Who am I?

From the day I was born, identity has always been an important concept in my life. I was born last of five children to the family doctor of a small town; everybody knew who I was and had 6 people to whom they could compare me. Being known as myself was very important to me. When I would play sports, I was compared to my brother; when I did 4-H, I was compared to my 3 sisters who were teen leaders. My main definer to my identity has always been music; I started with piano, then violin, French horn, guitar, ukulele, melophone and then trumpet. My identity had even saved my life, for I crashed into a bus when I was seventeen, and the muscles I developed from practicing horn for my college auditions protected my skull from damage further than the traumatic brain injury I had sustained. When I entered university, I came out as transgender. It was a piece of myself I always felt I had to keep hidden, but in this foreign environment, I felt comfortable being myself.

 

Though I’ve felt happier and more like myself, it can be rather stressful. Society has expectations for what it means to be one gender or another; how one should act, how one should dress, what struggles one has, etc. The struggles of gender, or more so lack there of, has become one of the most defining qualities of gender, as the barriers among the other qualities are falling, slowly but surely. A couple weeks ago, I had been cat called for the first time by a group of drunk frat guys who were driving home. For a moment I was tickled, this is something that generally doesn’t happen to guys, thus reaffirming that in the late night, from behind I pass. The next moment it set in that this was harassment, the part of the gender that even the cis community doesn’t desire.

 

Identity is important, as it is what defines. Alongside my partner, Taylor, I will be researching the LEC in Milledgeville, GA. This center is for those with intellectual disabilities, using programs which encompass the arts, athletics, and horticulture. This program takes the identity established by the disability, and shifts it to focus on the activities in which the participants share.

First Experiences

The activity the we always took part in was the Thursday morning singalong. During this, we all gather into a large room, and we follow a leader as we sing through the morning. We open with a good morning song that goes into a song similar to If You’re Happy and You Know It but in this version, each person can express how they feel and they choose their own dance move as a way of expressing their self. During the opening song, percussion instruments, ie bells and shakers, are passed out allowing for instrumental participation on top of the vocal participation. Throughout the session, the participants select what songs we perform, giving them control over the session. At the end of the session, we sing a goodbye song, and head out for the next of our day.

 

The most important value in this environment, in my opinion, is control, more specifically returning the control to the participants. In the session, the participants have full control over the selection of music, as opposed to the leaders of the organization. In the world of disabilities, physical and psychological, one loses a certain amount of control, be it due to their capabilities or to peoples’ expectations. Those with any sort of psychological/neurological disabilities generally tend to be more restricted by society, for society still lacks much of understanding of the brain; this freedom to decide how the session will be run is important as it is a freedom which is seldom available.

Sleigh Bells and Shakers

These instruments are instruments that I feel to be misunderstood. We give them to children because it’s easy to make a sound with them, keeping the child occupied and entertained for hours on end; this quality and choice of usage give them the classification of children’s instruments/toys, but even outside the music therapy field, these instruments have an important power and require a fair amount of skill to play well. Unlike most percussion instruments, you don’t have a stable/stationary aspect in the shakers and bells; the motion of your hand controls one aspect while the other aspect reacts independently to that action. In playing these instruments, one has to understand how the inside will move and react in order to consistently generate the desired sound, as they can produce multiple colors and timbres of sound.

 

In the same way people with disabilities, physical and psychological, tend to be looked at as though they are helpless, similar to how we see children. One way we do this is by “helping” with different tasks, but often we don’t offer help so much as impose our help, taking the action we think the person needs us to take, as opposed to the action the person would like us to take. Sometimes the action is good and necessary, but at other points it’s a task that the person can and would like to do on their own. As people we establish our identities by what we can do; if we can’t do anything on our own, then what is our identity. We look at people with disabilities as helpless, so we try to help them; we help them, so we see them as incapable of this task and thus helpless; it is an endless circle. Just like with shakers and bells, we establish a single idea of what people with disabilities can do, but there is so much that can be accomplished, regardless of the person’s disability, that goes unseen because of how we act upon our preconceived notions.

“We are more alike than different.”

The Motto of the LEC is “we are more alike than different,” and I believe the group setting in which the LEC opens shows that well. The morning sing-alongs are composed of a large group of people, each with their own struggles and strengths. They each have their own disabilities, but when you enter the room the disabilities aren’t quite so clear. There are several people within the group who don’t have a disability, but they aren’t easy to pick out of the group due to the similarities that makeup society regardless of our differences.

 

Throughout history, society has felt that it needed to emphasize and isolate differences, thus removing them from society. This trait can likely be traced through evolution as a survival mechanism, for differences can be dangerous, but as the LEC likes to point out, those differences carry little weight. If we step back and look at each other as a whole, we will see numerous similarities which stand outside of those traits we isolate, showing us that the isolation lacks the necessity we once thought and that we should instead connect over our similarities to then learn from these differences.

Carnival Games

I feel the milk bottle pyramids at a carnival are a metaphor for the LEC. The way the bottles stand after the ball’s been thrown often looks impossible, as though the remaining bottles should have tumbled; when one peers into the science of it, of course it makes sense, but from the outside it’s very difficult to understand. Developmental disabilities are similar, as we become so dependent on our own manner of functioning, we struggle to comprehend any other manner, so we refer to those differences as disabilities. In the same way that we don’t understand the standing of the milk bottles, we don’t understand disabilities, and we do need to realize that just because we don’t understand how one functions doesn’t mean that they don’t function.

A Closer Look

Vinyl records represent the LEC well. When you look at a record, it appears to be rather simple, just a black disk with a little artwork and writing at the center. If you were to take the time to look closer you see a little bit of detail; it has lines carved in it apparently, and based on the way the light reflects off those lines, it isn’t uniform. Still the complexity of the record has yet to be understood, and won’t be until it is played. The LEC is the place that plays the metaphorical LPs of those with disabilities. Where society discourages those with any developmental disabilities, the LEC encourages. Society looks at disabilities as though it were looking at a record from a distance; we see the disability at face value and move on, as opposed to looking closer and seeing the person underneath. At the LEC people with disabilities are given focus on themselves, as opposed to their disability, and encouraged to express themselves through that which speaks best to them. The LEC takes the time to understand its participants and enriches their lives through that understanding.

Preconceived Notions

Board games remind me of the society within the LEC. When I suggest a board game, what comes to your mind? Monopoly, no? Maybe Trivial Pursuit or The Game of Life? There are many people with negative opinions on board games because these are all they’ve been exposed to. I’m part of the board game club at GCSU, and though we do have a couple copies of those games, they make up a very small portion of our 200 games. There’s so much to board games that people don’t understand because they’ve had such little exposure to them. Because of their minimal exposure, many people avoid board games, fueling their ignorance and thus creating a never-ending cycle. Developmental disabilities follow suit; people received a small amount exposure to said disabilities and thought they understood everything. With that understanding, they rejected those with developmental disabilities to the extent that through a large portion of the 20th century they were imprisoned for their disabilities. Though we are beginning to understand these disabilities, as a society we refuse to relinquish our preconceived notions for exposure to new knowledge. Our ignorance can be our worst disability as it inhibits our willingness to change.

Still Not Giving Up

This song, as the name shows, is about perseverance. The character who is singing, Steven, has been told of his destiny to save the world from undefeatable aliens, and he, as anyone would expect, feels no confidence whatsoever; he is a child who doesn’t like fighting and has been protected by his family his entire life. Still, though he is in total terror and has had struggles throughout his quest, he continues to fight for what he believes in because that is who he is, a protector.

 

We’ve had some good times and some pretty bad luck
But we’re still in this together and we’re still not giving up

In the same vein as Steven Universe, the theme of the LEC is perseverance. Those who come to the LEC combat their disabilities daily. The disabilities make life difficult with endless struggles, but they don’t let the struggles stop them; they continue through their day with joy, for their struggles do not define them. They come to the LEC and create a wide variety of art, music, and gardening; they put their work on display for the world. When one faces struggle, they can either surrender and allow it to overtake them, or they can move on, regardless of the struggle or embracing it.