CFP: AMS Music and Disability Study Group, Boston 2019

An embossed grand stave superimposed over Braille notation

The AMS Music & Disability Study Group invites proposals for a special evening panel session at AMS Boston 2019 on “Musicology and Universal Design: Claiming the Consonant, the Dissonant, and the Resonant.”

The concept of “Universal Design” (UD), first coined by architect Ron Mace in 1996, figures prominently in current public discourse on disability as designers, architects, urban planners, and engineers aspire to create more inclusive spaces and objects that better anticipate and accommodate the needs of all bodies. UD avoids stigmatizing and segregating bodies by striving for equity and flexibility of use, and integrates accessibility into all stages of the design process, thereby obviating the need for retrofits. Familiar examples include curb cuts, tactile paving, wheelchair ramps, and beeping crosswalk lights which render the built environment more accessible to those with physical  and sensory disabilities, while Braille and closed-captioning facilitate greater access to visual and aural media. In higher education, “the goals of universal design [sometimes called ‘universal design for learning’] stand in direct contrast to the often nostalgic (and ultimately hierarchical) expression of normativity we see in the repeated calls to re-embrace physical books, pens, and paper,” particularly when combined with the digital humanities, writes scholar and disability advocate Rick Godden.

The musical realm also benefits from the goals of UD. Indeed, Western music encodes what Blake Howe has described as a “corporeal finitude” through everything from scores to instrument design in ways that “enable some bodies, while disabling others.” As such, initiatives like the Adaptive Use Musical Instrument (AUMI), a software interface and iOS music App designed for people “with very limited control over voluntary movement to independently engage in music making” integrate the principles of UD to the benefit of musicians with disabilities. Furthermore, the central objective of “public musicology” to “engage general audiences in intellectually-oriented considerations of music… in a way that is approachable and understandable by non-specialists” arguably resonates with some of the objects of UD (Colorado College 2016), evident in resources like The Avid Listener blog, the Trax on the Trail project, or the Vox podcast series, Switched on Pop.

The Universal Design movement is not without its drawbacks, however. As designer-scholar Graham Pullin argues, the types of multimodal interfaces, spaces, and multifunctional platforms sometimes designed to “accommodate as broad a range of uses as possible” risk further excluding by virtue of their complexity. “Different people ultimately have different needs and desires irrespective of their abilities,” writes Pullin (2015). Others lament that UD often masquerades as a totalizing embrace of human diversity, overshadowing the ways accessibility is also race- and class-bound, and constructed along gendered lines as much as it is contingent upon ability. Godden contends, furthermore, that ultimately, “eccentric and extraordinary bodies have the potential to puncture the illusion of the universal that UD champions, disorienting and, more importantly, reorienting how we conceive of access and equality” (2016).

Our session will thus both probe the merits and limits of Universal Design in both theory and praxis at the level of our scholarship, pedagogy, professional outputs, and institutional structures. We invite proposals for presentations that engage with the consonances, dissonances, and resonances of the universal as it is mobilized aurally, visually, and through the multiple ways we feel music. Possible topics might include but are not limited to: instrument and venue design; institutional, pedagogical, and legal frameworks for UD; musical literacy and language (i.e. Braille notation, the Black vernacular, trans rights and gender neutral pronouns, etc.); and the future of publishing. Alternative, creative presentation formats are very welcome!

Abstracts of no more than 350 words should be submitted to by Friday, May 10 Friday, May 31. Please send your proposal as a .pdf with identifying information removed. In the body of the email, please include your name, contact information, and requests for A/V and musical equipment.