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.

References

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). https://musicdisabilitystudies.wordpress.com/

Deaville, James. “More Than the Blues: Clinical Depression, Invisible Disabilities and Academe.” MTO 15, nos. 3-4 (2009).                                         http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.09.15.3/mto.09.15.3.deaville.html

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.

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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.

Introducing Gaelynn Lea

Fellow disability studies-and-music community, meet Gaelynn Lea.* She is a freelance musician, songwriter, and violin teacher who hails from Duluth, MN. She’s recently gained notoriety as the winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, a contest for “intimate video performances recorded at the desk of All Things Considered’s Bob Boilen.” Gaelynn’s submission won out of over 6,000 entries, and has been called “arresting” and “profoundly moving.” Gaelynn’s Tiny Desk concert puts her among the ranks of musicians such as Wilco, Natalie Merchant, Graham Nash, and Ben Folds! Watch here:

As it happens, Gaelynn has brittle bone disease. Because her body is small, she bows her violin like a cello. She uses a loop pedal to multiply her instrumental melodies, creating a rich textural fabric that undulates beneath her ethereal mezzo-soprano. As she explains, a live loop pedal is an ever-precarious choice: “Every time you start song, you could potentially screw the whole thing up.” Gaelynn seemingly had good access to music in public school; after aceing a music listening test in fifth grade, she began playing the violin with an orchestra teacher devoted to making adaptive accommodations. Gaelynn took a serious interest in Irish fiddle tunes in high school, and hasn’t stopped playing since. Now she’s a free-lance music teacher and performer.

In an NPR interview, worth a listen for her biographical and artistic reflections, Gaelynn speaks about the relationship between her disability and her music. Her submission video begins with herself out of the frame, a conscious artistic choice, as Gaelynn explains: “I didn’t necessarily want my disability to be the very first impression people had. It’s not because I’m ashamed of it in any way, but I really wanted my music to be judged.” We hear you, Gaelynn.

*Thanks to David Bashwiner (University of New Mexico) for drawing my attention to Gaelynn’s work.

 

On Diagnosis and Invisible Illness

The following link is shared with permission from the author, Katherine Meizel, who is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Katherine recently gave a paper at AMS Louisville (2015) on music and deafness, “Two Voices: Singers in the Hearing/ Deaf Borderlands”, and is the author of  Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol. In the article linked below, Katherine writes for Scope, the Stanford medical blog, about her experience obtaining diagnoses of invisible illnesses. Although this is not a musical article, it furthers important work in disability activism, and disability awareness, which are important goals of the Music and Disability Study Group and the Society for Music Theory Interest Group.

“Belief brings relief — and sadness — after decades of doubt”

Guest Post by Jennifer Iverson: Intersections of Disability Studies, Neurodiversity, and Neuroscience

For many of you who have been acquainted with Disability Studies for some time,  it is not a revelation to view people who test “on the spectrum” (that is, on the autism spectrum) as talented, smart, exceptional individuals. I was delighted to read this article recently, “The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism,” by Maia Szalavitz in the web publication Medium. The article describes the research of neuroscientist Henry Markram, who now leads the EU’s Human Brain Project. Markram and his research team induced autism in rats’ brains, and studied how the synapses and cells responded to excitation. His team found that brain cells in autistic-type brains were hyperactive and much more connected than in neuro-typical brains. This research shows that autistic people are extremely smart; in fact, they learn much faster and have many more associations because of their hyper-wired brains. Of course, this can also result in sensory overstimulation and fear responses. Markram terms this the “Intense World Syndrome“.

Markram hypothesizes that what fundamentally characterizes autism is an excess of great synaptic activity, not a lack of social processing networks. Note the fundamental shift here from lack to excess–an important change in attitude that has been well understood in disability studies and neurodiversity communities for some time. I’m thrilled to see neuroscience researchers adopting the perspective of ability rather than the perspective of disability. I think this also demonstrates the way in which our humanities scholarship and personal/professional advocacy has important ramifications, sometimes specific, sometimes diffuse. Would Markram have been able to study and conceptualize autism from the perspectives of hyper-ability and excess, had the path not been slowly but surely cleared by cultural warriors who have been advocating for access, inclusion, and neurodiversity in their own communities?

If this topic is right up your alley, be sure to catch Michael Bakan‘s position paper at AMS/SMT, Saturday November 8, 8-11 p.m. Bakan (Florida State University) shares his work on an ethnographic project involving adult musicians who are on the spectrum. He’ll be joined by respondents Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas at Austin) and Elizabeth J. Grace (National Louis University), who are working on similar research involving autism and music-making.

Guest Post by Meghan Schrader, announcing the newly-formed Society for Disability Studies Interest Group on Disability and Music

Meghan Schrader received her M.A. in Music at the University of New Hampshire, and is the author of an article in the forthcoming collection Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age, which will be published by Oxford University Press.

I am pleased to announce that the first meeting of the Society for Disability Studies music interest group was held recently at the national Conference of Disability Studies. The group was conceived around the original concept of musicology, described by Joseph Kerman in Contemplating Music, as having ranged “from the history of Western music to the taxonomy of primitive music, as it was then called, from acoustics to aesthetics, and from harmony to counterpoint to piano pedagogy.”

I find this definition is useful for our purposes: scholars in disability studies approach music in a variety of ways. We may be professional musicologists, or we may teach or study fields outside of music, such as English or Philosophy. In contrast to the breadth of methodological approaches to the study of music and disability, music is a distinct discipline with particular genres, history, and cultural practices; which differ from other forms of human expression. Hence, my hope is to provide a forum for SDS attendees to discuss music within a broad musicological framework. I also hope that doing so might foster collaboration with scholars who are affiliated with the AMS and SMT Disability Study Groups, in hopes that our divergent experiences might enrich each other’s scholarship.

By drawing on the increasing body of work related to music and disability, this group will consider the following questions: How can our work best reflect the interdisciplinary nature of disability studies? How does and should such musicology intersect with related fields, such a film studies, sound studies, and identity studies? What is music’s potential to reify or subvert cultural conceptions of disabled people, performers, and composers? What can disability studies contribute to music pedagogy? How might these contributions add to or change 19th century standards of musicianship that currently determine the practice of music? Can the social critique which often accompanies the analysis of narrative music also be applied to interpretations of absolute music? How can the analysis of music be integrated with ethical issues encountered in Disability Studies? What has disability studies to teach musicology, and what does musicology have to contribute to disability studies? How do nuances within disability identity impact our respective experiences as scholars, and particularly within the musicology/disability studies communities?

Our first meeting attracted scholars from a variety of different backgrounds and research interests, including:

  • Presidential campaign music, opera on YouTube, and Freakery
  • Music performance and, deafness in music with a focus on Evelyn Glennie and Christine Sun Kim
  • Film music, particularly horror film soundtracks and film music of the 1950s
  • Elitisim in music education
  • Film music and studies of “The Beast with Five Fingers,” “Pride of Manres,” and Al Schidt and blindness
  • Studies of Porgy and Bess and contemporary music
  • Songwriting/performance with a focus on clinical psychology and metal music

We began the process of organizing one or more interdisciplinary panels for next year, in which we hope to bring these divergent interests together. True to the familial spirit of SDS, we also discussed the possibility of an “open mic night,” in which music scholars could not only meet for discussion, but also perform for each other.

We noted that SDS has had several music panels over the years, but that scholars who frequently attend SDS might be less likely to attend AMS, SAM or SMT meetings. Similarly, frequent participants in the latter conferences rarely attend SDS. Hence, another goal is to establish more frequent interactions and communication between scholars affiliated with these respective organizations. We would like to encourage these scholars to enrich both conferences with their presence and contributions.

Those wishing to participate in a panel should submit their abstracts to Meghan Schrader (meghanschrader at hotmail.com), Jessica Holmes (jessica.holmes at mail.mcgill.ca), and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak (dana.gorzelany-mostak at mail.cgill.ca) by December 3, 2014. The Society for Disability Studies Music Interest Group also has a Facebook presence.

Guest Post by Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones: “Encountering Deaf Spaces in Washington”

This is another installment of guest blog posts by scholars of music and disability studies. Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones is a graduate student and teaching assistant in musicology at Boston University, and is a contributor to the OUP Handbook on Music and Disability Studies (forthcoming 2014). Her master’s thesis, completed for degree requirements at Louisiana State University, is a study of The University of Pennsylvania MS. Codex 436.

“Mommy, guess what I want to do for my job?” “what?” “It starts with an M.” “music?” “yes, I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.”

My seven-year-old son and I were sitting in a cafe on a cold, rainy evening in February in Washington, D.C. having just come from the Kennedy Center. My son, Ellis, was beaming in the warm afterglow of seeing Signmark for the first time, the Deaf rapper from Finland. As a parent, I’ve taken my kids to concerts before, but this one was different. I was at the Signmark concert as a musicologist, taking notes for my own research, and I brought my son all the way from Boston to see this, because he’s Deaf, too.

In February 2013, Signmark performed at the Kennedy Center, representing Finland as one of the featured performers of the month-long Scandinavian festival at the Center, called “Nordic Cool.” Including Signmark in a cultural festival distances his work as a deaf artist from medical implications of deafness and shifts them more in a political and cultural light, which is consistent with Signmark’s artistic goals.

The audience rippled with the signing hands of Deaf and hearing people, communicating together, or simply waving their hands in applause. Signmark called from the stage, “Rhythm isn’t something we hear, but also see and feel,” as he encouraged the audience to move their hands and bodies along with the music.

Through the performance in a spoken language and a sign language, Signmark creates a musical experience that is accessible to both hearing and Deaf cultures. Signmark works closely with his partner, vocalist Brandon Bauer, who is Finnish-American and who performs the spoken translation of Signmark’s signed raps, to create a bilingual performance. Signmark states, “Through my music I want to break prejudice and fight for equality between cultures. I want to show to people that being different can be an asset. My message is that nothing is impossible for the deaf; we can do all the same things.”

I underestimated how much seeing Signmark would resonate with my seven-year-old. Ellis has a fair amount of auditory access through the use of a cochlear implant (CI), but he also signs. American Sign Language is his first language. During a bilingual concert, he could choose either modality listening with his CI or listening with his eyes. He chose the latter.

As the music started, Ellis took in the first few songs in his seat, but then as he latched on to Signmark’s performance, he became more engaged, waving his arms, and fist-pumping the air along with the music. The show is worked out between Deaf Signmark who signs and his colleague Brandon who speaks. They are well coordinated in the dialogue in-between songs, but sometimes there is some variance between how they are interacting with the audience. Ellis was completely tuned into Signmark. He responded to all the signing, and for the last song, when Signmark invited everyone to the front, Ellis ran up to the front to be closer, joining in, jumping up and down. When it was over, I said we could meet Signmark. My somewhat shy Ellis surprised me. He was frantic to meet him, running and pushing his way ahead to find Signmark. We were rewarded with this sweet picture.

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At the age of seven, my son has not yet encountered the prejudice of the hearing world that deaf people can’t or don’t experience, enjoy, and perform music. After his encounter with Signmark, he will know that this is not the case, and he has taken to writing his own songs at home now.

But the Signmark concert was only a part of a journey I took with my Deaf son that weekend. My little Ellis became my Ellis Island, a portal to a world that I would’ve never known about if it weren’t for him, DEAF-WORLD, in ASL. And our trip to Washington, D.C., gave us a physical space for DEAF-WORLD. We stayed in the dorms at Gallaudet University, the only deaf liberal arts university in the world. To get to and from there, we took a special Gallaudet shuttle that runs from Union Station every half hour, which fascinated Ellis, “A Deaf bus!?” And he was eager to make small talk in ASL with every generous college student who made eye contact with him. Later, he remarked, “I think we should move to George Washington, D.C. Everyone is smart here; everyone is signing.”

The next day, I took him to see the monuments. Perhaps the most significant one for me to show him was the Lincoln Memorial. This memorial represents the struggle for minorities to gain equality and social justice in a majority world that would otherwise oppress them. We remember M. L. King, Jr. standing on the steps declaring his dream. But many don’t realize that King’s dream was echoed over twenty years later by the Deaf students in Washington, D.C., who borrowed banners from the civil rights movement to declare their own dream of having a Deaf president for the first time at Gallaudet University—which would symbolize the rejection of nearly two hundred years of paternalism perpetuated by hearing medical and educational professionals.

If you look closely at Abraham Lincoln’s hands, it is said that the sculptor, Daniel Chester French, who had a deaf son, formed the ASL letters “A” and “L” for “Abraham Lincoln.” Standing there with my deaf son, I felt proud that he could say to me just the night before, “I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.” To know that he stands on the shoulders of so many who have advocated for the rights of the deaf. And to know that as a musicologist, I have a role to play.

AL (did you know the statue was carved by a Deaf man?) #lincolnmemorial #washingtondc