How We Talk When We Talk About Disabled Children and Their Families: An invitation to Queer the discourse

For many music therapists, research is a lifeline and an incredible tool with which we expand our personal knowledge and educate others in and out of our field, including client families. Throughout previous and current research, the language used amongst researchers has come to the forefront of Metell’s mind. In this article, Metell describes in great detail the discrepancies between language used in research as compared to language used in person with families and clients.  Although there are moments of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and discomfort, Metell respects these dissonant emotions through full awareness and identification of their biased social context. 

Discourse as a social system gives production to knowledge and meaning within society through language, Matell identified a need for changing “the way we talk and write about our practice as well as [challenging] the concepts and attitudes towards diversity in order to contribute to inclusive environments that appreciate and celebrate diversity.” Identification of discourse and the current perception of it is crucial to the survivability of the field of music therapy. Communication as a profession is an important tool for development of knowledge and creation of new possibilities.

To further the desired perception of music therapy, Matell explored the idea of utilizing queer theories as a tool for navigating the clearing of current discourse. Music therapy in the context of “disabled children,” according to Matell, “destabilizes established ideas, countering music therapy approaches that aim at cure of normalization of difference.” 

In their approach, Matell identified similarities of queer theory to disability studies and to music therapy. Specific to disability studies, disability may be understood as a “disruption of normalcy” and “question of how normalcy was constructed in the first place.” Queer may be defined in this instance as whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominate. Queer theory accordin to Harris (2019) may be identified as “a conceptual model of queer music therapy that emphasizes opportunities for empowerment as opposed to assuming vulnerability and/or ‘fixing’ LGBTQ individuals.” Per conclusions by Metell, “both fields: reject pathologization, politized access, and problematize concepts of difference and norms, which marginalize people who do not conform.” 

Although music therapy has a tendency to pride itself on being inclusive and anti-oppressive, it is imperative to understand that music therapy discourse in its current state is perceived as normalizing by two disabled scholars. In Matell’s article, they found that Straus and Cameron, both disabled scholars, perceived the field of music therapy to “offer music as a source of normalization, remediation, and therapy toward a possible cure.” Strauss in direct reference to the American Music Therapy Association’s definition of music therapy in 2011 concluded “music therapy is a normalizing enterprise, bound up with the medicalization and remediation of disability.” 

While it is discomforting to see perspectives on the discourse of music therapy in this light, it is valuable to identify and understand these perspectives to better the chances of changing and clearing the discourse. In Strauss’ view, they later stated “music therapists can’t and shouldn’t aim at curing or normalizing; instead, they can provide spaces for shared pleasure through mutual music making, for enhancing their indigenous culture, and an avenue for self-expression, self-realization, and knowledge.” Cameron also later stated “it is not that I believe music therapists are not good or well-intentioned people but….I believe they are complicit in the oppression of the very people they intend to help.” 

As music therapists, it is on us to understand that not everyone sees each way practice may be done. However, it is still on us to understand the importance of perspectives leading to how the discourse is currently seen as normalizing. By tearing down the walls of ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ or ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ within our practice, our writings, and our language, we can begin to clear the discourse and create the well-balanced field we intended, one of inclusion and acceptance rather than fixing. 

It does matter though, how we go about this creation of balance. Fairfield and Bibb published a call to action in 2016, according to Metell, regarding the representation of people in music therapy research and practice. In this call to action, they challenged the field by asking whether the “problem-focused language is in line with the strength-based way music therapists work and argue for a better balance in discourse.” In the same year, Bain, Grzanka, and Crowe pointed to a conceptual model of queer music therapy and emphasized opportunities for empowerment and challenging oppression, as opposed to ‘fixing’ LGBTQ people. 

Queering is about challenging the norms, the binaries, and taking complexity into account. Music therapy is both disabling and celebrating diversity and all that there is in between within a multitude of contexts. Therefore, queering is both useful and necessary to the field. Metell states in their ending points that it matters how we shift into the new mind frame as discourse co-constructs reality. They argue that music therapists can represent children in respectful ways without pathologizing differences within any context. There are multiple both queer and disabled/autistic music therapists whom the field should listen to. These individuals are self-advocates and know first-hand the experiences they encounter daily in and out of the music therapy space. Metell mentions the Facebook group “Music Therapy and the Autism Spectrum” as a place to begin.

The inclusivity in this theory has immense potential to springboard the field of music therapy into the desired field so many know it can be. Using inclusive and empowering language within research and everyday life can begin to make a difference. However, I challenge you to the imagine what putting queer theory into play by dissolving the traditional dyadic relationship in addition to inclusive language could do too. Metell invites music therapists to “question our work, to listen to disabled people and especially children, to reflect upon how we present out work and the people we work with, and to test non-normative frames.” 

A place to start may be acknowledging the privileged identities that we may or may not have, as Metell did when writing the article – it is our role to combat ableism and to question the idea of normalization. 

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Sara May, MA, MT-BC

Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article summary/review are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of Central Ohio Music Therapy. 

Harris, T. (2019). Queer as a Bell: Music Engagement and the Queering of the Psychotherapeutic Relationship. Voices: A World Forum For Music Therapy, 19(3). DOI:

Matell, M. (2019). How We Talk When We Talk About Disabled Children and Their Families: An invitation to Queer the discourse. Voices: A World Forum For Music Therapy, 19(3). DOI: