrooms and courses so that no-one is excluded in music education or performance at any level.

The study group aspires to be as inclusive as its discipline, by encouraging the voices of disabled scholars and scholars of disability (and persons who are disabled and also scholars of disability) to participate and contribute their vantage points to the conversation of disability and music. To that end, we hold a CFP for our yearly meetings at the AMS and SMT, and also encourage our members to submit research in progress and posts to the blog.

Since this is my final year as chair of the study group, I defer to my successor, Jessica Holmes, to flesh out her vision for the group. I hope that the group will pursue values of inclusivity and scholarly rigor, that we will remain at the forefront of music and disability research and activism, and be the first port of call for anyone who is interested in pursuing research in music and disability studies. I end with a few suggestions for her and others to consider. Firstly, it would be wonderful to organize a conference on music and disability studies, sponsored by the MDSG, and perhaps integrating colleagues from the Society of Disability Studies, and of course the SMT Interest Group on Music and Disability. We could consult with our colleagues at the AMS Pedagogy Group for ideas on how best to organize the conference. Secondly, since we have had so many successful AMS and SMT study group sessions, it would be great to publish these as special journal issues, colloquia, or collected editions. More of our work needs to be in print or otherwise accessible to larger audiences. Finally, I challenge our group to continue building on our twinned values of activism and scholarship, within the AMS and more broadly within our disciplines of music studies.

Samantha Bassler is the co-chair of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group (AMS MDSG), having served first with Blake Howe from January 2015, then as sole chair from January 2016, and now with Jessica Holmes from January 2017, with her term officially ending in December 2017. Samantha’s first work on music and disability was published in the August 2009 issue of Music Theory Online, for a special issue on chronic illness and disability in music academia. Samantha later published on early modern music practice and disability in the journal postmedieval and in the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, and another article on invisible illness and music in Voices: a World Forum on Music Therapy. Samantha is an adjunct professor at the music departments of NYU Steinhardt, Rutgers University at Newark, and Molloy College.

Call for Papers: Music, Disability, and Intersectionality

Call for Papers: evening session of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group in Rochester, New York, 9–12 November 2017

Since the 1990s, disability studies has shared the constructivist perspective of feminist theory, queer theory, and critical race theory: disability is a socially and environmentally bound form of difference, and not biologically determined, as it is often portrayed in medical discourse. Moreover, scholars and activists are increasingly attuned to the ways disability intersects with gender, sexuality, race, and other positions of marginality and categories of identity. These interlocking sites of difference shape musical experience in profound and unpredictable ways. Intersectionality is thus a fruitful and timely critical lens through which to examine the relationship between music and disability as our scholarship moves forward.

The Music and Disability Study Group will sponsor a session on the intersection of disability and other positions of identity, methodologies, and fields of study. We seek proposals that push the boundaries of studying music and disability, and engage in non-traditional methods of presentation. Submissions may be proposed for a variety of formats, including but not limited to: collaborative presentations, short position papers, longer research papers, workshops, interviews, and traditional conference presentations. Proposals should clearly describe (1) the argument you will make or the information you will convey, (2) the proposed format, and (3) the estimated duration of your presentation. Please submit abstracts of 250 words to no later than 16 April 2017. The proposals (with all identifying information removed) will be read by the officers of the Music and Disability Study Group: Samantha Bassler and Jessica Holmes (co-chairs), Michael Accinno (social media officer), and James Deaville (blog editor). You will receive notification on the final status of your proposal by 23 April 2017.

Results of the Poll

Dear Esteemed Colleagues,

I’m writing to announce the results of our online poll for the AMS Music and Disability Study Group (AMS MDSG). Thank you to everyone who voted.

Firstly, our by-laws were passed unanimously. Thank you. These are always view them on the MDSG WordPress blog, on the left-hand column.

Secondly, the theme of next year’s special session at AMS Rochester will be on the intersections of music, disability, race, gender, and other related studies. This was overwhelmingly the most-requested focus. Other suggestions include to hire a guest speaker, and to have a poster session. I will be discussing these suggestions and any others you would like to send my way with my new co-chair and the other new leadership members.

Thirdly, I am happy to announce the new leadership joining myself, Jeannette Jones, and Michael Accinno this year. Jessica Holmes will be joining me as fellow co-chair, Beth Keyes will join as Secretary/Treasurer, and Michael will remain as social media officer. There were no additional nominations that were accepted, so these are the results of our election. Additionally, James Deaville has volunteered to assist Michael with the blog as Blog Editor and to help us solicit regular blog posts. Jeannette Jones will stay on as chair of the ad-hoc accessibility committee, but is working to transition this committee to be under the umbrella of the official AMS Board rather than just the study group. The terms will for leadership will continue to be for three years, and there will be new votes as needed. We encourage other members of the study groups to volunteer their services. The next votes will be in 2018, when I will transition off as chair, and Michael will transition off as social media officer.

We will publish bios for the returning and new officers of the MDSG, and would also like to publish bios for the returning and new officers of the MDIG (Music and Disability Interest Group of the SMT).

Thank you so much for your contributions to the poll, and for your continued work in our shared fields of interest within music studies. Please do not hesitate to e-mail me with any questions or concerns.

Very Best,

Samantha Bassler, Co-Chair, AMS Music and Disability Study Group,

with the leadership:

Jessica Holmes, Co-Chair

Michael Accinno, Social Media Officer

Beth Keyes, Secretary and Treasurer

James Deaville, Blog Editor

Jeannette Jones, Chair of the Ad-Hoc Accessibility Committee

Disability and Deaf Studies Events at SEM 2016

Posted on behalf of Elyse Marrero, Chair of the SEM Disability and Deaf Studies Special Interest Group (website:

The SEM Disability and Deaf Studies Special Interest Group is pleased to announce the following events at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology in Washington, D.C. (November 10–13):

The second annual meeting of the SEM Disability and Deaf Studies Special Interest Group will take place on Thursday November 10 from 12:30-1:30PM in the Governor’s Boardroom. If you are interested, last year’s minutes are posted in the archive section of our website at: We will hold elections and discuss our plans towards an SEM position statement on access.

Our first (!) sponsored roundtable, “Accessible Music Pedagogy and Scholarship: Accommodations for Bodily Difference and Disability,” will also be held on Thursday November 10. This event will take place in the Palladium Ballroom from 4-5:30PM and will be streamed online through SEM. Depending on the WiFi access, I plan on streaming our meeting and roundtable on periscope through my twitter account, @starwarselyse. We also plan on streaming through Facebook Live on our Facebook page,

Chair: Michelle D. Jones, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Ailsa Lipscombe, University of Chicago
Felicia Youngblood, Florida State University
John Murphy, University of North Texas
Meghan Schrader, University of New Hampshire
Joan Titus, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

This roundtable explores opportunities for growth in accommodating diversely-abled students and faculty in music programs within higher education settings. Adaptive technology, college readiness programs, and increasing recognition of a wide variety of disabilities–both visible and invisible–have enabled people with a variety of abilities and bodily differences to participate in academia as students, faculty, and independent scholars. While greater inclusion has benefitted our field by introducing a more diverse choir of scholarly voices, it has also revealed the need to critically examine how we present content and communicate scholarly ideas. This roundtable provides practical strategies to ensure the success of differently-abled scholars and students through the insights of five scholars who have direct experience with disability. They will explore the ways in which their participation in higher education has been impacted by disability, as well as how they have adapted their teaching and learning styles to accommodate their students and/or selves. The panel will begin with brief presentations on: 1) being a blind or low-vision student in oculocentric classrooms; 2) having a nonverbal learning disability while attending graduate school in musicology; 3) showing empathy and developing adaptive teaching techniques for students who have disabilities; 4) navigating school and academia with an invisible disability; and 5) accommodating students who have autism and related neurodevelopmental differences. Together these perspectives expand the discourse surrounding inclusion and acceptance in institutions of higher learning.

If you have any questions or would like to sign up for the SIG newsletter, email us at