Is there anybody in the world who doesn't like music? Tastes and genres go in and out of fashion but pretty much everybody I have come across in a 20 year career has an opinion on music. I enjoy music so much I had a part time career wth my mobile disco for a while and have now combined music with my work supporting people with disabilities when I became a director of Music Alive, a small Wiltshire based charity. During my work it quickly became apparent to me that people with learning disabilities don't actually get to listen to the music they choose. For those that have communication difficulties linked to their disability it's even more apparent.
I have lost count of the times when we have asked carers and support workers what the person with disabilities likes to listen to and we got the answer, 'anything really'.
We have recently run a small scale project with 23 people with learning disabilities with their support workers and carers where the person with disabilties dictated the music that was listened to for an hour. Based on our initial assessments of these 23 people the main music choices would appear to be ABBA, Michael Jackson or the aforementoned , anything answer.
Thanks to the music knowledge and communication skills of Richard, the session leader, we were able to demonstarted that the people with learning disabilities who took part in the project have as wide ranging, eclectic and diverse music tastes as the general population. One extreme case that always raises a smile with me was the gentleman who I will call Gary. Gary lives in supported housing in a house with three other residents all of whom receive 24 hour supervision. He is unable to communicate verbally but will rock in his wheelchair and bite and suck his arm when excited or agitated. He demonstrated this behaviour when he first entered the music room, which was a new room for him so his response was understandable. His support worker said when he gets agitated and has potential to self harm with bites to his arm he was played whale and dolphin sounds to help settle him down so Richard started with that with little or no response.
Richard managed to communicate with Gary using flashcards that he had made up specifically for these sessions and by the end of the session had established that one of gary's favourite tunes was Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. This is in no way disrespectful to the support workers who had put some thought into the music played to Gary as a lot of people do enjoy listening to whale and dolphin sounds to relax, but it did nothing for Gary during his session with Richard and was able to choose songs himself. The support workers have now taken this new information and incorporated it into Gary's care plan.
Now I know 23 people is hardly conclusive, but there is definitely room for further investigation here.
It certainly got me thinking about how music can be used to further enhance the lives of people with learning disabilities. Maybe informally educating people in numeracy (counting rhythms), literacy (using notes and chords to recognise letters). Could we use music to teach people with learniing disabilties about the world around them, or current affairs? Here's a thought; in the news this week a major story has been the airspace in much of northern Europe closed due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Now many learning disabled people may not have understood this story and its meaning, however by using as an example tunes like Airport by The Motors and Ashes to Ashes by David Bowie, would this make the story more understandable. My hypothesis is that it would.
Regardless of whether music can be used in this way it is certainly there to be enjoyed by everybody, disabled and non-disabled people alike.