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.