Tech Help for the Visually Impaired

Wayne Pearcy, Senior Lab Assistant, Music Therapy

By Wayne Pearcy '13

Tony DeBlois, a blind, autistic, musical savant, was the first blind student to graduate from Berklee in 1996. Administrators’ and faculty members’ efforts to help DeBlois gain an education opened Berklee’s doors to the blind. Others soon followed in Tony’s footsteps.

The technology that has affected so many aspects of a Berklee education in the intervening 21 years has presented both challenges and solutions for more recent visually-impaired and blind students at Berklee.

When I entered Berklee in 2007 as a blind student, I had very little experience with technology. I took a one-week music technology training course before I arrived at Berklee. Then it took more than six weeks for my state’s rehabilitation agency to provide the equipment that I would need to function in college. By that time, what little knowledge I had gained from the technology training was all but forgotten. For some Berklee classes, I had the option of completing my assignments orally during faculty office hours. For others, though, there weren’t many options. I could grasp the concepts in harmony, but I was unable to complete the projects that required the use of music software. Since technology is a cornerstone of a student’s education at Berklee, it was time for a program to help visually impaired students.

With that in mind, I spoke with Bob Mulvey, who was then the coordinator of disability services, about the needs of blind students. In 2009, he met with several blind musicians who have since played an important role in making music technology accessible. We all agreed that having a dedicated lab for our technology course was the best idea. In the summer of 2010, Professor Chi Kim was hired to teach the class, and a pilot program was launched for students in the Five-Week Summer Performance Program. The pilot went so well that Chi Kim began teaching the course that fall.

Today, the Berklee Assistive Music Technology lab offers blind and visually impaired students equal educational opportunities by providing adaptive solutions for accessing mainstream music software. The key areas of focus in the course are music production, recording, and music notation. Programs taught in the course include Pro Tools, Logic, and Sibelius. This course is an alternate for the intro to music technology class that sighted students take during their first semester. Blind students can take the technology course as many times as they need to sharpen their skills. In addition to the technology component of the class, basic braille music instruction is taught as well.

In addition to the technology class, the lab is available for students to complete class projects and homework. A sighted lab assistant is on hand to convert assignments into an accessible format. Printed materials from liberal arts classes can be scanned and converted into Word documents for blind students. On the music side, if a harmony teacher gives a blind student a printed handout in class, the sighted lab assistant can convert it to a Sibelius score. Blind students are then able to complete their assignments and e-mail them to their professors. It’s important to note that Sibelius 5.25, an old version of that program, is the only version that is fully accessible to blind users. Finale is not accessible. As well, Sibelius 5.25 will run only on a PC. Our lab monitors are also available to answer any questions that teachers may have about working with blind students in their classes.

Since the program’s launch, we have had the opportunity to serve several blind students from around the world. I am happy to say that this program is offering Berklee students the best training possible to enhance their educational experience and improve their professional musical lives.