2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

Looking into the Design of Accessible Musical Instruments for Musicians with Physical Disabilities

Presented at Student Division (STDT) Technical Session 3: Student Innovative Practice

This paper presents a survey of existing musical instruments which are designed to allow performers with physical disabilities to perform music at a professional level despite physical limitations. The physical disabilities considered in this group include cerebral palsy, paralysis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and other health conditions which impair a person’s range of motion. Standard musical instruments often require intricate movement of the body, but recent efforts by engineers to develop adapted instruments have created a promising option for those looking to perform or study music. Adapted devices may be controlled by body movement, eye movement, breath, and other various sources. Users of this technology differ in age, prior musical knowledge, and experience, increasing demand for both complex and simplistic technology.
In order to complete the survey analysis, we researched commercially available or in development instruments and examined their common features and other data points including availability or accessibility to a larger group of users. In this survey, we selected and reviewed 20 instruments. We organized the instrument by the type of instrument, including (1) physical (entirely or almost entirely acoustic instruments), (2) hybrid (requiring both a physical instrument as well as a digital software), or (3) digital (musical software itself which requires no specialized “instrument”). Additionally, we considered whether the instruments were intentionally designed for physically disabled musicians versus if the nature of the design allowed disabled musicians to use the instrument with or without some adjustments.
As we reviewed and evaluated the instruments, we summarized the specific characteristics needed to make such instruments effective and functional for the intended users, in order to provide equal access and opportunity in the professional field of musical performance.
Findings of this survey provided insights for engineers and designers of musical instruments as well as music professionals about the current technology available to prospective musicians as well as the most common and possibly effective features in the design of accessible instruments. Additionally, we indicate the importance of this field to the greater field of engineering education and the ways in which engineering education can be be used to further develop and grow this industry. We provide recommendations for the future research for design and development of the accessible music industry.

  1. Sydney Rose Fitzgerald Spackenkill High School
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