The inclusion of seeing-impaired staff and students at HKU Utrecht and Popakademie Baden-Wurttemberg
Seeing-impaired musicians and composers are nothing new within the realm of music. But are conservatories accessible enough to teach seeing-impaired students and have seeing-impaired teachers work for them? Drawing on the experience from the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht and Popakademie Baden-Württemberg, this case study will focus on some issues to keep in mind.
This begins with getting to the conservatory: in Utrecht the conservatoire is in the center of the town, and it’s not easy to find a safe way to travel there. Going from one place to another takes extra time, both between the campuses as well as outside the university. While the Popakademie is accessible by a direct bus from the city center there is no safe way to cross the street from the bus stop to the university since the street both lacks a traffic light as well as a pedestrian crossing (while requests to the city have been made this is still under consideration).
While most newer buildings are built with accessibility in mind this might not always be the case (especially if the building is an older building that was repurposed). This also includes minor details like tripping hurdles, automatic doors and clear pathways. In other words, making sure that the hallways are free from instruments, chairs etc. is important. Adding signs in braille facilitates the navigation in the building. Another detail is providing electric outlets close to the desks in all the classrooms so that the students using text-to-speech software (see below) can plug in their laptops.
This also applies to the classes: While providing documents in braille is probably the most elegant solution, this is not always possible (and currently not always the most needed – especially when primarily working with digital documents). In some countries, like the Netherlands, one can ask for books (coded with ISBN) in braille. This, however, needs some time: Dedicon, who converts books to braille in the Netherlands, needs about two months for this. Their website also offers information on music and braille (this resource has been made in cooperation with Bert van den Brink, a seeing-impaired piano teacher at HKU).
Besides braille, another way seeing-impaired students ‘read’ is with a specialized software that converts text into speech (e.g. JAWS – Job Access With Speech programmed by Freedom Scientific, Inc. or NVDA by NV Access). This software not only converts the text, but also the text formatting into speech. The more complex the text formatting, the more speech is needed to describe the formatting. Hence the documents used and shared should be created with a simple layout and thus without using e.g. tables to structure the text. Another aspect is to describe the images in the digital documents handed out to the students with descriptions so that the software can also read the description.
This also applies to the learning management system as well as room booking and other software the students access over the intranet. The simple question is: Are they accessible and easy to navigate for people using screen readers? An example from Utrecht demonstrates what happens if that is not possible: A blind student there complained, since he could only book rehearsal rooms via the school’s service desk. But by that time, however, his fellow students had already reserved the rooms, since they were able to go online from the first moment reservations were possible and book directly through the Asimut room reservation system.
Labelling what cannot be read not only applies to written documents, but also to speech: While teaching it is important to describe what is shown on a picture or what is being written down on the board, since a blind person misses non-verbal communication.
In music specific classes an essential aspect to consider is how the student will learn the music they have to play. Is the repertoire available in Braille code or in an other accessible form like Lilypond? At HKU students in music technology use the program, and the blind students get courses in using Lillypond instead of lessons in Information and communications technology. The students also work with Lillypond instead of programs like Sibelius or Logic. If such tools are, however, not available, are there recordings of the pieces that the student can use as a guide?
Finally, allowing blind students to record their lessons with a portable audio recorder also facilitates their note-taking and ability to review the lessons afterwards.
Another area which has to be thought through are exams. While performance exams are normally not dependent on writing or reading, music theory and more academically oriented courses are. Can the student substitute a written exam for an oral exam (e.g. an ear training exam, but also an exam on Jazz history)? Does the institution have computers with text reading software or a refreshable braille display which can be used for mandatory written exams? What are the institution’s policies regarding students with disabilities? How much extra time do they get? This is often an individual decision and can range from extending the duration to 1.5 to 2x the standard length (e.g. from 60 to 90-120 minutes).
The human factor
The final aspect is the social side. It is important to be proactive and ask if everything is ok and also to involve the other students as helpers and mentors. Regular evaluation and getting feedback from teachers and all the students (not only those who are seeing-impaired) is important to make sure that the seeing-impaired students’ and faculty’s needs are being accommodated. Establishing a cooperative environment is an essential precondition for the students to succeed.
At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that being seeing-impaired does not mean that the individuals do not have their own strengths and weaknesses. While issues that arise can be due to the impairment they can also be due to personality issues. In the case of a Popakademie student, the issue was that the student could not keep a band together. At first, we thought it was because of the other students. After however repeatedly recruiting musicians who then left the band after a couple of weeks we discovered that the issue was not based on the seeing impairment, but rather because the student was not willing to compromise on musical issues. While this was probably also a result of being seeing-impaired and a way both the student’s parents and the student dealt with the disability, this is also an area where students have to take responsibility for their own actions and learn to collaborate with others.
The following sites provide more information and tips regarding accessible documents and web pages:
This article is a part of the publication titled How are diverse cultures integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? Other chapters can be found here.