In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disability and Music

  • Introduction
  • Disability Studies
  • Music and Disability Studies
  • Analytical Models
  • Performance
  • Ethnomusicological Approaches
  • Medicine and Therapy
  • Personal Testimony
  • Pedagogy
  • Screen Media Representations
  • Contemporary Popular Music

Music Disability and Music
Neil Lerner, Blake Howe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0256


In the final decades of the 20th century, as disability rights activists protested ableist prejudice and discrimination, scholars began to group themselves around the topic of disability. In 1982 the Society for Disability Studies was founded; 1990 saw the passage of the US Americans with Disabilities Act, a piece of landmark legislation that sought to address systemic discrimination on the basis of physical and mental disabilities; and conferences and journals devoted to Disability Studies began to flourish in the 1990s. The relatively young interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies approaches disability beyond the traditional epistemologies of medical science and instead considers bodily and mental differences as both embodied experiences and constructs of particular cultures and societies. Following earlier work done on gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity, Disability Studies explores the social, cultural, and historical meanings of disability as a manifestation of human variety, celebrating disability as a difference while acknowledging the lived experience of possessing a bodily or mental impairment. While music scholars have long been aware of the possibility of composers and performers with impairments—Beethoven’s deafness is central to the narrative of Western music history—they only began to engage with ideas from Disability Studies in the first decade of the 21st century. The year 2006 was notable for both an article in a major music journal (Straus 2006, cited under Music and Disability Studies) and the first book-length study on disability in music (Lerner and Straus 2006, also under Music and Disability Studies). A large body of music scholarship quickly followed, including dissertations, conferences papers, journal articles, and monographs, and the scope and approaches to music and disability have been as varied and distinct as the human bodies and minds under study.

Disability Studies

The field of Disability Studies is vast and ever-expanding. Two helpful primers are Adams, et al. 2015 and Burch 2009; both offer an introduction to the field and its terminology. Garland-Thomson 1997 and Linton 1998 are influential, foundational texts, providing the theoretical basis for much subsequent scholarship. Mitchell and Snyder 2000, Sandahl and Auslander 2005, and Siebers 2010 are important, too, and have been frequently cited by music scholars interested in disability narrative, disability performance, and disability aesthetics, respectively. A frequently updated snapshot of the field, Davis 2017 gathers essays by these and other scholars of disability, including Michael Bérubé, G. Thomas Couser, Paul K. Longmore, Robert McRuer, Tom Shakespeare, Margaret Price, Tanya Titchkosky, Susan Wendell, and others.

  • Adams, Rachel, Benjamin Reiss, and Davis Serlin, eds. Keywords for Disability Studies. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

    A handy manual of sixty-two terms (e.g., “accommodation,” “embodiment,” “eugenics,” “freak,” “impairment,” “prosthetics,” “stigma,” “trauma,” etc.), each accompanied by a short essay from a leading scholar in the field.

  • Burch, Susan, ed. Encyclopedia of American Disability History. New York: Facts on File, 2009.

    This three-volume reference work contains over 750 entries by more than 350 authors. Someone who just scans the twenty-four page chronology (spanning from 1624 to 2009) will come away with an enriched sense of the pervasiveness of disability within US culture.

  • Davis, Lennard. The Disability Studies Reader. 5th ed. New York: Routledge, 2017.

    A prolific scholar in the fields of Deaf and Disability Studies, Lennard Davis assembles a wide variety of important writing about disability by specialists in literary studies, cultural studies, sociology, biology, and more.

  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

    A pioneering work in Disability Studies, Garland-Thomson’s book focuses on the cultural construction of disability representations (as opposed to treating disability as a pathology requiring medical interventions) by examining US freak shows in the 19th and 20th century as well as in several US novels, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

  • Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

    A pivotal examination of Disability Studies as an emerging field of intellectual inquiry, this book carefully describes the meanings that have been attached to human variations, defines key terms (like “ableism”), and offers a plan for further activism and development of the field.

  • Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

    The second chapter is essential reading for scholars interested in disability representation and narrative. In it, Mitchell and Snyder coin the widely adopted term “narrative prosthesis,” which refers to a representation of disability that supports an otherwise incomplete, unstable narrative.

  • Sandahl, Carrie, and Philip Auslander. Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.92455

    A powerful collection of essays, focused mostly on theater and dance. Sandahl and Auslander’s compelling introduction has been frequently cited by music scholars interested in disabled music performance (including Honisch 2009 and Howe 2016, both cited under Performance, and Straus 2011, cited under Music and Disability Studies).

  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Aesthetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.1134097

    Siebers argues that modernist art succeeds “because of its embrace of disability as a distinct version of the beautiful.” His work served as a springboard for subsequent studies of disability and music, including Howe and Jensen-Moulton 2016 (cited under Music and Disability Studies) and Straus 2018 (cited under Studies by Disability).

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