Differentiation as Celebrating an Able Identity or Perpetuating an Ableist Perspective? Critical Perspectives on an Evidence Based Approach for Instrumental Tuition for Musicians Who Have Down’s Syndrome

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This paper will present a framework for differentiating instrumental tuition for individuals who have Down’s syndrome, which draws from the evidence-base which asserts that there is a recognisable learning profile amongst learners with Down’s syndrome (Dykens et al., 2006; Eugene and McGuire, 2006). This literature will be examined critically and cautiously, and its reductionist, deficit-based potential identified. The value of applying this evidence-based approach to music education will be considered through three brief case studies which explore music making with learners who have Down’s syndrome. The case studies will demonstrate potential differentiation of provision according to the evidence-based learning profile, while recognising and celebrating a wide range of musicians’ personalities, communication styles, preferences, instruments and intentions. The context of other published examples of working inclusively with musicians with Down’s syndrome and learning disabilities will also be considered (Cross, 2005, 2007; Heaton et al., 2008; Hammel and Hourigan, 2011; Ott, 2011; Bell, 2014; Jaquis and Paterson, 2017). Having presented this evidence-based approach to differentiating music education to enable learners with Down’s syndrome to play an instrument, read music, and develop enriching musical relationships; a further critical stance will consider whether such methods of differentiation are synonymous with inclusive education (Alton, 1998; Hodkinson, 2015), or whether the construct of differentiation in itself further perpetuates the dominant ableist discourse (Moore and Slee, 2012; Penketh, 2016). While there is potential for an approach based on learning profiles according to such a broad shared experience as ‘Down’s Syndrome’ to be reductionist and overgeneralised, this paper suggests that this can be a strength-based foundation for music educators, who report as often lacking in confidence or experience to engage with learners with additional needs (Jones, 2015). From the perspective of the musician who has Down’s syndrome, it is their human right and disability right to make music (Lubet, 2011) as well as a “fundamental human occupation” (Williams, 2013, p. 39). Enabling this creative expression through a meaningful and relevant approach is the ethical responsibility of an inclusive music practitioner (Atkinson, 2011; Bell, 2014), and it is hoped that research into approaches which increase confidence in practitioners as well as success for musicians can be nurtured. Introducing a wider range of informed methods for music educators could be beneficial to a great number of learners, regardless of whether they identify as having a specific or additional learning need. Rather than utilise the learning profile as recognition of areas of deficit to develop (Fidler, Hepburn and Rogers, 2006; Iacob and Musuroi, 2013), this study will see the learning profile as a recipe for access and success: providing a “maximally supporting learning environment” (Wishart, 2002, p. 18; cited in Germain, 2002, p. 53) to nurture successful outcomes (Lemons et al., 2018). Widening understanding and acceptance of a multitude of approaches to music education, reflecting the diversity of experiences of musicians, aligns with a neurodiversity perspective, which celebrates the value and validity of diverse experiences rather than recognising such diversity as a deficit or a disability (Silberman, 2015; Woods, 2017). 
ReferencesAlton, S. (1998), ‘Differentiation not Discrimination: Delivering the Curriculum for Children with Down’s Syndrome in Mainstream Schools, Support for Learning, 13(4), p. 167 – 173 Atkinson, D. (2011), Art, Equality and Learning, Rotterdam: SenseBell, A. P. (2014), ‘Guitars Have Disabilities: Exploring Guitar Adaptations for an Adolescent with Down Syndrome’, British Journal of Music Education, 31, p. 343 – 357 Cross, R. (2005), ‘Teaching Pupils with a Learning Disability’, In Stringer, M., The Music Teacher’s Handbook, London: Faber Music Ltd Cross, R. (2007), ‘Teaching Tom’, Ways Into Music: Making Every Child’s Music Matter, Matlock: National Association of Music EducatorsDykens, E., Hodapp, R. and Evans, D. (2006), ‘Profiles of Development and Adaptive Behaviour in Children with Down Syndrome’, Down Syndrome Research and Practice, 9(3), p. 45 – 50 Eugene, D. and McGuire, B. C. (2006), Mental Wellness in Adults with Down Syndrome: A Guide to Emotional and Behavioural Strengths and Challenges, Bethesda, MD: Woodbine HouseFidler, D., Hepburn, S. and Rogers, S. (2006), ‘Early Learning and Adaptive Behaviour in Toddlers with Down Syndrome: Evidence for an Emerging Behavioural Phenotype?’, Down Syndrome Research and Practice, 9(3), p. 37 – 44 Germain, R. (2002), ‘A 'Positive' Approach to Supporting a Pupil with Down Syndrome During 'Dedicated Numeracy Time'?’ Down Syndrome Research and Practice, 8(2), p. 53-58Hammel, A.M. and Hourigan, R. M. (2011), Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label Free Approach, New York: Oxford University PressHeaton, P., Rory, A., Williams, K., Cummins, O. and Happe, F. (2008), ‘Do Social and Cognitive Deficits Curtail Musical Understanding? Evidence from Autism and Down Syndrome’, British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 26(2), p. 171 – 182Hodkinson, A. (2015), Key Issues in Special Educational Needs and Inclusion (2nd Edn), London: SageIacob, I. and Musuroi, C. (2013), ‘Aspects of Adapting the Intervention Program to the Particular Learning Profile of Children with Down’s Syndrome’, Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences, 84, p. 846 – 849 Jaquis, V. and Paterson, D, (2017), Meeting SEN in the Curriculum: Music (2nd Edn), London: David Fulton PublishersJones, S. (2015), ‘Teaching Students with Disabilities: A Review of Music Education Research as it Relates to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’, National Association for Music Education, 34(1), p. 13 – 23 Lemons, C. J., King, S. A., Davidson, K. A., Puranik, C. S., Al Otaiba, S. and Fidler, D. (2018), ‘Personalized Reading Intervention for Children with Down’s Syndrome’, Journal of School Psychology, 66, p. 67 – 84 Lubet, A. (2011), ‘Disability Rights, Music, and the Case for Inclusive Education’, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 15(1), p. 57-70 Moore, M. and Slee, R. (2012), ‘Disability Studies, Inclusive Education and Exclusion’ In Watson, N., Roulstone, A. and Thomas, C. (Eds), Routledge Handbook of Disability Studies, London: Routledge Ott, P. (2011), Music for Special Kids: Musical Activities, Songs, Instruments and Resources, London: Jessica Kingsley PublishersPenketh, C. (2016), ‘Creative Subjects? Critically Documenting Art Education and Disability’ In Bolt, D., Changing Social Attitudes Towards Disability: Perspectives From Historical, Cultural and Educational Studies, London: Routledge, p. 132 – 141Silberman, S. (2015), Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently, London: Allen and UnwinWilliams, J. Q. (2013), Music and the Social Model: An Occupational Therapist’s Approach to Music with People Labelled as Having Learning Difficulties, London: Jessica Kingsley PublishersWishart, J. (2002), ‘Learning in Young Children with Down Syndrome: Public Perceptions, Empirical Evidence’, In M. Cuskelly, A. Jobling and S. Buckley (Eds), Down Syndrome Across the Lifespan, London: Whurr, p.18-27Woods, R. (2017), ‘Exploring How the Social model of disability Can Be Re-Invigorated for Autism: In Response to Jonathan Levitt’, Disability & Society, 32(7), p. 1090 – 1095
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2018
EventCripping the Muse: A summit event for music & disability studies - University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Jul 20185 Jul 2018


ConferenceCripping the Muse
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


  • disability
  • music
  • differentiation
  • ableism
  • models of disability
  • down's syndrome


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