Overcoming Adversity

Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, people have grown accustomed to blue stripes in parking lots, wheelchair-size....

Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, people have grown accustomed to blue stripes in parking lots, wheelchair-size restrooms, and sign-language interpreters in classrooms and churches. Disabled musicians have benefited from the increased recognition of accessibility as a common good, just as nondisabled folks have benefited from a richer, more diverse community environment.

But how accessible are the tools of the musician's trade? How has technology helped disabled musicians practice their art and profession, and where does technology fall short? The answers may surprise you.

Mobility Crisis

Musicians coping with spinal-cord injury or systemic conditions such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, or multiple sclerosis must learn to compensate for the limited mobility of some or all of their limbs. Like ALS-afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking and wheelchair athletes, mobility-impaired musicians manage their creative work using a variety of methods.

FIG. 1: Greg Harry''s studio is designed so that he can access what he needs to make music despite a severe spinal-cord injury.

Georgia musician Greg Harry (see Fig. 1) played guitar professionally for 15 years before suffering a fall in 1991 and becoming paralyzed below the shoulders. He didn't play music for five years after having his accident, until he began to realize that computers and music technology might actually help him make music again. Producer and friend Chris Blackwell helped set up a studio in which Harry could control everything with a simple wooden mouth stick. He credits a grant from Georgia's Brain and Spinal Injury Trust Fund, a program funded by DUI fines, for making the studio setup possible.

Harry explains that using the stick is easier than talking to the computer using voice-recognition software. Furthermore, he says, “It doesn't conflict with any other software.” With the help of Microsoft Windows' Accessibility and Sticky Keys functions, he uses the numeric keypad (with the number 5 key for Enter) to move the mouse cursor anywhere on the screen. He can also modify cursor speed and acceleration for different tasks.

Slowly but Surely

Harry's process in the studio is similar to any able-bodied musician's, only slower. Composer Don Taylor (see Fig. 2), who is a quadriplegic, likewise explains that he can do almost anything he wants to in his studio, but “it takes four or five times as long as the average guy.”

Taylor was a multi-instrumentalist until he was injured in a hit-and-run accident in 1990. Unlike Harry, Taylor's use of music technology predated his injury. He started a company called Syntech in his garage, making MIDI interfaces and software for Apple IIe and Commodore 64 computers. He also started Sonus, a company that created sequencers, MIDI interfaces, and other music gadgets for Atari, Apple, and Commodore computers.

Taylor's accident left him with permanent spinal-cord damage, paralyzed from the chest down with only limited arm movement. To operate his computer, he straps a pencil to each of his two hand braces and uses them to hit the keyboard and manipulate a trackball, painstakingly entering one note at a time.

FIG. 2: Don Taylor straps pencils to his hand braces in order to manipulate a trackball, entering one note at a time.

“It's very tedious,” he says. “I have to hear everything clearly in my head and try to get it right the first time, but I can't know how it sounds until I hear it played back.” His current studio is based on a Macintosh G5 running Apple Logic Pro. He also requires extra time to make any changes in his setup; installing a new piece of software can take hours.

“When I first started in music technology, I remember thinking, ‘This could be really helpful for disabled people,’” says Taylor. “I never expected to become one of my own candidates.”

Drummer Donald Jaeger tells a slightly different story. In 1981 he suffered a fall that seriously injured his spinal cord. When he was able to resume playing again, access to his instrument was not the problem. “I could still play drums,” he recalls, “but my endurance was limited because of chronic pain. I needed to find people to play with me who understood.”

His desire to connect with others led him to found the Coalition for Disabled Musicians (CDM), which now has a Web site of resources and support (see the sidebar “Resources”). The coalition has created three ensembles so far: two rock bands (Range of Motion and Rockin' Chair) and a jazz-swing group (the CDM Orchestra). Jaeger has also developed many adaptive devices for his colleagues, mostly instrument stands to aid physical accessibility and help support weight.

Composer Taylor has launched a service project called Artists, Musicians, Composers Against Paralysis (AMCAP), which advocates for research into curing that affliction. He donates a portion of his CD sales to the Christopher Reeve Foundation. “So far, no big-name musicians have taken on paralysis as a cause,” he says. “Maybe someone reading this article will step up to the plate and help.”

Stands, pencils, mouth sticks — the mobility-impaired musicians we spoke with do not use as much advanced technology as one might expect. In some cases, the coolest gear is just too expensive for musicians who have steep, ongoing medical bills. In other cases, creative mechanical adaptations are enough.

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Saving Grace

Of all the abilities for a musician to lose, hearing is probably the most devastating. In some cases, hearing loss is caused by disease or injury, but for most musicians, it is the result of too much exposure to loud sounds, such as rock bands and even orchestras.

FIG. 3: In this screen shot from Lime with Goodfeel, the Braille music in the upper portion of the screen corresponds to the conventional notation below.

Kathy Peck, bassist for the punk band the Contractions in the 1980s, lost a significant portion of her hearing and developed tinnitus (ringing in the ears) as a result of the tremendously high levels at which the group played. She went on to found Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (H.E.A.R.) and continues to host its information and referral Web site as well as consult for the San Francisco Symphony.

Beethoven, of course, composed powerful works after becoming deaf. Percussionist Evelyn Glennie currently tours the world, performing skillfully with orchestras by feeling the vibrations through her feet. But these are exceptional artists. Peck emphasizes the need for all musicians to preserve whatever hearing they have, using custom-molded earplugs and in-ear monitors (see “Say What?” at http://onstagemag.com/ar/performance_say/index.htm for details on in-ear monitoring).

Once hearing loss becomes significant, hearing aids are the best way to compensate. But just like adaptations for mobility and visual impairments, hearing aids for musicians are not yet problem-free.

Musician and audiologist Jillian Barrett sees many musicians in her practice. “A lot of people in their late 20s and early 30s come into the office complaining that their hearing isn't as good as it used to be,” she says. “It takes more effort for them to hear and enjoy music the way they want.

“Now hearing tests are designed for the frequency ranges important to speech perception, and they use pure tones,” says Barrett. “Music encompasses a wider frequency range, and different aspects of the signal are important. Current test procedures are just not designed to catch mild, subtle degradation. So these folks test ‘normal.’”

Barrett recognizes that her musician clients' complaints are real, and she is frustrated with the lack of attention they receive from hearing-aid companies. In particular, she'd like to see these companies offer a hearing aid that provides signal processing rather than amplification — what she calls signal clarification. For instance, such a device might alter the reverb or control the attack and release parameters that contribute to recognition of different instruments. “No one offers a hearing aid designed with real signal manipulation, so that a person could hear music the way they wanted to without as much effort.”

If a musician has a measurable loss, they may need amplification as well as signal processing specific to music. But hearing aids, like the tests, are built for speech. “The ‘music’ presets available in some hearing aids are really only tweaks to the basic speech profile. The high-end models, which cost thousands of dollars, do have more bands of EQ, more ability to customize, and more memory for presets. But there is still little signal above 7 kHz.”

Barrett believes that the stigma of wearing hearing aids may be lessening. “These young people who need signal clarification more than amplification are also the folks who walk around all day wearing iPod earbuds or a Bluetooth earpiece for their phone,” she points out. “This generation doesn't mind all that bionic stuff. They are a ready market that manufacturers aren't paying attention to yet.”

Things Have Changed

Music can be a challenging occupation for musicians who have disabilities. But those musicians are steadily solving the problems with a mix of mechanical ingenuity, creative technology, collaboration, and public advocacy. They challenge manufacturers and developers to stay committed to access, and the results are worth the trouble.

As Jaeger says, “Music is an important outlet. I forget everything when I am playing. I even forget my pain for a while. It is very therapeutic.”

Peck concurs, saying, “It's extremely important not to give up your music, no matter what happens to you. Even if you have to change the way you make music or stop for a little while, don't deny it. It's not just your career — it's your creativity, something deep inside that must be expressed.”

Joanna Cazden is a singer and speech pathologist who has written about vocal health and technique for EM and Onstage magazines. Scott Wilkinson was a technical editor for EM for ten years and writes the “Tech Page” column.




Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines

International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference

Universal Design


Artists, Musicians, Composers Against Paralysis

Coalition for Disabled Musicians, Inc.



Blind Producers

Dancing Dots

MIDI Mag Listserv




Jillian Barrett www.audsquad.com

Rick Boggs www.rickboggs.com

Veronica Elsea www.laurelcreekmusic.com

Greg Harry www.3-7-12.com

Donald Jaeger www.disabled-musicians.org

Gordon Kent dbmusic@cybernex.net (email)

Mike Mandel mjmandel@nyc.rr.com (email)

Bill McCann www.dancingdots.com

Kathy Peck www.hearnet.net

Dave Pinto www.yesaccessible.com

Don Taylor www.nexstaraudio.com


One way to get printed music into a computer is to use music OCR (optical character recognition) software. Using MusicXML (Extensible Markup Language), a data-format standard, some music OCR programs can create files that Lime and Goodfeel can translate into Braille music. Here are some music OCR programs to consider:
PhotoScore (www.neuratron.com/photoscore.htm)
SharpEye (www.visiv.co.uk)
SmartScore (www.musitek.com)