Equal Access for Blind and Visually Impaired Students

By
Lesley Mahoney
January 7, 2011
Professor Chi Kim works with student Natalia Sulca.
Kim with student Noe Socha, left foreground, and Sulca
Chi Kim's Assistive Music Technology for Visually Impaired Students.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

For six semesters Berklee student Wayne Pearcy was doing his best to get by, relying on friends to write out music and going to professors' office hours to recite concepts he couldn't get down on paper.

Pearcy is blind and until recently, he did not have access to the same software as his sighted classmates. He came up short on exercises such as reharmonizing tunes and writing them out on the computer. Pearcy also came to Berklee without any knowledge of Braille music, precluding accommodations the college could have made for him in that regard.

It's been a struggle and source of frustration, putting in the extra effort just to keep up with his classes. As a result, a piece of his musicality suffered. "The creative side of my brain sort of turned off," says Pearcy, who plays trumpet and is majoring in performance.

That's all beginning to change for Pearcy and the more than a handful of other blind and visually impaired students at Berklee, thanks to a class launched this academic year: Assistive Music Technology for Visually Impaired Students.

During a recent class, students imported recorded tracks for a mixing exercise using CakeTalking, which enables them to access Sonar software. Their professor, producer/composer Chi Kim '06, was teaching them how to use this accessibility program, as well as Sibelius Access for Sibelius.

These Windows-compatible programs require PCs, whereas Berklee students use Mac computers with software such as Finale for notation and Logic for MIDI sequencing and audio recording—software that's not accessible for visually impaired students.

Kim's class provides blind and visually impaired students instruction in hardware and software designed specifically for blind students as well as in basic Braille notation. In addition to giving students access to the technology that has until now been beyond their reach, the class incorporates skills such as sight-reading, which is applicable to arranging, harmony, and ear training.

Students are finding the class a challenge and some are planning to take it twice. "I feel like I just ran a computer marathon," says Pearcy after one class session, with his characteristic hearty laugh.

But it's worth the extra work. With his newly acquired technological prowess, Pearcy just wrote his first composition—a score for a jazz combo, which he submitted to Jazz Revelation Records for consideration on the label's next album. "It's been great," he says. "I feel like I have a much better grasp at using programs that are accessible to me."

"The doors have opened for me," he continues. "I felt like I was not learning enough in class or able to express myself the way I wanted to. . . Because of the tools Berklee gave me, it's been really life-changing. I'm so grateful I can sit down at a computer and do it [write music]."

"It changes everything," says Kim. "It opens up more career choices, other than just being a performer. It opens up a lot of possibilities as a writer. Students will have a more full experience like sighted students. They'll get more out of classes, more education."

Blind Alumnus Can Relate to Challenges

Kim faced similar hurdles several years ago while a student at Berklee studying songwriting and contemporary writing and production. Like Pearcy, he managed to find workarounds, albeit time-consuming ones, to complete his studies. "I had the same experience as Wayne, especially in my major, which was very concentrated on writing."

After Berklee, Kim earned a master's degree in music technology at New York University and went on to work as a composer and producer in New York. Last summer, he was tapped to teach a pilot workshop/lab at Berklee. Incorporated into the Five-Week Summer Performance Program, four students (including two from Perkins School for the Blind) tested out the course.

As a result of that success, the Assistive Music Technology for Visually Impaired Students class—sponsored by the Music Therapy Department—was created and implemented into the curriculum much sooner than anticipated. This fall, five Berklee students enrolled in the class. While not required, it's recommended that students take the summer workshop/lab before coming to Berklee and taking the class.

The pilot program was created after associate director of the Counseling and Advising Center Bob Mulvey, songwriting chair Jack Perricone, and associate vice president for special programs Rob Rose presented a proposal to president Roger H. Brown, following a recommendation emerging from a blind musicians summit held at Berklee in 2009. "It's very much a cutting-edge idea," says Mulvey of the class, pointing to the music technology component as well as the fact that it's taught by a blind instructor.

"The goal is for students to be independent musicians, not only on class projects but also when they get out of Berklee—they should be able to write for the New York Philharmonic or for Justin Timberlake," says Kim.

Pearcy is busy finding new ground with the new technology, and plans to extend his stay at Berklee as he fills in the gaps.

Ultimately, with its emphasis on contemporary music and this new class, Berklee could serve as a incubator for blind and visually impaired musicians. "A lot is based on improvisation and not as notation-driven," says Pearcy. "It's more comfortable for blind students to come here and explore."

Mulvey agrees, noting the number of blind musicians—from Stevie Wonder to Ray Charles to Diane Shuur—whose niche is contemporary music. Indeed, he anticipates an uptick in blind and visually impaired applicants as a result of Berklee's increased accessibility.

In the Berklee community, the class has already made a huge impact.

"It's created a huge awareness and understanding," says Mulvey. "It's opening up an understanding about how blind and visually impaired students can operate in this curriculum equitably."

Mulvey, Kim, and Kevin Johnson, multicultural educator/program manager for the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, will present a workshop on Equity and Access: Assistive Music Technology for Visually Impaired Students at the annual Berklee Teachers on Teaching conference in January.