Braille Monitor                          February 2019

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Improvising Independence: Finding My Own Solutions for a Career in Music Therapy

by Kaiti Shelton

Kaiti Shelton smiles as she plays her guitar.]From the Editor: Kaiti Shelton is a remarkable young professional who believes in what she does. She has been the beneficiary of music therapy, has worked with a blind role model, has experienced the roadblocks put in her way by professors who didn’t think she could perform in the field, and has demonstrated that, when toughness and creativity and thinking out of the box were required, she had what it took to persevere. She now shares her gift with others who can benefit from music therapy, and we are blessed that she is also sharing who she is and what she does with us. Here is what she has to say:

Music therapy is an evidenced-based, allied health profession in which highly trained and certified professionals use musical interventions to accomplish individualized therapeutic goals. Established in the 1940s, it has aided in the promotion, restoration, or maintenance of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health for countless clients from premature babies to nursing home residents and those receiving hospice care. Yet music therapy, like blindness, is still very misunderstood. In my experiences as a blind music student, I have seen misconceptions about my chosen career and misinformation about blindness combine. In a field in which disabled people are just recently starting to become the helpers in numbers rather than solely be the recipients of help, I’ve needed to find my own solutions to many complicated problems.

I received music therapy services as an infant as part of my early intervention program. My music therapist, who was totally blind herself, helped develop my social skills, enhance my communication abilities, and lay the foundation for an understanding of what it means to be independent. Music therapy was also a positive experience for my parents, because it was beneficial for them to see that a blind adult could be independent and successfully employed while I was still young.

When I needed service hours to maintain my high school student council membership, I asked my former music therapist if she could use a volunteer on Saturdays. She agreed, and I was put to work doing simple tasks like sanitizing instruments and manipulatives, helping the children to play their instruments, and running simple errands around the building. After a year, I announced to her and another music therapist there that I wanted to become a music therapist myself. Both of them served as my mentors as I finished high school and began my undergraduate studies.

My college years were a crash course in learning to quickly identify barriers and create solutions for them. It became apparent very early on in my sophomore year that I would need to work harder than my sighted classmates to access visual information. My college provided Braille music whenever I needed or asked for it, but there were some visual concepts in print music which just seemed so foreign to me as someone who accessed music in an auditory manner or in a linear fashion when reading Braille music. The struggle of interpreting and understanding music using different spatial concepts from anyone else in my classes would play out in various forms time and time again, from music theory classes which used a complex graphing system, to conversations in which I failed to understand what was being said because I didn’t know what print music notation looked like, to my conducting classes in which I spent time with my professor in office hours to learn how a conductor moved when I had never seen one before.

Similarly, in music therapy I heard a variety of questions from professionals, fellow students from different schools, and occasionally supervisors because I was often the only one who would need to do things differently. 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, usually described as bright or flat). Several people would question me over the years about how I could possibly document someone’s affect without being able to see facial expression. In other cases, people would 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. Many questions were raised about how I would manage groups and accurately observe all my clients. I was concerned about learning to do all these things independently, which I didn’t have much of an opportunity to practice in college when all students worked in groups or as partners for most practicum courses.

Of course, this had an effect on how I saw myself as a blind person. I was set on pursuing this career, but I felt I had very little support in finding solutions to problems. I reached out to my mentor a few times, but she was trained in a time when some of the requirements I had to meet were not as specific or stringent. I dove into the research literature and found one article written by a blind music therapist, but when I found it the article was ten years old, and the ideas provided therein didn’t address my specific challenges. The author of that article had set up a listserv for blind music therapists, but by the time I found it the listserv had lost traction. Sometimes I would leave meetings with professors feeling frustrated because neither of us knew what to do to solve an access problem. I didn’t know of any other students or young professionals I could talk to who would understand my specific challenges. I vacillated between thinking I was in a unique position to spark change and feeling discouraged and doubtful about my abilities. I knew that to effect change I needed to become a professional first, and I wasn’t sure if I could find all the solutions I needed by myself. My close friends saw the effects on my mental health as I internalized messages that I was unable to pursue the career I wanted, that I would always be judged as less capable compared to my sighted colleagues, and that there were many elements of a field dedicated to serving disabled people which were so inaccessible to someone like me.

During my internship I was tested in ways in which I had never been tested before. My supervisors expected me to learn to function independently and were supportive of my trial-and-error approach to find the strategies which 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. I learned to lead groups of preschoolers with energy, care, and a spirit of fun at 9:00 on a Monday morning. I documented affect by using the client’s posture and auditory cues such as tone of voice or their vocalizations. I worked with quite a few 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 their wants and needs. I learned to be vigilant about safety concerns and intervene quickly when I saw a potentially harmful situation. I also found tricks and devices which help me to work more effectively, such as a vibrating pocket watch I hang on my lanyard and an accessible documentation form I created myself. I was thankful for the time I spent in my internship, finding what methods, techniques, and strategies were most effective for me.

Because music therapy is not well understood and is not a common career choice, young college students rarely know all the requirements and tasks they will be asked to complete in their curriculum. There was no way for me to prepare in advance for the specific challenges I would encounter in my major. No one on my IEP team ever considered that the advocacy strategies they were teaching me to use in my liberal arts classes would not be effective in my music classes, and as I headed off to college, my teachers, family, and I thought I had been very well prepared to advocate for my needs. Professors would look to me to tell them what I needed to be successful, and while I had answers ready for professors who taught lectures and labs, I had no immediate ideas when it came to the classes for my major. Another problem was that none of the accommodations I qualified for applied to experiential learning situations. On paper it appeared that I had been given everything most students would need to be successful, but extended time on exams and approval to use assistive technology weren’t applicable to my practicum sessions and offered no guidance to me or my supervisors when I needed to find alternative techniques. Had my professors not been willing to work with me to find reasonable accommodations for my practicum courses, I may not have completed my degree. I know of a few students who were turned away from music therapy because their professors didn’t think it was possible for a blind person to be a competent professional. 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, and if they can meet the requirements with reasonable accommodations for their disability, they deserve a seat at the table, too.

Today, I have secured employment at a facility which serves adults and children with developmental disabilities in Indiana. This facility has been accepting and supportive of me ever since I applied, and I am looking forward to serving alongside the talented board-certified music therapists and other professionals there. Words can’t describe how empowering this feels. However, I know I would never have found myself in this situation had I given in to negative perceptions of my capabilities.

My experiences have taught me much 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. They have also further invigorated my quest to help others who are being discouraged or turned away from my field due to negative attitudes or false information about blindness. I hope to publish my own articles and present at conferences to demonstrate that blind people are capable of being professionals with a lot to offer to clients, colleagues, and our understandings of disability and music therapy. I am continuing to rebuild my self-confidence and am thankful for being reminded by the National Federation of the Blind that negative attitudes and stereotypes, not my blindness, are the true barriers between me and the life I want to live.

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