Playing Music with Disabilities


September, 2019
AUTHOR: Cassie Wilson
Category: Interviews

The Half Access mission is to make live music more accessible, and in most of our recent work we’ve focused on the experience of disabled fans attending shows. There’s another huge part of venue accessibility, which is making sure that disabled musicians can access venues. But, before playing shows comes learning an instrument, which can often look different for disabled musicians. I got the chance to interview a few disabled musicians to share their experiences with adapting how they learn and play their instruments in a way that works with their disabilities.

Representation Matters

There’s a lack of representation of disabled folks in music, although that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Often, there are musicians with invisible disabilities (meaning there are no visual cues that they’re disabled) who aren’t vocal about what they go through in order to play music (no one’s obligated to publicly talk about their health), so it feels like there are fewer disabled musicians than there really are. Then there’s the issue of wheelchair users and many others being unable to access venues whether it’s entering the space or being able to get on stages, many of which can only be accessed via stairs.

It’s hard to want to try to play music if you can’t picture yourself doing it because you’ve never seen or heard about anyone like you doing it. It’s even harder when you know that you aren’t able to play instruments the same way that abled folks can. That’s why representation is so important and why the experiences of disabled musicians need to be shared and heard.

Thankfully, people are great at adapting. We adapt when we get hurt or sick, left-handed people are constantly adapting in a right-handed world, and disabled people make adaptations every day with things that aren’t fully accessible to them. Technology and other creative inventions also help.

Two well-known examples of disabled musicians adapting how they play their instruments are Rick Allen, drummer of Def Leppard, and Andrew Tkaczyk, drummer of The Ghost Inside. Allen lost his left arm in an accident but was able to continue drumming partially through the help of an electronic kit. Tkaczyk lost his right leg in an accident and his dad built ‘The Hammer’ for easier use of his kick drum pedal.

For other disabled folks, the instrument can stay mostly the same, but how it’s played changes.

My Experience

I always assumed I couldn’t play guitar. I have a dwarfism, so my arms are short and in my case I also can’t twist my arms to where the palms of my hands are facing upwards. I still really wanted to play, so I got a ukulele and played it overhanded (which also made holding it up extremely difficult for a strapless instrument), but as someone who listens to a lot of guitar-driven music, the ukulele just wasn’t doing it for me. Then my friend (and fellow Half Access board member Nova Akins) let me try out a slightly shorter-scale and lighter-weight guitar that her family hadn’t used in years. I realized I could play guitar after all. Playing overhanded means that I can’t play barre chords because I’d have to barre the strings with my pinky which is not strong enough for that and can’t cross all six strings, but that hasn’t stopped me from figuring out chords I can play and getting just as much of a great experience out of learning and playing.

Cassie Wilson showing how she plays guitar overhanded.

Sarah Cowell

Sarah Cowell (she/her or they/them) from For Everest and Tall Child has fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, and an undiagnosed muscle spasm disorder. In their solo project Tall Child, they play sitting down, with a lighter, short-scale bass. Sitting allows them to focus on their vocal performance instead of on pain like when they used to stand to perform in For Everest.

“Now, my sets are just me, and my stage plot includes a photo of me sitting in a chair,” said Cowell. “I won’t play without one. I’ve gone too long being proud and it’s dumb. I need to sit. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Dorian McDonnell

After playing music for nine to ten years off and on, Dorian McDonnell has learned the ins and outs of adapting playing based on her disabilities. Her primary conditions that affect her playing are Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and fibromyalgia.

“Because of my slippery joints from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, I struggle with some chords on the guitar, mainly barre chords,” McDonnell said. “I struggle sitting at the piano for long periods of time and standing while playing either puts a lot of physical stress on my body. I also can’t play either one at tempos over 90-ish bpm without dislocating my finger joints or having a subluxation. Guitar straps tend to bother my neck and shoulder, especially since they tend to lay right across a pinched nerve in my shoulder.”

To not let anything stop her from doing what she loves, she plays alternate chords on the piano, alternate tunings on the guitar, has had the string action lowered on her guitar to make chords easier to play, and has found that wider guitar straps are better. She also sings and found out that vocal exercises are good for her EDS.

“I use a lot of effects on guitar and keyboard to compensate for having to play at slower tempos,” McDonnell said. “I’ll add echo/reverb type effects mostly. I find that it forces me to be more creative with songwriting as well and has forced me to branch out of my comfort zones with that.”

Technology also gives McDonnell a lot of power to pursue her creative ideas.

“I also have no shame in using Logic Pro X (a music production software for Mac) to help with my music,” she said. “If I really need keyboard at a fast tempo, I’ll use a music notation site, Noteflight, to write the music how I want it to sound and export it into Logic and play with the effects sometimes.”

For disabled folks interested in learning to play music, McDonnel shared some advice.

“Never be afraid to ask for help, you may be surprised how many people with your disability play the same instrument and have useful advice for you. Don’t be afraid to use technology as an aid. Look for different gadgets that might make playing easier. Try to see value in how it can force you to think more creatively to find solutions to overcome obstacles.”

Gaelynn Lea

If you’re a fan of Tiny Desk Concerts, then you’ve likely watched Gaelynn Lea perform. A violinist and singer from Duluth, MN, she was the winner of the 2016 Tiny Desk Contest. She also has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also known as “Brittle Bone Disease,” which affects how she can play.

“My arms and legs are shorter, and so I play my violin upright in my wheelchair like a tiny cello and I hold my bow like an upright bass player,” Lea said. “I use a shorter, half-size bow. I can’t use my pinky finger well because of the angle of my hand, so I just play with three fingers on the fingerboard instead of four.”

When an orchestra visited her school, Lea loved the sound of the strings and decided she wanted to play in orchestra the next year in fifth grade. 

“Instead of turning me away or redirecting me to choir, she decided to help me adapt the way I play,” Lea said. “It really wasn’t harder or easier to learn once we found a way for me to hold the instrument, because it’s the only way I’ve ever done it, and I was lucky to have supportive teachers all the way through high school that helped me adapt when necessary.”

Lea’s been playing for 25 years and, along the way, has occasionally had calls from music teachers across the country wanting to support students with limb differences. She has even met another musician who plays like she does.

“I want every kid to know that it’s OK to have a different body or mind than other people,” Lea said. “I think it’s really important that we include disability in our thinking of diversity. Rather than pity or fear it, we should celebrate it in our culture. Creating music in our own unique ways is part of this celebration. If I didn’t have a disability, I know I wouldn’t have written the songs I write, because I wouldn’t be me.”

Gaelynn Lea performing.

Photo by Richard Carter


It’s important to note that this post only includes a few different types of disabilites, and there are so many more that also need representation. Deaf people can play music. Blind people can play music. Anyone can play music.

As a community, we need to work together to make all aspects of live music accessible, so that we can see more disabled musicians on stage. Representation can inspire future disabled artists and help make live music more diverse and inclusive.

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