Supporting a disabled undergraduate music student


I recently assisted Ray De Grussa, a disabled student, with the first year of a Music and Creative Media degree course at Sheffield University. As a result of his achievements, Ray won the 2012 Adult Learners’ Week ‘Digital Participation Award’

My role was a largely technical one – to create an Assistive Technology set-up that would enable Ray to do the course, and to work with him in learning how to use it. I only had a few hours a week to work with Ray, which was a very short amount of time to do everything we needed to.

Despite this, and a large number of other obstacles to overcome, many of the results were very satisfying.
Ray has significant physical impairments, so in order to create music, study and communicate he’s been using “The Grid 2” software to control his own laptop. If you’re not familiar with The Grid 2, it can enable a PC to be operated using switches, voice control or other alternatives to the usual combination of keyboard and mouse:

We tried a variety of different ways of controlling The Grid 2 before arriving at a system with three switches. One switch accesses a menu system, another cycles through different actions and the third switch triggers the selected action. Working together, we created a Grid 2 set-up that affords control of many aspects of his laptop including access to the internet, word processing software, a media player and Sibelius music notation software. He also has different Grid 2 ‘grids’ for each type of question in his exams. This Grid 2 set-up needs to be continuously updated and streamlined as he becomes more competent with it and requires new features.

As part of his degree course Ray wrote numerous full-length compositions for a variety of instruments using Sibelius software. Some of his compositions have been performed live. During the first six months of working together it would take him hours to enter just a few notes. Now, he can compose an entirely new piece in just a couple of weeks.

Due to the extremely limited time that we had to work together, and the fact that my role in supporting him was purely technical, it wasn’t always possible for me to keep up to date with his progress across the music degree course as a whole. After about 12 months it became apparent that Ray was having real difficulties with his music theory and aural development. I also learned that his lecture notes (he had an assistant taking notes during lectures) were stored on a university website that he couldn’t access using The Grid 2. Revising for his exams had been extremely challenging and time consuming because many of the learning materials were only available in books, which had to be scanned into his computer in order for the computer to read the material to him.

It’s now clear that just employing me to provide some technical support and an assistant to take notes during lectures wasn’t enough. Ray also needed someone working more closely with him on theory from the start, as well as someone to make sure that all the different areas of support were effective and properly joined up. As a result, Ray only completed the first year of the course.

Despite this I’ve been really encouraged by the progress that Ray has made over the last year and a half. He has become extremely competent with The Grid 2 and Sibelius notation software and has surpassed everyone’s expectations. His Grid 2 set-up can also be shared with other people who face similar barriers to composing music.

Below are two short films about Ray: