Disability, Advocacy, and Musicology

We continue with the third in the series of blog posts from officers of the Music and Disability Study Group (MDSG). As always, we welcome responses and comments. Any questions about the blog series should be directed to its editor, James Deaville.

Disability, Advocacy, and Musicology
by Michael Accinno

“Disability could never happen to me.” Like many nondisabled people, I often used this assumption to make sense of my early encounters with disability. Whether staring at classmates with down syndrome or walking by the sidewalk placards of homeless Vietnam War veterans, I learned to define the borders of disability by placing myself—and my loved ones—squarely on the outside. I was wrong. As my grandparents aged and developed chronic illnesses, I watched as they slowly transformed before my eyes. Their bodily impairments (cancer; strokes; paralysis) often necessitated accommodation (home health aides; walkers) and care. Suddenly, disability did not seem like such a distant possibility anymore.

I can’t say for sure whether these disability encounters were on my mind when I first came across Joseph Straus’s book Extraordinary Measures (2011) in my university’s library. Since then, however, as my involvement in disability studies in musicology has grown, I frequently revisit my prior experiences with disabled family members, colleagues, and fellow citizens, seeking to further interrogate my own biases and misconceptions. As a nondisabled scholar, I always assume that disabled people are the most reliable sources of knowledge about their musical experience. To paraphrase my colleague Jessica Holmes, disabled musicians are “expert listeners” whose intuitions have yet to fully enrich musicology and its practitioners (Holmes, 2016).

In my own research, I use disability as vehicle to explore the musical culture of the United States during the nineteenth century. In my chapter on organ grinders in the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, I consider the role of disabled Union veterans, thousands of whom performed as street musicians in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. More recently, I have shifted focus, completing a dissertation that examines the education of blind musicians at American schools for the blind (Accinno 2016). Currently, I am in the early stages of revising my dissertation into a book, tentatively titled “Gestures of Inclusion: Blindness, Music, and Pedagogy in the United States.” In it, I explore the lives of four figures who shaped emergent social understandings of blindness and music in the United States: Fanny Crosby, the prolific blind hymn lyricist; Samuel Gridley Howe, social reformer and founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; John Sullivan Dwight, music critic and Perkins trustee; and Francis Joseph Campbell, a blind teacher and music director at Perkins.

As I imagine it, the AMS Music and Disability Study Group will continue to foster collaborative projects within and without the AMS. Our shared online bibliography has continued to expand, and remains an important resource for graduate seminars and for scholars considering a disability-related project (to submit an update, please click here.)

I echo Samantha Bassler’s suggestion of a standalone conference on music and disability, and I would be prepared to co-organize a panel on blindness or disability in the nineteenth century. In a future national meeting, I would also like to suggest that the Study Group sponsor a lecture-recital by a disabled musician. Such a performance could prove attractive to other segments of the Society’s membership (especially with a coveted day-time conference slot!). Lastly, I hope that we musicologists continue to partner with disability activists and communities—to listen patiently to their expertise, and to collaborate with them as requested. I am thinking in particular of Andrew Dell’Antonio’s recent work with autistic activists Amy Sequenzia and Elizabeth “Ibby” Grace—important models of collaboration that benefit scholars and disability activists in equal measure (Sequenzia, 2015; Dell’Antonio and Grace, 2016).

In closing, I return to my original conceit: disability can (and will) happen to me, some day. Until then, I pledge to used my privileged position as a scholar of disability to advocate for improved care, accommodation, and above all—acceptance.

Michael Accinno is the social media officer of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group. He has presented papers on music and disability at the American Musicological Society, the Society for American Music, and the Society for Disability Studies. Currently, he is serving as a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Music at the University of California, Riverside.

Bibliography

Accinno, Michael. “Gestures of Inclusion: Blindness, Music, and Pedagogy in Nineteenth-Century Thought.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Davis, 2016.

Dell’Antonio, Andrew and Elizabeth J. Grace. “No Musicking about Us without Us!” Journal of the American Musicological Society 69 (2016): 553–558.

Holmes, Jessica A. “Expert Listening beyond the Limits of Hearing: Music and Deafness.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 70 (Spring 2017): 171–220.

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

Sequenzia, Amy. “Autistic and Epileptic, In a Rock Concert.” The Avid Listener, 26 October, 2015. http://www.theavidlistener.com/2015/10/autistic-and-epileptic-in-a-rock-concert.html

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