Finding a Career in Music Therapy

Posted by Kaiti Shelton | 07/26/2018 | Education, Employment
A woman plays the clarinet while sitting in front of a sign that says "The University of Dayton."

Music therapy, like blindness, is very misunderstood. As a blind student in a field in which disabled people are just starting to become the helpers rather than solely the recipients of help, I've needed to find my own solutions to many complicated problems.

I received music therapy as an infant as part of my early intervention program. It helped me develop my social skills, enhance my communication abilities, and lay the foundation for an understanding of what it means to be independent.

When I needed service hours in high school, I asked my former music therapist, who is also blind, if she could use a volunteer. She agreed, and I was put to work doing simple tasks like sanitizing instruments and manipulatives, helping children play their instruments, and running errands around the building.

After a year, I announced that I wanted to become a music therapist myself.

My college provided Braille music whenever I needed it, but there were some visual concepts in print music which seemed foreign to me as someone who accessed music in an auditory manner or in a linear fashion when reading Braille music. I needed to teach myself how print music looked in order to speak a common language with my classmates and professors. This struggle would play out in various forms time and time again, from music theory classes which used a complex graphing system, to conducting classes where I spent time with my professor in office hours to learn how a conductor moved when I had never seen one before.

I remember sitting in class one day feeling totally at a loss as a supervisor talked about how important it was to see facial expression to document a client's affect (their presented state of mood). Several people would question me over the years about how I could possibly document someone's affect without being able to see facial expression.

People would also ask in a doubting way how I planned to work with clients who can't use spoken language, or expressed concerns over my ability to keep clients safe. Questions were also raised about how I would manage groups and accurately observe all my clients.

Of course, this had an impact on how I saw myself as a blind person. I was set on pursuing this career, but I had very little support in finding solutions to problems.

I reached out to my mentor, my childhood music therapist, but she was trained in a time when some of the requirements I had to meet were not as specific or stringent. I then dove into the research and found one article written by a blind music therapist, but it was ten years old. I didn't know of any other students or professionals I could talk to who would understand. I truly felt like I was the only one in my situation.

I vacillated between thinking I was in a unique situation to spark change, and feeling discouraged and doubtful of my abilities.

Thankfully, during my internship, my supervisors expected me to learn to function independently, and were supportive of my trial and error approach to testing solutions to find what worked best for me. They were happy to brainstorm with me and would hold me to task when they felt it was time for me to lead without their support.

Two women look over a group of children holding drums in an outdoor setting.I learned to lead groups of preschoolers with energy, care, and a spirit of fun. I documented affect by using the client's posture and auditory cues. I worked with clients who were nonverbal or minimally verbal, and by being keenly aware of my visual aids, I was able to use pictures to help them communicate.

I learned to be vigilant of safety concerns and intervene quickly when I saw a potentially harmful situation. I also found tricks and devices which help me work more effectively, such as a vibrating pocket watch I hang on my lanyard, and an accessible documentation form I created myself.

I also became very passionate about helping other blind music therapy students find accommodations which worked for them. 

Blind people and those with other disabilities deserve our care as clients just as much as they deserve support when they want to be the providers. If they can meet the requirements with reasonable accommodations for their disability, they deserve a seat at the table, too.

My experiences have taught me about the harm of internalizing negative messages about the capabilities of blind people, but they have also taught me a lot about resiliency, self-care, advocacy, determination, and dedication to personal goals.

Today, I have secured employment at a facility which serves adults and children with developmental disabilities in Indiana. Upon passing my certification exam, I can start working at a fantastic place which has expressed support and acceptance towards me ever since I applied. Words can't describe how empowering this feels.

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