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British Educational Research Journal

Vol. 38, No. 3, June 2012, pp. 353–372

Identities of dis/ability and music

Michael Wattsa* and Barbara Ridleyb
aUniversity of Cambridge, UK; bUniversity of East Anglia, UK
FrancisResearch Journal

Centring on a small-scale capability-based case study of music provision for adults with profound
dis/abilities, this paper considers the significance of music and music education in people’s lives. It
offers a philosophical defence of music’s importance in enjoying a truly human life and then, draw-
ing on an overview of the work of dis/abled artists and the findings of the case study, it addresses
two issues that may inhibit those with dis/abilities from achieving the good life through musical en-
deavour: the provision of specialised musical equipment to enable people of different physical
abilities to achieve the same end of making music; and the element of shame that may cause those
with dis/abilities to accept a reduced standard of living. Although our immediate concern is with
musical provision for those with profound dis/abilities, our argument is pertinent to other margina-
lised groups and curricula.

This paper centres upon a capability-based analysis of the music education for a
group of adults with profound physical dis/abilities and considers its contribution to
what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum describes as the truly human life (2000). It
acknowledges the importance of specialised provision if equal learning opportunities
are to be made available to a diverse population but its main concern is with the ways
in which people learn to construct and challenge particular identities. This paper,
then, adds to the small but growing literature on the conceptualisation and operation-
alisation of the capability approach as a means of assessing the role of education in
promoting human well-being in dis/ability studies (Baylies, 2002; Burchardt, 2004;
Nussbaum, 2004, 2006; Terzi, 2005a, 2005b, 2008; Watts & Ridley, 2006, 2007;
Florian et al., 2008) and more generally. Although focusing on an enduring issue, it
is particularly significant at a time when artistic and educational budgets are being
slashed in the wake of the current economic crisis.
It has been suggested that capability perspectives of dis/ability could be enhanced
by a more thoroughly developed application to real life problems (Burchardt, 2004,

*Corresponding author. Admissions Office, Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge University, Cambridge,

CB2 1QY, UK. Email: mw362@cam.ac.uk

ISSN 0141-1926 (print)/ISSN 1469-3518 (online)/12/030353-20

© 2012 British Educational Research Association
354 M. Watts and B. Ridley

p. 749) and we do so here by considering the tensions between the identities of

musicianship (which is typically seen to be empowering) and dis/ability (which is
typically seen to be disempowering). We address the need for specialised musical
equipment to enable people of different physical abilities to achieve the same end of
making music; and the element of shame that may cause those with dis/abilities to
accept a reduced standard of living (Nussbaum, 2004, 2006). Yet in seeking to chal-
lenge the socio-cultural construction(s) of dis/ability, we need to adopt some aspects
of the discourse it generates. The term ‘disability’ itself reinforces the sense of deficit
inherent in this discourse and in the learned perceptions that reify it. As indicated in
the case study below, living a musically enriched life may mean that musicians with
physical impairments require different forms of musical instruments. However,
‘different’ should not imply that either the musician or the music is inferior. It is for
this reason that we make use of the term ‘dis/ability’ (but with due wariness of the
academic habit of coining redundant neologisms) in acknowledgement of the
tensions between the potential for those with dis/abilities to be empowered and
The tremendous power music has to shape identities (Willis, 1978; Bourdieu,
1984; Frith, 1996; DeNora, 2000; Gracyk, 2001; MacDonald et al., 2002; Anderson,
2009; Malott, 2009) can be harnessed by education to make a positive impact on the
lives of individuals and their communities (Veblen & Olsson, 2002; Green, 2008;
Ofsted, 2009; Odena, 2010). However, whilst music may be appropriated to reify
positive signifiers of in-group identification, it can also emphasise marginality. Our
particular concern here is with the identities assumed by and ascribed to musicians
with dis/abilities and the influence of those identities on the opportunities to lead a
rich and fulfilling life. The paper begins with an introduction to the Drake Music
Project, a registered charity that enables adults and young people with profound dis/
abilities to make music. It then considers the importance of music to the construction
of the good life, particularly as defined by the capability approach developed by
Nussbaum (Nussbaum & Sen, 1993; Nussbaum, 2000; Nussbaum & Glover, 2005)
and Amartya Sen (1985, 1992, 1999). The capability approach assesses human well-
being using the metric of the substantive freedoms individuals have to choose and
lead lives they value and have reason to value. It therefore demands a more rigorous
engagement with the concept of well-being than that often indicated by trite interpre-
tations that are easily interchangeable with happiness. Indeed, although recognising
its importance, Sen cautions against an uncritical acceptance of happiness, noting
that although it is ‘sensible enough to take note of happiness... we do not necessarily
want to be happy slaves or delirious vassals’ (1999, p. 62). The notion of adaptive
preferences—the tendency of individuals to come to terms with deprived circum-
stances—is central to this concern; and Nussbaum explicitly warns of its dangers
when considering the well-being of people with dis/abilities (2006). These processes
of adaptation are linked here to the concept of shame which, we suggest, synæstheti-
cally couples dis/ability with disgust (Nussbaum, 2004, 2006).
Two arguments for greater learning permeate the paper: that those who may
otherwise be marginalised in a society that idealises a construct of physical human
Identities of dis/ability and music 355

perfection—and who may adapt their preferences by coming to accept and even
valorise that marginalisation—should learn that they are entitled to a truly human life;
and that less marginalised others should be provided with opportunities to learn this
too. We accept that these arguments, and the first in particular, may cause some
uneasiness: after all, the broad inclusion agenda has made great strides towards the
acceptance of dis/ability. However, viewing this small scale case study through the
lens of the capability approach offers a more subtle and significant interpretation. If
we, the authors, want to learn to play a musical instrument we can take lessons.
Everyday problems, such as finding the time and money, are there but can be
negotiated. In the discourse of the capability approach, we have the substantive free-
dom to make music part of our lives and because we have this freedom, even if we
choose not to make use of it, it nevertheless increases our well-being.
Careful scrutiny of the real opportunities available to those with dis/abilities,
highlighted here with specific reference to the Drake musicians, though, shows that
this freedom is not equally distributed. This, of course, may seem little more than a
statement of the obvious: it is hardly new to claim that provision for those with dis/
abilities needs drastic improvement. What the capability approach does offer,
though, is a focus on the freedom to pursue valued ways of living life: assessing
opportunities to lead a life the individual values and has reason to value is one
thing; assessing those opportunities when the individual chooses to not take them
up is altogether more problematic. It can be like trying to catch the wind in a net
but, elusive as it may be, we suggest that it is a worthwhile endeavour because it
throws into clearer relief fundamental inequalities that may otherwise escape notice.
In particular, we address what Adam Smith refers to as the freedom to appear in
public without shame (1791/1979, v.ii.k.3). Sen and Nussbaum consider this a
fundamental capability both in its own right and because it has a significant influ-
ence upon the real opportunities individuals have to enjoy other freedoms (Watts,
2007; De Herdt, 2008). Drawing on Nussbaum’s work on shame and disgust
(2004) we consider how the ‘dirty marks’ (Schostak, 1993) of dis/ability, including
here the associations with music therapy, influenced the Drake musicians’ freedoms
to become and to be seen as musicians. We conclude by considering how the sense
of shame and adaptive preferences are applicable more widely, not only to those
who are considered marginalised.

The Drake Music Project

The Drake Music Project (www.drakemusicproject.org) provides dis/abled children
and adults, particularly those who are unable to play conventional musical instru-
ments, with opportunities to engage with music. It caters to those who have no
prior musical experience as well as those who are already accomplished musicians.
Most of the musicians taking part in the evaluation we conducted of the Project
(Watts et al., 2005) wanted to play their music live and, whilst live performance is
not for everyone, its significance was summed up by one musician who explained
356 M. Watts and B. Ridley

We want to go on stage and show those people in the audience what we can do. We want
to show them that we’re not just people in wheelchairs. We want to show them that we’re
real musicians.

The remit of the evaluation was to consider the Project’s effectiveness in enabling
profoundly disabled people to compose, explore and perform music through the use
of electronic and computer technologies. The research was carried out at the Drake
centres in London and Milton Keynes. We used ethnographic and biographic forms
of case study research in order to document the complexity of what was happening
from the multiple perspectives of the various stakeholders. The most important of
these were the 12 musicians with whom we worked but interviews were also
conducted with their significant others (including family members, friends and/or
carers), project staff, audience members from the three live performances we
observed and professional critics who commented on the music produced (including
recorded and live performances as well as rehearsals).
Most, but not all, of the musicians are unable to play conventional instruments
because of their physical impairments and so Drake provides specialist equipment
that enables their music-making by other means. For some, this requires a simple
modification of conventional instruments. One of the musicians, for example, uses his
tongue to play a harmonic keyboard but, as conventional keyboards have a coating
that makes them taste unpleasant, it was necessary to adapt a keyboard so that it was
no longer unpleasant as it was being played. This musician was able to play ‘free form’
(or ‘free fall’ as he, drawing attention to the risk of it going wrong, calls it) which
means that each individual note is selected and played live.
For most of the Drake musicians, though, the physical skills required to play
conventional instruments are impossible and they rely upon computer technology
that allows them to use switches to play their music. Some preparatory work is neces-
sary because the sequences of notes need to be pre-programmed. Then, instead of
plucking strings or striking keys to produce notes, switches or buttons are used to
release the notes that have been stored sequentially. Some musicians use hand- or
finger-controlled switches to release the notes whilst others use switches that have
been adapted to suit their own needs so that, for instance, they can control the instru-
ment with their feet (Anderson, 2002). This means of making music is significantly
different from complete pre-recording and this was something the musicians were
keen to emphasise: ‘We don’t use recordings. We play every note and that makes us
like ordinary musicians. So we are musicians, yes’.
These musicians have responsibility for the production of sounds throughout a live
performance and, unlike when using the demo button on a keyboard, there is no auto-
matic release of a string of sounds. Press the switch and the individual note is
released—just as plucking a guitar string or striking a piano key releases a note. More-
over, since each sound in the sequence must be released individually, the musicians
must be able to play in time with each other. Just as a musician playing a conventional
guitar or piano can release notes at the wrong time (with all the risks that carries of
spoiling the piece) so too can these Drake musicians press the switch at the wrong
time. Free form playing allows the musician to skip ahead to catch up if need be but
Identities of dis/ability and music 357

musicians using switches do not have this facility. This means that whilst they may
not have to worry about striking the wrong note (because the notes have been pre-
programmed) they still experience the exhilaration of timing which means:
It’s scary because you can get it wrong. You can get it completely wrong. But that makes
us just like other musicians. When we play on stage we get scared about getting it wrong
just like they do.

Music and the human condition

Music can serve different purposes through different levels of engagement (Pitts,
2000). Thus, whilst it is ‘a holistic experience’ that should not be bound by overly
simple analyses (p. 40) it can: act as a cultural influence, communicating either an
established repertoire and/or a variety of different musics through listening and
appraising; enhance life and leisure through participation and the development of
performing skills; and enable emotional and imaginative development through
composition and improvisation. It also has the power to shape identities (Willis,
1978; Bourdieu, 1984; Frith, 1996; DeNora, 2000; Gracyk, 2001; MacDonald et al.,
2002; Veblen & Olsson, 2002; Green, 2008; Anderson, 2009; Malott, 2009; Ofsted,
2009; Odena, 2010) and for many of these musicians their music was a means of
articulating identities that might otherwise be muted by their dis/ability (Everitt,
1997; Straus, 2006; Watts & Ridley, 2006). Commenting on the difficulties of verbal
communication, one of them explained, via his voice-box: ‘It is difficult for me to say
what I want to say. Playing Steve’s blues [a number composed specifically for this
musician] lets me say so much’.
The fundamental importance of music as constitutive of the good life goes back at
least as far as Plato’s Republic. More recently, Martha Nussbaum, in her defence of
universal human values (2000, pp. 34–110; 2006, pp. 9–95) includes music in her list
of central human functionings (that is, those activities we value and should have the
freedom to pursue, if we so wish) that make up the ‘good life’. In considering the
senses, imagination and thought, she highlights the importance of:
Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a
‘truly human’ way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education… Being able
to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and
events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s
mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both polit-
ical and artistic speech… Being able to have pleasurable experiences… (Nussbaum, 2006,
p. 76, emphases added)

This is the good life in the sense of eudaimonia, of human flourishing—that is, it is
more than the hedonism of happiness—and, as Bowman (2005, p. 41) indicates, it is
something to be strived for. For musicians with dis/abilities, the struggle goes beyond
having the substantive freedom to make music to that of being recognised as musi-
cians who are as capable of making music as their able-bodied counterparts. It is a
struggle to be recognised as individuals who are able ‘to do these things in a “truly
human” way.’ Nussbaum suggests that musical expression is good in itself but it is
358 M. Watts and B. Ridley

also good in that it enables (or should enable) choice and choice is itself good. These
two dimensions are brought together by Appiah when he cites Frank Sinatra’s My
way—‘But more, much more than this, I did it my way’—to illustrate the argument
that choice is part of what makes life good and that imposing other ways of living,
even if they are otherwise enviable, on the individual deprives her of a certain kind of
well-being (2005, p. 14).
However, Nussbaum is not merely concerned with the freedom to choose the plea-
surable experiences of, say, listening to music but with being able to choose to
produce music as well. This distinction was noted by John Dewey (1934/1980) who
noted that the English language differentiates between the concepts of the artistic
(that is, of the creative processes of doing or making art) and the aesthetic (that is, a
response to the artistic creativity of others). Whilst there may be good arguments for
overcoming this distinction (inter alia, Jorgensen, 2003) its acknowledgement
remains important because, in apprehending the diversity of musical engagement, it
makes clear that this central human functioning involves both the aesthetic and artis-
tic dimensions of music. It therefore acts as a warning against the legitimising of
limited choices as individuals become grateful for life’s small mercies and restrict their
personal desires to more modest and realistic proportions (Sen, 1992, p. 55) such as
merely listening to music as they come to accommodate their musically creative
aspirations with their experiences of dis/ability.

Music, art and dis/ability

In trying to bring musicological and dis/ability studies together, Straus argues that
concepts of normality and abnormality are ‘embodied in and encouraged by simul-
taneous developments in the arts, including music’ (2006, p. 118) and that musical
representation and performance can shape how we perceive dis/ability. The rights
of socially marginalised groups typically require legislative protection (Nussbaum,
2004, 2006; Terzi, 2008) and government policy in the UK is directed towards
improving the quality of life of people with dis/abilities (Prime Minister’s Strategy
Unit, 2005) and would therefore appear to encourage their engagement with musi-
cal artistry. However, these policies are primarily instrumental (no pun intended)
and despite glib references to going to the cinema with friends (pp. 5, 139) they
have remarkably little to say on the intrinsic values associated with Nussbaum’s
central human functionings of senses, imagination and thought. Nonetheless, the
national Arts Councils in the UK all make at least some provision for dis/abled
artists to participate in the arts on their own terms (Arts Council England, 2003;
Arts Council of Wales, 2005; Scottish Arts Council, 2006; Arts Council of North-
ern Ireland, n.d.).
The greater challenge is that public attitudes to and acceptance of dis/abled artists
cannot be legislated for; and this is where the matter of dis/ability and artistic iden-
tity becomes particularly problematic (Watts & Ridley, 2006). My left foot (Brown,
1954), the autobiography of the Irish author, painter and poet Christy Brown who
was born with severe cerebral palsy, reached a wider audience through the film of
Identities of dis/ability and music 359

the same name (Sheridan, 1989) and saw the able-bodied Daniel Day-Lewis
collecting an Academy Award for best actor. Similar critical acclaim had
been heaped upon The elephant man (Lynch, 1980) although the equally able-
bodied John Hurt failed to secure the Academy Award for which he had been nomi-
nated. On the small screen, comedy has brought dis/ability to the fore with Peter
Kay’s depiction of Brian Potter in Phoenix nights (Kay et al., 2001–2) and the occa-
sionally wheelchair-bound Andy Pipkin played by Matt Lucas in Little Britain (Wall-
iams & Lucas, 2003–6). However, both characters are played by able-bodied actors
and the depiction of Pipkin has drawn some criticism (inter alia, Hari, 2005) for its
Portrayals of dis/ability by those with physical impairments have generated a
smaller and more mixed response. Perhaps the most prominent artistic representation
of dis/ability in recent times, certainly in the UK, is that of the artist Alison Lapper
(Lapper, 2005) who gained national and international prominence as the model for
Marc Quinn’s sculpture Alison Lapper pregnant which showed her nude, heavily preg-
nant and clearly dis/abled atop the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square (Higgins, 2005).
Yet sculpture, even a contemporary Venus de Milo, typically lacks the visceral imme-
diacy of film and music. Although Lapper’s impairment, phocomelia, is congenital,
other limbless artists include the amputees Tracy Ashton, who plays Earl’s one-time
girlfriend Didi in My name is Earl (Garcia, 2005–9), and Rick Allen, drummer with
the British heavy metal band Def Leppard (Rolling Stone, n.d.). Shameless: the ART
of disability (Klein, 2006) and The last American freak show (Butchins, 2008) both star
dis/abled actors playing the parts of dis/abled people. However, whereas Shameless has
received a warm reception (inter alia, Woolley, 2006), BAFTA (the British Academy
of Film and Television Arts) withdrew support for Freak show because of uneasiness
about its challenging portrayal of dis/abled performers flaunting their dis/abilities
(Brown, 2008; Gilbey, 2009). It was replaced with Lars and the real girl (Gillespie,
2007) which sees able-bodied actors playing out the story of a mentally dis/abled
young man falling in love with a blow-up doll.
Like Lars, Nathaniel Ayers, the musician upon whose story The soloist (Lopez,
2008; Wright, 2009) is based, is mentally impaired and does not carry the physical
impairments that define and are celebrated by the cast of Freak show. The late and
very great Ian Dury had polio as well as a string of highly recognisable hits includ-
ing Reasons to be cheerful, Part 3 (Dury et al., 1979) (which reached number 3 in the
UK singles charts in 1979) and Hit me with your rhythm stick (Dury & Jankel, 1978)
(which had got to number 1 the previous year). In 1981, he released the single
Spasticus autisticus (Dury & Jankel, 1981) to mark the International Year of
Disabled Persons. Popular legend has it that the title and refrain were inspired by
the scene in Spartacus where Kirk Douglas’ motley band of rebels all claim to be
Spartacus in order to protect him from the Roman legions. When performed live
(at least, in the experience of the first author here) Dury’s number never failed to
display the remarkable power music has to embrace diversity, even if only superfi-
cially, as the audience all chanted ‘I’m spasticus autisticus’ along with him. The
song was banned by the BBC.
360 M. Watts and B. Ridley

Music, dis/ability and disgust

Although disrupted by Freak show and Spasticus autisticus, and allowing for personal
interpretations of artistic merit, this brief and necessarily selective overview seems to
suggest an increasing acceptance of artistic portrayals of dis/ability. This Bakhtinian
celebration of carnivalesque diversity (1984) holds out the promise of an affirmation
model of dis/ability (Swain & French, 2000) offering a non-tragic view of dis/ability
as it is represented in the arts. It would seem then that impairment—and, particularly
here, physical impairment—need not be a bar to artistry and its public acknowledge-
ment. However, a slightly closer analysis suggests a more insidious interpretation.
Most of the actors playing dis/abled parts here were able to get up and walk away from
them; and Lapper, Ashton, Allen and Klein all acknowledge their impairments but
seek to integrate them within a diverse but predominantly able-bodied society. Freak
show and Spasticus autisticus are something else—raucous celebrations of dis/ability
demanding the recognition of difference. Where dis/ability has been accepted in these
other examples, it has been a guise. This is most obvious where those actors playing
dis/abled parts have taken on a role (and this may go some way to explaining the
unease that Pipkin’s character generates: an actor playing the part of someone playing
the part of being wheelchair bound destabilises the guise). Where the artists them-
selves are impaired, the guise is found between their dual identities as artists and
people with impairments: having negotiated their impairments in pursuit of their
artistry (and so not being dis/abled within the social constructivist and capability
paradigms) that artistry becomes their salient feature. Freak show and Spasticus autis-
ticus tear that guise away by celebrating impairment and calling attention to the
construction of dis/ability. Their demands for the recognition of difference become
‘dirty marks’ (Schostak, 1993) that generate the disgust (Nussbaum, 2004) which
synæsthetically stains their art. Thus it would seem that the representation of dis/abil-
ity is acceptable only when it is presented as an acceptable representation.
Dis/abled artists, it would seem, are all too often acceptable only if they avoid
mention of their dis/abilities. Deconstructing these portrayals requires the acknowl-
edgement of the pernicious and lazy essentialism that may be deployed by the able
bodied to reinforce their own sense of their non-dis/abled (or normal) self. Thus, in
addressing the roles of disgust and shame in society, Nussbaum explains that the able
bodied (she uses the term ‘normals’) ‘know that their bodies are frail and vulnerable,
but when they can stigmatize the physically disabled they feel a lot better about their
own human weaknesses’ and goes on to suggest that ‘the stigmatizing behavior in
which all societies engage is typically an aggressive reaction to infantile narcissism and
to the shame born of our own incompleteness’ (2004, p. 219).
Whilst her argument may be familiar, she adds to it by citing the work of the
psychologist Paul Rozin (Rozin & Fallon, 1987; Rozin et al., 1999, 2000) who has
worked on the cognitive elements of disgust as an emotion and concluded that it is
‘the subject’s conception of the object, rather than the sensory properties of the
object, that primarily determines the hedonic value’ (Rozin & Fallon, 1987, p. 24,
cited in Nussbaum, 2004, p. 88). Although Rozin is referring to the olfactory senses
here, this seems to have clear implications for how people may relate to the music
Identities of dis/ability and music 9

performed by those with impairments: the pleasure or disgust they may experience is
not primarily determined by the inherent qualities of the music but by the physical
qualities of the musician—a discriminatory synæthaesia. As music is a central human
functioning that is constitutive of the good life, there seems to be a deep aversion to
rendering it disgusting through any association with physical impairment. Such asso-
ciations, therefore, are removed so that the subject’s conception of the music cannot
be contaminated by the musician’s impairment. Ian Dury, for example, was accept-
able as a musician until he called attention to his dis/ability with Spasticus autisticus.
Music has proved to be a powerful weapon when wielded against discrimination on
grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation and class but it has yet to be fully
harnessed to challenge discrimination on the grounds of dis/ability. The duality of
identity, which can be essentially reduced to dis/abled and non-dis/abled identities,
frames the concerns of the non-professional musicians of the Drake Music Project.
For the professional artists here, such as Ian Dury, their non-dis/abled artistic identi-
ties were salient unless they chose to foreground their dis/abled identities. The Drake
musicians had fewer opportunities to make that choice. Their choices were
constrained by the frequent presumption that non-professional musicians with dis/
abilities are engaging in therapy (Prendergast, 1996; Everitt, 1997; Duffy & Fuller,
2000; Watts & Ridley, 2006, 2007). Such presumptions render their dis/abilities
salient and reify them with the belief that the individuals and their music are second-
class (Everitt, 1997, p. 20) because music therapy is typically seen as mimetic and
inevitably doomed to failure (Watts & Ridley, 2007).
Music therapy therefore references the dis/ability rather than the musicianship and
so has the insidious potential to enhance the sense of shame generated by its associa-
tions (Nussbaum, 2004). Adam Smith long ago made the point that what is needed
to appear in public without shame is historically and context dependent (1791/1979,
v.ii.k.3). The affirmation model of dis/ability (Swain & French, 2000) celebrating the
Rabelaisian riot of life (Bakhtin, 1984) sketched out in work of the professional artists
above suggests that impairment, and particularly physical impairment, need not be a
bar to appearing in public without shame (a point that Klein makes in the very title
of her film). However, that freedom, which remains ragged at the edges of profes-
sional artistry, is not one that the non-professional dis/abled artist can presume: their
amateurism calls attention to their impairments as much as to their musical learning
and performance, leaving them not merely impaired but, without the assurance of
being able to appear in public without shame, socially dis/abled as well. In the context
of the early twenty-first century what they need to appear in public without shame as
musicians is not simply the specialised equipment but the acknowledgement that
such equipment can release them from the limitations of their impairments and so
make their musical identities salient.

Models of dis/ability
In evaluating the work of the Drake Music Project, both essentialist and social
constructivist models of dis/ability were rejected in favour of the capability approach
362 M. Watts and B. Ridley

developed by Amartya Sen (1992, 1999) and Martha Nussbaum (2000, 2006)
because of its potential to address the problems of explicit and implicit deficit models
of dis/ability (Baylies, 2002; Burchardt, 2004; Terzi, 2005a, 2005b, 2008; Watts &
Ridley, 2006, 2007; Florian et al., 2008). The main argument of the capability
approach is that human development should aim to increase individual well-being by
enabling access to the resources people need in order to choose and achieve what is
important to them. It challenges the bases of utilitarian assessments of well-being as
inadequate because they fail to take into account human diversity and the impact this
has upon the individual’s ability to make use of resources and because they cannot
properly account for the problem of adaptive preferences (that is, the tendency to
limit aspirations in the face of adversity). Instead, it conceptualises human well-being
as the substantive freedom—or capability—individuals have to choose and lead lives
they value and have reason to value. Human impoverishment, the obverse of well-
being, is conceptualised as the lack of such freedom. Thus, its ontological basis does
not merely recognise diversity but demands such recognition.
To enable this focus on freedom, the capability approach makes use of the concepts
of ‘functionings’ and ‘capabilities’ where a ‘functioning is an achievement’ that
‘reflects the various things a person may value doing or being and ‘a capability is the
ability to achieve’ (Sen, 1987, p. 36) and ‘is thus a kind of freedom… the freedom to
achieve various lifestyles’ (Sen, 1987, p. 36; 1999, p. 75). A person’s functionings and
capabilities are closely linked but significantly different: functionings are ‘in a sense,
more directly related to living conditions, since they are different aspects of living
conditions’ whilst capabilities are ‘notions of freedom in the positive sense: what real
opportunities you have regarding the life you may lead’ (Sen, 1987, p. 36, original
emphasis). The difference between functionings and capabilities, then, is the differ-
ence between the realised and the potential, between outcome and opportunity, and
between achievement and the freedom to achieve.
To assess well-being we must consider the alternative combinations of functionings
from which a person can choose and so we must examine ‘the extent to which people
have the opportunity to achieve outcomes that they value and have reason to value’
(Sen, 1999, p. 291, emphasis added). To assess well-being in the evaluation of the
Drake Music Project, it was necessary to consider what particular functionings the
musicians valued and what capabilities they had to achieve them. This meant that it
was necessary to not only consider the extent to which the Drake Music Project
realised its determination to create opportunities for dis/abled people to develop and
express their musical creativity but to also consider the extent to which it enabled the
musicians to achieve other aspects of life that they valued and had reason to value.
Fuller accounts of this capability analysis have been given elsewhere (Watts et al.,
2005; Watts & Ridley, 2006, 2007) but, throughout the evaluation, the musicians
stressed the importance of the relationship between their music making and their
identities as musicians. Here, then, we want to focus on their freedom to engage with
the ethical endeavour of making music and to indicate how their freedom to be recog-
nised at musicians can be constrained by the lack of appropriate resources, the poten-
tial sense of shame and by adaptive preferences.
Identities of dis/ability and music 11

The appropriateness of resources

The capability approach recognises that there is more to well-being than being well
off; and that a person’s standard of living ‘must be directly a matter of the life one
leads rather than of the resources and means one has to lead a life’ (Sen, 1987, p. 16).
This is because possessions are not good in themselves but only for what they can do
for people; and people are not possessed of equal abilities to make equal use of the
same possessions. If musicians are to engage with their music, they need the appro-
priate instruments. To illustrate the problems of using a commodity-based approach
to well-being, we want to turn to two other Drake musicians, both wheelchair users.
When we last saw them perform, both were playing guitars—one acoustic and the
other bass. The acoustic guitarist was able to play a conventional guitar but the cere-
bral palsy of the bassist meant that he could only play his guitar using a foot switch to
release a series of notes that had been pre-programmed into a computer. Thus, the
acoustic guitar was a conventional six-string guitar wired into the sound system
whereas the bass was a switch connected to a bank of computers wired into the sound
system. The two instruments could therefore be considered (if only from the perspec-
tive of a commodities-based evaluation) to be significantly different in their construc-
tion even though that construction enabled the same musical effect. Moreover (and
if only from that same perspective) allowing for the wide-ranging cost of conventional
guitars, this meant that the bassist’s instrument cost a lot more. However, they had
both been constructed for the same purpose of allowing a musician to produce the
sound of a guitar: the acoustic guitarist by plucking strings and the bassist by pressing
a foot switch. It is this latter perspective, one that addresses the quintessence of the
instruments, that is of significance here because they both enabled the musicians to
play the guitar.
However, a strict goods-based assessment of well-being may fail to take into
account the bassist’s inability to make any use of a conventional instrument: give him
a conventional bass and (with this commodity ultimately serving as a proxy for
income) his well-being would increase by the value of the instrument even though he
has no ability—or freedom—to make use of it. A capability assessment, though,
would require the identification of those aspects of life he values and had reason to
value (or, in the terminology of capability, his functionings) and then address his
substantive freedom (that is, his capability) to achieve them. And to achieve the func-
tioning of making music, he needs this specialised instrument. Therefore, whatever
the fiscal cost of the computer-based instrument, within this capability assessment,
the bassist’s guitar had the same value as the conventional guitar of his fellow
Within the limits of this example, the two guitarists have equal well-being from a
capability perspective but only because the bassist has been provided with the
specialist equipment that enables him to make his music. Looking at it the other
way, a commodity-based utilitarian assessment may deem that he has greater well-
being because of the considerably greater cost of the computer equipment (as well
as all the training, support and so on that is required to enable his use of it) but,
364 M. Watts and B. Ridley

with limited space here, we shall simply reject this as self-evidently ridiculous. The
issue we are seeking to illustrate is that human diversity—here exemplified by
different physical impairments—means that we are unable to make equal use of the
same goods and so the focus of capability assessments of well-being must be on ‘the
freedoms generated by commodities, rather than on the commodities seen on their
own’ (Sen, 1999, p. 74).
The problem with commodity-based assessments of well-being, and of evaluations
more generally, particularly in the current climate of funding restrictions for arts
groups, is that they are not necessarily sensitive to the distinction between the mere
possession of commodities and what those commodities are used for. A financial
bottom line, then, might conclude that a dis/abled arts group has been awarded a
certain amount of funding regardless of what its members can do with it or that
greater financial resources are being directed to such groups without any greater
output than, here, say, groups of non-dis/abled musicians.

The sense of shame and adaptive preferences

However, the freedom of these musicians to choose and lead the good life through
musicianship was constrained by more than the availability of appropriate resources:
it was also held in check by the concern that their music making might be perceived
as therapy rather than artistry. Shame is a multi-faceted and complex construction
but for these musicians it was defined by the struggle to challenge the ascription of
dis/abled identities associated with music therapy. Sen and Nussbaum advance their
arguments for a capability approach to human well-being on the grounds that a util-
itarian focus on preference-satisfaction fails to acknowledge the human tendency to
adapt preferences under unfavourable circumstances and that self-assessments of
well-being are therefore likely to be distorted by deprivation. Adaptive preferences are
the internalisation of external constraints, including constraints imposed by the lack
of access to appropriate commodities and resources, and they are therefore distinct
from the failure to achieve functionings. They arise from attempts to ameliorate the
frustration generated by the dissonance between ‘what people really prefer and what
they are made to prefer’ (Teschl & Comim, 2005, p. 236) and, as they therefore
constrain individual autonomy, adaptive preferences are a central justification for the
use of the capability approach. The desire to avoid public shame can generate such
adaptations (Nussbaum, 2004, 2006; Watts, 2007; De Herdt, 2008) and here, for
example, lead to dis/abled musicians excluding themselves from the opportunities
(such as they are) to engage with artistic production.
Although there is a distinct literature on adaptive preferences manifest as the ‘sour
grapes’ phenomenon (Elster, 1983; Teschl & Comim, 2005; Watts, 2009) the concern
from a capability perspective is with adaptations engendered by self-abnegation and
the accommodation of reduced circumstances by the lowering of expectations.
Bridges (2006) suggests that all choices are ultimately adaptive and his argument is
supported by Bourdieusian analyses whereby the habitus, acting as a perceptual filter
on the social world, informs the individual’s understanding of what it is ‘reasonable
Identities of dis/ability and music 13

to expect’ (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990, p. 226). However, from a capability perspec-
tive, this requires some refinement. The capability approach diverges from typical
Bourdieusian interpretations of social disadvantage in considering human diversity
ahead of the orthodoxy of social hierarchies. The delimitation of opportunity from the
capability perspective is concerned with what the individual would choose to do if s/
he had the freedom to do it (Sen 1992, 1999; Watts, 2006, 2009; Comim, 2008;
Clark, 2009). Moreover, there is an ethical need to prioritise the adaptations of those
who (with some Bourdieusian overlap) are most disadvantaged and are most likely to
be marked out for shame. Sen describes adaptive preferences as being ‘deeply unfair
to those who are persistently deprived’ such as the broken unemployed, perennially
oppressed minorities and the tamed housewife who ‘come to terms with their depri-
vation because of the sheer necessity of survival’ (1985, p. 11; 1999, pp. 62–63) and
Nussbaum explains that:

People with physical disabilities… want to be respected as equal citizens with options for
diverse forms of choice and functioning in life, comparable to those of other citizens. Nor
can we avoid the problem of adaptive preferences here; so even if people say that depen-
dency is what they prefer, that fact should not stop us from offering alternatives.
(Nussbaum, 2006, p. 189)

This is the nub of the problem with adaptive preferences: that they cause people to
reject that which they believe they cannot have. Utilitarian metrics such as happiness
or desire fulfilment are important to human well-being but they do not necessarily
reflect the substantive freedom an individual has to choose and lead a fulfilling life. If
the life an individual lives is circumscribed by discrimination and repression, she may
become unduly grateful for small mercies and restrict her personal desires to more
modest and realistic proportions (Sen, 1992, p. 55). For example, a dis/abled person
who has always wanted to engage in the creativity of music making may be unable to
do so and, accommodating her musically creative desires with her experiences of dis/
ability, limit her artistic aspirations to merely listening to music and be made happy
by the fulfilment of this significantly more modest aesthetic desire. Such adaptation
may arise from the acceptance of very limited opportunities to make music as well as
from the fear of appearing in public bearing the burden of shame (Nussbaum, 2004)
ascribed by the association of music therapy.
However, as argued above, the freedom to make music can and should be consid-
ered part of the truly human life and these previously adaptive preferences had inhib-
ited the lives of these musicians. This was illustrated throughout the evaluation as the
musicians described their musical aspirations prior to their involvement with the
Project and explained how they had considered such music making to be beyond their
reach: some had simply disparaged it as not worth their while (the sour grapes phenom-
enon) whilst others had resigned themselves to a life without it (self-abnegation). This
is why, when using the capability approach to assess human well-being, it is so impor-
tant to pay heed not only to what a person values but the reason she has to value it.
Although the distinction between the things the individual values doing and being and
those she has reason to value doing and being is not altogether clear in the capability
366 M. Watts and B. Ridley

literature, it seems that there must be both personal value (that is, something valued
on the basis of informed reflection) and ethical value (that is, something valued
because it is constitutive of human flourishing whether it is individually valued or not).
This necessarily requires consideration of what constitutes the ‘good life’ and the
counterfactual consideration of what the individual would do and value if her circum-
stances were different. Sen and Nussbaum offer different interpretations of what
constitutes the good life (and each interpretation has its own problems) and counter-
factual assessments can be highly problematic (Comim, 2008; Watts, 2009). None-
theless, these aspects of adaptive preferences highlight the need to be wary of taking
stated preferences at face value.

A capability perspective of dis/ability and music

Musicianship was something these musicians valued and had reason to value. It
brought them pleasure, introduced them to new and different genres of music,
enabled them to express their creativity and provided them with new learning oppor-
tunities. The music also provided them with opportunities for socialising with
people—both dis/abled and able bodied—who shared common interests. The equip-
ment and tuition allowed the musicians to move beyond their dis/abilities and demon-
strate their musical abilities. Live performance in particular meant that they were just
as likely to make mistakes as able-bodied musicians—and, under these circum-
stances, there could be no special allowance for their dis/abilities. It allowed them to
assert their identities as musicians, and in doing so, challenge the normative percep-
tions of society that place their dis/abilities ahead of their musicianship. Music
making, therefore, was a means of putting their dis/abilities into their proper place
and it gave them the opportunity to create and share something to be judged by its
own criteria rather than with reference to their dis/abilities.
Whilst there must be political, social and analytic provision for those who are dis/
abled from conventional forms of musical participation because of their impairments,
there should not be so great a focus on their dis/abilities that the art and expression
are subsumed by them. There are, though, three significant barriers to this: their
impairments may prevent them from making music with conventional instruments; if
their musicianship is seen to reify their dis/abilities, it can undermine their ethical
claims to lead a truly human life; and these constraints may be internalised so that
they adapt their own preferences. Nonetheless, once these significant concerns are
taken into account, interpersonal comparisons can be made with other musicians,
including able-bodied musicians, to assess the relative freedoms the Drake musicians
have ‘to achieve outcomes that they value and have reason to value’ (Sen, 1999,
p. 291). Well-being assessments that focus on their musicianship rather than their dis/
abilities can then be made (although these assessments cannot overlook their impair-
ments) and, as indicated here, the Drake Music Project had greatly increased the
well-being of these musicians. As one of them poignantly explained:
It’s like without the music I’m just someone in a wheelchair. But the way some people look
at me, I’m not even that. I’m just a wheelchair. That’s why the music is important to me.
Identities of dis/ability and music 15

Yet paradoxically there is a danger that the same instruments that enabled them to
move beyond the social construction of their dis/ability also relocated them within its
confines. Some people, Nussbaum suggests, including those with dis/abilities, ‘are
more marked out for shame than others’ (2004, p. 174) and these musicians marked
their differences every time they used their instruments: using instruments associated
with dis/ability signifies that dis/ability.
Seen thus, and seen in Freak show and Spasticus autisticus, dis/ability becomes a
‘dirty mark’ (Schostak, 1993) staining whatever it touches and generating a quasi-
synæsthetic response in which the aural sensation of the music is subsumed by the
visual sensation of the musician. It would be easy at this point to berate the narrow-
mindedness of the general, and generally able-bodied, public. It would be more
pertinent, though, to ask what chance—what, in the language of capability, substan-
tive freedoms—they have to move beyond the common understanding of music and
dis/ability combining in therapy. As Nussbaum cogently explains ‘any society built on
norms of mutual respect and reciprocity has very strong reasons to consider how the
harmful impact of stigma can be minimized’ (2004, p. 225). Seen thus, the learning
processes of the Drake musicians take on a far greater significance: they are not
only learning to see themselves as musicians but giving other people the chance to see
that, too.

The learning processes here are symbiotic: the Drake musicians wanted to be seen as
musicians who happened to be dis/abled rather than as dis/abled musicians languish-
ing in therapeutic practices; and the cautious acceptance of dis/abled artists by the
wider community requires opportunities to see beyond identities defined by the dirty
marks staining dis/ability with disgust. To enable both to take part in the life of the
wider and more diverse community requires the symbolic removal of the synedochic
wheelchair. The opportunities held out by the Drake Music Project are thus not
merely opportunities for the participants to recreate themselves as musicians but
opportunities for the rest of society to participate in this recreation of identity. The
lack of appropriately adapted musical instruments is therefore not merely a loss to the
musicians but to the audiences they could otherwise reach out to and engage.
Opportunities to enjoy music are a central element of the good life. The specialised
equipment and training offered by the Drake Music Project enhances the substantive
freedoms of the musicians to choose and lead the good life but it also enhances the
well-being of the wider community. It allows others to recognise the fundamental
humanity of the musicians and to perhaps even appreciate their music.
The focus of our original study involved a small cohort of musicians marginalised
by their dis/abilities; and the use of case-based narratives calls attention to the impor-
tance of qualitative studies in the proper identification rather than the presumption
of adaptive preferences (Bonvin & Farvaque, 2005; Watts & Bridges, 2006; Clark,
2009; Watts, 2009). Our particular concern here has been to consider the relationship
between adaptive preferences and the freedom to appear in public without shame but
368 M. Watts and B. Ridley

the musicians’ experiences of moving beyond self-abnegation illuminates the

potential to increase the well-being of other marginalised groups and the significance
of other marginalised curricula. For the Drake musicians, the successful navigation of
public shame that enabled them to challenge their adaptive preferences required
additional resources, including the tutorial support they received. Other studies of
educational adaptations concerned with the notion of public shame—from the
provision of separate and gendered toilets that allow South African girls to attend
school (Unterhalter & Brighouse, 2007) through to initiatives that challenge the
orthodox hierarchies of higher education systems (Walker, 2006; Watts, 2006, 2007,
2009)—highlight the need for greater resourcing.
Moreover, the issue of resourcing is typically significant in non-capability studies
where adaptive preferences and public shame can both be discerned. Odena, for
example, argues that musical provision can challenge adaptations generated by the
public shame of crossing sectarian divides (2010). Looking beyond musical curricula,
any number of studies have been concerned with the additional resources required to
support students lacking cultural capital who would otherwise be shamed into silence
in the classroom. In some instances, such provision may be all that individuals need
to define and redefine their own identities and to challenge the adaptive preferences
inhibiting their well-being. When resources can be used, they have the potential to
not only enable specific functionings (those beings and doings that constitute the
good life) but to increase other capabilities as well: here, the musicians were able to
achieve the specific functioning of making music and this increased the substantive
freedoms they had to appear in public without shame.
Yet making appropriate resources publicly available will not necessarily lead to the
successful challenging of adaptive preferences: and as argued here, the fear of public
shame is a significant factor in the failure to make use of available resources to
enhance capability (Nussbaum, 2000, 2004; Watts, 2007; De Herdt, 2008). These
musicians needed to assume their musical identities free from the scrutiny of a society
that may have re-inscribed their identities as second class citizens before they had the
opportunity, through their musicianship, to transcend their shame-based concerns
and to take part in the life of the community. This has significant implications, partic-
ularly in times of financial crisis and constraint, for the provision of educational
resources and conditions that may be necessary to overcome the sense of shame asso-
ciated with marginalised groups and curricula. It can and should be argued from a
capability perspective that enhancing the well-being of the most disadvantaged
enhances the well-being of all members of society.
The social evaluation of identities can significantly inhibit individual capabilities
through the adaptation of preferences. Terzi notes that the development of capabilities:

entails the promotion of functionings and capabilities pertaining to abilities and knowledge
that enable [individuals] to become participants in dominant social frameworks, while at
the same time promoting reflection on valued goals. (Terzi, 2008, p. 149)

She is writing here in the context of dis/ability but this can be interpreted in
another and broader way to encompass the adaptation of those in the dominant
Identities of dis/ability and music 17

social frameworks who, wittingly or not, engender the fear of shame in those with
dis/abilities as well as those belonging to other marginalised groups or participating
in marginalised curricula. Sen calls for ‘institutions that work to promote our goals
and valuational commitments’ (1999, p. 249) and social arrangements that put
reason before identity (1998, 2005, 2006). Hegemonic ascriptions of identity that
demote the marginalised to second rate citizens can undermine the freedom of more
powerful individuals to participate in a diverse society that values and respects its
members. The appropriate resourcing of marginalised groups and curricula does
not, therefore, simply benefit the direct recipients but enhances the well-being of all
members of the society to which they belong. This is not a naive call to love thy
neighbour but an opportunity to shape and be part of a society that is worth living in.

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