Creative freedom

Research helps children with disabilities express themselves through music

Date published: 2010-05-17 12:00:00 PM

An international research partnership at the University of Guelph is helping children with severe mental and physical disabilities make music for the very first time.

Using webcam technology that translates movement into music, researchers are helping children with disabilities become more independent and increase their ability to communicate through musical improvisation.

“Making music is a creative outlet,” says University of Guelph music professor Ellen Waterman. “And for the first time in their lives, children who can’t speak and who can barely move are making their own choices, enabled by this technology.”

Originated by US team member Pauline Oliveros, the project focuses on “adaptive-use” musical instruments—computer software available for free from the Deep Listening Institute.

With partners at universities across the US and Canada as well as community organizations serving people with disabilities, the team is documenting the therapeutic benefits of the software in the children’s lives. They have, for example, already seen children whose muscles tend to “lock” become more relaxed and gain greater movement of their limbs while using the software.

“This technology allows us to see beyond the disabilities—to define the child by her ability to express herself creatively and emotionally, and to engage with others socially,” explains Waterman. “Improvisation allows her to exercise ‘real time’ judgement, take risks, make choices, collaborate.”

On April 21, 2010, the team held an open house in Poughkeepsie, New York with 30 children improvising together to showcase the software. The team plans to develop a user manual for therapists, teachers and parents in the near future, as well as to adapt the software for children who are visually or hearing impaired.