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How an elite music school is increasing access for students with disabilities


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: In a series of reports, Jeffrey Brown has looked at the intersection of arts and health.

Recently, he traveled to Boston to see a program bringing music into the lives of people with disabilities. It's for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Eleven-year-old Ashton Kiprotich on the cello and the ukulele.

Ashton, I saw you play the ukulele and I saw you play the cello. Which is your favorite?

Ashton Kiprotich, Student: Both of them.

Jeffrey Brown: Both of them?

Ashton Kiprotich: I would never say that I dislike them.

Jeffrey Brown: Twenty-four-year-old Shania Ward on the keytar, her mother, Donna Gibbons-Ward, watching.

Every time I see you performing, you're smiling.

Shania Ward, Student: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: You have a beautiful smile.

Shania Ward: Thank you.

Jeffrey Brown: Why are you smiling so much? Are you happy with the music?

Shania Ward: Yes, I'm happy with the music.

Donna Gibbons-Ward, Mother of Shania Ward: Yes, music is her thing.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Donna Gibbons-Ward: She listens to it all the time, yes?

Jeffrey Brown: Why do you think music became her thing?

Donna Gibbons-Ward: I think it helped her to…

Shania Ward: Helped me to learn.

Jeffrey Brown: Music for learning, for connecting, for sheer joy.

Shania and Ashton are students at the Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education, part of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Founded in 2007, it started small with a focus on autism, but has expanded to serve more than 300 people of all ages with disabilities of all kinds.

Dr. Rhoda Bernard, Founding Manager Director, Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education: Every person can learn in the arts, can grow in the arts, can create, can, in this case, make music. So I think you have to start with that belief.

Jeffrey Brown: Rhoda Bernard heads the institute, which she says is the only such program offered at a college or university.

The goal, to develop and share new ways to reach and teach this community, while expanding the field of arts education.

Dr. Rhoda Bernard: Arts educators are generally trained to teach the way they were taught. There are longstanding traditions in how the arts have been taught, and those…

Jeffrey Brown: Meaning what? I mean…

Dr. Rhoda Bernard: Like the conservatory tradition of what a private lesson looks like. Often, the arts can be more of a teacher-centered kind of approach, where the teacher is showing what they want, and the students are responding.

And to make it more accessible means providing more entry points, providing students with more ways to engage with material and more ways to show what they know and are able to do than just the conventional.

Jeffrey Brown: That means meeting the individuals where they are, incorporating aspects of special education into teaching music and the arts, in private lessons and also in group settings.

The institute holds a wide variety of classes every Saturday, including many ways to play together, rock band, chorus, an iPad ensemble, and more. There's also a two-week summer camp.

Dr. Rhoda Bernard: We're creating a place where they're accepted for who they are, where they belong, a place of yes. These are folks who hear a lot of no. This is a place where it's, yes, you can.

So there's a constant asset-based belief in all of the students, who hear so much deficit language. So, that's the first, but then…

Jeffrey Brown: That goes to who they are and how they're accepted in the world.

Dr. Rhoda Bernard: Absolutely, and creating that environment and then providing them with what they need and watching them flourish.

Jeffrey Brown: Ashton Kiprotich, diagnosed with autism when he was nearly 2 years old, didn't speak until he was 7. He still has difficulty processing thoughts into speech.

But, here, his mother, Kelly Phillips says, teachers like Miles Wilcox really get it, offering love and patience, as well as training in how to hold a bow. And music somehow brings out something different in her son.

Kelly Phillips, Mother of Ashton Kiprotich: Still, he struggles with processing, auditory processing disorder.

And so it's really — there's a lot of delay in getting answers from him. So we still see that. With music, I don't see that happen at all. It's just there. He is very spontaneous. He plays in different keys. He will sit down and play something he's heard that he's never seen the music for.

Jeffrey Brown: Did that surprise you?

Kelly Phillips: Very much.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Kelly Phillips: I have to say school has not really been easy. Language acquisition has been exceptionally difficult. But then you see, in music, he will sit down and be part of an ensemble, knows where to come in, knows — timing-wise, knows it all. And it's a little baffling to me when you compare those two things.

Jeffrey Brown: Ashton, does music — is music easy for you, easier than other things?

Ashton Kiprotich: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Why do you think? Why can you play music so well?

Ashton Kiprotich: Because I can.

Jeffrey Brown: Shania Ward, diagnosed with mild intellectual delay, also takes full advantage here, singing in the rock band, taking lessons with her teacher, Nadia Castagna Morin.

Shania's mother, Donna Gibbons-Ward, says the institute has given her daughter greater confidence and autonomy.

Donna Gibbons-Ward: I wanted her to be among her peers and for her to be free, and for her to also gain — she loves music. So, being here, you're free.

Jeffrey Brown: You mean free in a way that she's not as free in the rest of the world?

Donna Gibbons-Ward: So, you know how society always judges us and looks down on people, and other kids point fingers and laugh at you when you're different.

Here, you can be free. That's what I mean by free. You can be yourself and just express yourself however you want. And that makes her happy with the music, so she's happy.

Shania Ward: Music always makes me feel happy. Sometimes, like, when I feel like I'm upset or, like, getting mad or frustrated, I usually listen to music. I always, like, take a break and listen to music and calm myself down, put my headphones on.

And then I listen to it. And then, in here, I definitely like to learn music. I definitely — I listen to my music teachers.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Shania, who's about to enter a specialized college program, wants to be a music teacher herself.

Why is that important for you?

Shania Ward: Because I want to be a teacher to help younger kids and older kids learn how to be smart and be like me.

Jeffrey Brown: A big part of the mission here, says Rhoda Bernard, is training a new generation of arts educators in accessibility practices.

In addition to offering a master's program, she and her team run professional development training programs around the world. But it remains a work in progress.

If this is so obvious, as it is to you, why isn't it everywhere?

Dr. Rhoda Bernard: I think it's taken the education profession, and particularly the arts education field, a long time to understand the wide range of difference in how people learn, in what people bring into the classroom.

And then, because there are established frameworks that don't allow for that, there's a struggle. And we're in that struggle now. And it's moving. Even in the 20 years or so that I have been doing this work, I have seen a lot of movement. And I'm really excited for what the next generation is going to bring.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education in Boston.

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