Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music

Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music

Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music

Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music

Synopsis

Approaching disability as a cultural construction rather than a medical pathology, this book studies the impact of disability and concepts of disability on composers, performers, and listeners with disabilities, as well as on discourse about music and works of music themselves. For composers with disabilities - like Beethoven, Delius, and Schumann - awareness of the disability sharply inflects critical reception. For performers with disabilities - such as Itzhak Perlman and Evelyn Glennie - the performance of disability and the performance of music are deeply intertwined.For listeners with disabilities, extraordinary bodies and minds may give rise to new ways of making sense of music. In the stories that people tell about music, and in the stories that music itself tells, disability has long played a central but unrecognized role. Some of these stories are narratives of overcoming - the triumph of the human spirit over adversity - but others are more nuanced tales ofaccommodation and acceptance of life with a non-normative body or mind. In all of these ways, music both reflects and constructs disability.

Excerpt

Disability is a pervasive and permanent aspect of the human condition: most of us have been, are now, or (as we age) will be people with disabilities. Disability may at first appear inescapably, solidly real—a medically, scientifically, biologically verifiable defect in mind or body. But despite its undeniable material reality, disability is also shaped and given meaning by culture. Attitudes toward disability vary with time and place and so, therefore, does the lived reality of disability. Even the sorts of conditions that are considered disabilities change with time and place. This is particularly evident in the psychiatric or cognitive domain. Some disabilities that were once felt as entirely real exist no longer (e.g., hysteria, neurasthenia, fugue, or nostalgia—all once legitimate medical diagnoses), whereas others that never existed before as distinct entities now seem all too pervasively real (e.g., attention deficit disorder or autism). Even in the physical realm, disabilities come and go, partly under the influence of medical science and partly under the influence of culture (e.g., anorexia, erectile dysfunction, or obesity, now often discussed as a

1. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Using a closely related definition, the U.S. Census of 2000 identifies approximately 50 million Americans over the age of 5 (more than 15% of the population) as people with disabilities. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines an “impairment” as “any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function” and a “disability” as “any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or with the range considered normal for a human being.” Under this definition, the WHO estimated in 1980 that 6–7 percent of the world’s population (roughly 245 million people) is disabled. Both the ADA and WHO definitions are primarily functional—people are understood as disabled if they are unable to do certain things. Neither definition is concerned with the origin of the disability, which may be congenital or acquired through trauma, disease, or in any other way.

2. See Hacking (1998, 8) for a penetrating discussion of “transient mental illnesses,” especially “fugue” (i.e., “undertaking strange and unexpected trips, often in states of obscured consciousness”).

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