How Music is Taking the “Dis” Out of Disability


They say that music is the universal language, and maybe that’s because it has a beautiful habit of speaking to everyone in their own unique way. Inside the classes for people with disabilities at Daniel’s Music Foundation, educators channel students’ relationships with music into positive ways to express themselves while teaching them valuable skills.   

“The goal for me in working with someone with a disability is helping them to realize their abilities and strengths,” says Elena Savvides, an instructor with Daniel’s Music Foundation who leads group classes, field trips, and private lessons for people with a wide range of disabilities.

“It’s taking the ‘dis’ away from disability and highlighting what they can do while giving them a positive experience, and making them feel good when they’re making music,” she says.

Day-to-day, Elena adapts lessons based on her students’ verbal ability, and whether or not they are able to maintain a beat. Just like all human beings, she says, it’s important to keep in mind that people with disabilities are all distinct individuals with different needs. In this light, her ways of approaching students with music are always one-of-a-kind.

“A lot of it is based around creative self-expression and exploring their world through music,” she says. “It’s giving them that chance to communicate in ways that are safe, fun, joyful, and easy for them to understand.”

Though no two classes are ever the same, a session at DMF will typically include a shaker activity where Elena encourages each student to incorporate their own way to shake the instrument before presenting it to their fellow classmates. Not only does this facilitate creative exploration and thinking skills, she explains, it also helps students learn the concept of turn-taking.

Many classes also include a dance performance piece where students can learn moves like the “Whip and Nae Nae” or the “Macarena.” This marriage of music and movement can increase coordination and memory, because students are asked to recall the dances they have learned later.      

Elena also provides the opportunity for her students to sing a song they like during class on the microphone, encouraging peers to say something nice about a fellow performer afterwards.  

“That really helps the creative self-expression piece, working together as a team to create music and supporting each other,” she says. “Using music and performance is very important for helping them improve their sense of accomplishment and positive self-esteem.”

Elena notices that when students first enter DMF, many of them are shy, withdrawn, and unable to speak or express themselves. To her delight, when the same students leave the center four to six weeks later, they depart sporting smiles and stronger body language.

“We’ve had some students here who have never said words before, and they’ll come into class and start singing full songs that they love,” says Elena. “By the end, they’re completely different people because they’re letting down their walls and breaking out of their shells by just exploring or enjoying music.”