The Social Model of Disability from a Music Technology (and ADHD) Perspective

This is a working document – original posted 11th April 2018 / updated 1st May 2018.

First, some context: over the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about disability and the performing arts, as I was visiting Montreal on a personal mission to learn about the scene there and share practice. The tone of the visit was set by attending a Cinema Politica screening of Defiant Lives, a film about the history of the disability rights movement, which was followed by discussion with the local community, including activists. It was an eye opener as well to interact with the Critical Disability Studies Working Group, part of the Participatory Media Cluster at Milieux Institute, Concordia University.

I found myself engaging with issues around disability and equality rights on an international level for the first time, considering related issues such as gender, and applying these ideas back to the work I do, both with Drake Music, and as an independent sound artist/instrument maker. Running parallel to this, I ended up expanding my making skills, discussing accessible spaces, and starting new collaborations through the Education Makers jams.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to deliver a workshop on collaboration in accessible music tech development as a result of this dialog, where some of this started to come together (my thanks to Owen Chapman for setting this in motion). This was an opportunity to seek critical outsider perspectives on practice that is all too often framed within victory narratives. More of that in a future blog post, but there was one aspect that I came away unsatisfied with that I felt the need to write about here.

I had planned to make the social model of disability a foundation of the workshop and advertised it as such. Learning about this approach through my contact with Drake Music, and in particular a sustained collaboration with John Kelly on the Kellycaster, was pivotal in my work as an educator and musician. I’d go further to say it that this experience has completely changed my worldview.

The social model is important because it represents the first significant moment that disabled people reclaimed disability and redefined it according to their own experiences (that’s not to say that every disabled person identifies or agrees with it).  It’s about liberation, a move from the dominant imposed models and a move towards a rights-based approach.

In simplified form, the social model sits in opposition to the medical model, in which disability is conflated with impairment, something to be fixed, and responsibility falls upon the individual to fit in.  Through the social model, impairments are recognised, but disability is considered the product of society’s failure to accommodate individuals’ rights to equal access: the barriers created by society in various forms.

To read about more about the social model, please visit these links: Drake Music blog Shape Arts / Scope.

I find it incredibly difficult to speak about the social model in general terms, whether I’m trying to provide an introduction or realise that I’m preaching to the converted.  I confess I have a surface understanding of this area learned mostly through practice. In this case I performed my usual cop-out: I played a video (the introduction provided by Scope is excellent, and was one of my own entry points, but doesn’t feel right for this kind of moment), and stumbled through some token references to the idea of aesthetics of access pioneered by Graeae.

The problem is that whenever I try to talk about these issues, I keep coming back to language – or rather, getting bogged down in it. Yes, discussing the social model raises important issues around person-first language (and indeed the importance of respecting self-identification on that front). And we can draw a lot of parallels between building ramps and automatic doors to benefit everyone and building access into technology.  But that’s where I’ve tended to leave the discussion. Maybe it’s because these issues are less directly relevant to me, to my personal lived experience. Maybe it’s because they almost seem too obvious to explore at length. But either way, I’ve come to realise that the  translation between contexts isn’t always clear in the way that I assume it is.

My approach to this was partly inspired by something Ann-Louise Davidson (founder of the maker lab at Milieux) said in a recent conversation: that in her line of work, so much dialog across practices is really about translation. I realised that I was missing a more direct way of placing some of these ideas in context, in the language of music-making and instrument development as well as broader access. And that’s when something clicked.

After some thought, here’s the missing slide, comparing the medical and social models in context.  This is by no means exhaustive, and there’s a undoubtedly a bias towards instrumental/performance situations and a hearing, white, cisgender male person’s perspective.  So it’s just a start, and requires much further discussion, but I think at least this illustrates some of the current issues in the context of music technology and what we might describe as adapted or accessible instruments.

Follow this link for a screenreader compatible version. 

Models of Disability and Music Technology
Models of Disability and Music Technology

A rough version of this slide, which I created for a music teacher training session at Trinity Laban, can be found at this link.

Many of these thoughts have come out of conversation with disabled people who are musicians, facilitators, makers, and artists, over the past couple of years (a grouping in which I would sometimes place myself, but I’ll return to that later). In particular I’d like to thank John Kelly and Gift Tshuma (a Montreal-based musician and activist), who I spoke to over Skype and in person respectively within a couple of hours of each other the day before the Milieux workshop. A common thread in these two conversations was the questioning of the frequent use of the term “inspirational”, which I guess we might think of as a remnant of the charity model that was prominent in the 20th century, and the subsequent “superhuman” narrative that developed around the 2012 Paralympics. Not to suggest that disabled people can’t be inspirational in their own right, just like anyone else (or indeed self-identify and own these labels), but these conversations highlighted that this situation is often a barrier to equality. As John put it, “if I inspire people, I hope it’s to challenge the crap that’s out there”.

It was John (alongside Gawain Hewitt, head of Drake Music’s R&D programme) who first introduced me to the social model in this context. I sent the slide to John to ask his opinion, and I’m grateful for a couple of tweaks to the terms I’ve used in the diagram, in particular a focus on rights and equality (any mistakes or misrepresentations remain my own). I also asked John what he thought about the inclusion of “medical” in quotes, since I found myself questioning its relevance in this context. John had this to say – with a disclaimer that this is based on personal experience and needs backing up with evidence:

For me the medical model in music is about …fitting in to assumptions of normality…seeing the purpose/role as being only therapeutic/rehabilitation/self expression…instruments played in one prescriptive way…examination process excluding/devaluing adjustment…a hobby/time filler.

Running through all of this is a question of where I place myself. I consider myself disabled in some contexts. I’m not sure how constructive it is for me to identify as “partially disabled”, but the barriers I experience might be described as less visible or less commonly recognised than others. From a “medical” perspective, I received my first ADHD diagnosis shortly before being excluded from secondary education, and another in adult life when I reached breaking point post-PhD, finding that the only way I could work would be to spend long hours making up for lack of focus (or indeed, having hyper-focused on the wrong task). For a long time, I felt unable to pursue work in academia. I still encounter barriers in my interactions as a freelancer with other professionals, to the point of sometimes being pushed out of projects rather than discussing avenues for support.  And left to my own devices, I watch myself oversubscribing and drowning in unrealistic commitments and cables, again and again.

It’s complex – the lines on my own responsibilities are often unclear. I also have agency in these situations. And if I don’t initiate discussion around these situations somehow, then perhaps I’m not not creating opportunities for the shared responsibility that access often needs in order to work. I reject the “deficiency” part of the ADHD label in the same way I would reject attitudes to diverse body types as deficient – not that these are equivalent issues (for the record, re: ADHD, I prefer the as yet unrecognised terms Attention Regulation Condition or Creative Self Sabotaging Disorder, depending on the circumstances). In line with the social model, for the most part I do not find my immediate environment disabling. As well as having found an appropriate line of work, I recognise a certain amount of priveledge in this. So, asking if I identify as disabled, the answer remains ambiguous.  However, learning about the social model has helped me understand this situation.

After posting an early version of this piece, I received this response from a friend and some-time labelmate Richard Wrigglesworth, who records as Tudor Acid:

The main issue I have in this area is that sometimes (in autistic communities, not sure what its like in ADHD communities) there is a tendency to assign success in music to your neurodiversity, where as for me equality REALLY is enough, and I think that the superhuman narrative is a huge pitfall!

This is an important point in terms of my own journey. My creative output is certainly influenced by the way my mind works in interaction with the resources available to me and my social environment.  I would like this to be recognised, but not as a determining factor.  I suppose this highlights part of the drive for me in attempting to unpick this, and may need to be the subject of a future post.

There’s so much to explore here, and this is certainly familiar territory for a lot of people, but I hope this can provide a spark for some conversation. I am posting this in rough form in the spirit of openness and sharing ideas, so I hope to follow up soon and would love to hear what other people think of this.

Vactrols (2017)

This interactive installation was presented at the Old Truman Brewery as part of Hackoustic Village, November 2017. 

Visitors were invited to explore a darkened room with interactive hand-held devices, created especially for the occasion. While holding down a button, the torch measured the intensity of light wherever it was pointed, which was translated into tangible vibrations. Upon releasing the button, the light would be played back from the front as a flickering pattern. 

This meant that visitors could essentially take the flickering lights from around the room and move them to other places, shining them onto other objects that responded in turn with sound and more lights. Two visitors holding their own torches could pass light patterns to each other, or patterns could also be created by moving back and forth. 

The overall piece was presented as a work in progress, a kind of open studio in an attempt to show my process and environment to passers-by. The most satisfying aspect for me as an artist, having proved that the technical concept worked, was the conversations that it brought about. 

Sonic Arts Week 1

Key resources/reading list:

Key resources

— This list is work in progress from last year.  For those interested in getting historical context for sonic arts, I highly recommend Audio Culture by Cox and Warner.  Many of the texts appear to be available on although I’m not sure about the copyright status.


Course outline

Week 1 listening exercise

Week 1 recording exercise

Audacity Worksheet



Recommended listening

Drone– Eliane Radigue / Glitch – Kim Cascone / Soundscape – Luc Ferrari / Conceptual – Susan Philipsz / Early Electroacoustic Music – Karlheinz Stockhausen & Pierre Schaeffer / Feedback & acoustics – Alvin Lucier / Sound Sculptures – Max Eastly

A playlist of versions of John Cage’s 4’33” – the “silent piece” (more info here):

This is some information on R. Murray Schafer and the notion of soundscape:

And finally, a documentary from the BBC on the notion of silence:



Sonic Arts week 1: R. Murray Schafer

R. Murray Schafer and Soundscape

Murray Schafer is a Canadian composer born in 1933 (not to be confused with Pierre Schaeffer, who influenced his ideas).  He began forming ideas on soundscape in the 1960s and 1970s through his work at Simon Fraser University

Schafer compares the world to a musical instrument or composition, and refers to the “tuning of the world”, suggesting that we are responsible for our sonic environment and achieving a kind of state of harmony.  According to Schafer, “noise equals power” (1977 chapter 5). In particular Schafer is concerned about the increase of noise with the advent of technology and industrialisation.  His work has in part led to the development of a field called acoustic ecology – study of the relationships between organisms (people, animals, etc.) and the environment through sound.  This often takes the shape of mapping and preserving sounds.

Schafer defines soundscape broadly as “any acoustic field of study”, including musical composition, radio programmes, or acoustic environments.  This latter category is generally the focus of his writing and is perhaps the easiest starting point.  He suggests that soundscapes can be analysed according to three key features or “event types” (these have been expanded over the years – see the Wikipedia links below):

  • Keynotes
  • Soundmarks
  • Signals

According to Schafer, soundscapes can generally be classified as hi-fi or lo-fi, according to the amount of detail that can be perceived.  With the constant noise of technology Schafer suggests that modern soundscapes are increasingly lo-fi.

Web links: