A musical instrument for people with disabilities

Is it possible to create a musical instrument for people with multiple disabilities? Can it help them connect with their environment? Tjerk Dijkstra, lecturer & researcher in Creative Technology at NHL Stenden, conducted research on it. He did so on behalf of Embrace Netherlands for his Master’s degree in Health Innovation.

What attracted you to this assignment from Embrace?
After completing my studies in Communication and Multimedia Design, I worked as a programmer for a few years. But just programming gave me too little satisfaction. I wanted to develop applications that really help people. That’s why this Embrace project attracted me. I have no experience in healthcare and with this target group. So the research process was also sometimes a (personal) discovery process for me.

How important is music to people with multiple disabilities?
People need to connect with each other, to connect and interact. People with multiple disabilities also have this need, but the limitations often make it difficult. Music can help with that. In healthcare, it has now become an everyday tool. Listening to music can be very calming. And a song while brushing your teeth can help connect.

How can a musical instrument help people with multiple disabilities do this?
Perhaps you know it from your own experience: making music together creates a sense of connection. It goes a step beyond listening to music together. Currently, a person with multiple disabilities does not have the ability to play a musical instrument independently. Our musical instruments are too complicated for that. Hence the idea to design a musical instrument especially for people with disabilities. Embrace asked me to do this for Jostein and Richard, two boys with severe disabilities.

Can you tell a little more about them?
Jostein (24) is enthusiastic and agile; he is both mentally and physically limited and is in a wheelchair. Jostein can communicate with facial expressions or making sounds. Richard (34), is a somewhat older, quiet young man. His mental age is around that of a toddler (1-2 years). Richard is blind and bound to a wheelchair. You understand that designing for this target group is a special challenge. For example, I couldn’t ask them what they liked or what music they liked or liked.

How did you handle that?
To get to know Jostein and Richard better, I attended several sessions with music therapist Remi Adriaansz. I also walked through a “day in their lives” at the institution Us Dream, where Richard and Jostein live. Based on my findings, I made a prototype, which we experimented with. This allowed us to constantly adapt the instrument to Jostein and Richard’s personal needs.

What are your most important discoveries?
I discovered that it is important for a musical instrument to feel comfortable. That it is nice or interesting to touch because it is soft or has a certain texture, for example. It also worked well to use recognizable sounds, such as the voice of someone they know well.

How did Jostein and Richard react to the prototypes?
For example, they responded by dancing, applauding, laughing or making noises. The prototypes helped make contact. But to handle the prototype independently as a musical instrument, that proved to be a big step. It is very difficult for this target group to learn new things. It can be done, but it requires a lot of patience and you have to build up the test sessions very slowly.

But then came corona.
Indeed, unfortunately we had to stop our sessions in March. The initial ambition was to develop a concrete musical instrument that could be used during a concert of ANDERS!, the musical theater of people with and without disabilities. We didn’t get that far.

What did your research reveal about Jostein and Richard’s environment?
Based on our findings, I developed a toolbox for non-musicians. This includes a number of applications such as Keezy, Chordion, Keezy Drummer and JamToys. With these apps, you can easily start making your own music. So you as a companion or family member can make music together with Jostein and Richard. The apps are free to download for the iPad.

What did you learn from this research?
That you cannot think for another. As researchers, we think it would be very beneficial for people with multiple disabilities to be able to play a musical instrument. But is this even feasible? And aren’t we projecting our own needs onto them? I myself eventually came to the conclusion that interaction is more important than making music itself. The means never passes the end. After all, the goal is to connect. Live music in particular is a powerful tool for this purpose. I have seen Jostein and Richard really blossom from that.

Download the complete research report here:

Designing for people with multiple disabilities for support using music to communication.pdf

Practical Expertise Center Embrace Netherlands

With its music programs, Embrace Netherlands aims to inspire everyone in healthcare to use music in daily healthcare practice. Embrace Netherlands devises innovative music programs and low-threshold training with the aim of giving vulnerable people a better life. We perform these music programs together with professional and amateur musicians, family caregivers, care workers and students. Our professional musicians took the master module “Music and Healthcare” at the Prince Claus Conservatory of Music.