UPDATE: In this blog, Kathryn Sturman talks about her diagnosis with sight loss, it’s challenges, and her organisation that promotes accessible music classes.
You can find out more about her organisation, that she runs with her friend, here: https://www.madewithmusic.co.uk/
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It’s easy to dwell on the challenges of life with a disability, but an old colleague recently reminded me of all the positive things that have changed because of it. I now know which of my friends are the best at audio describing; it’s all to do with shared reference points and knowing your audience in my opinion – being prepared to be silly helps a lot in my case! This has helped me to discover the inner workings of my friends’ minds, but it’s mainly in my working life where I’ve noticed that changes that I’ve made have impacted positively on other people and not just on me.
I had an episode of sight-loss aged 18 at university that lasted for around a year. I can be fairly impulsive, so I changed my degree course, and I can also think things through, so I decided that I would really like to support young people in similar circumstances one day. When I lost some of my sight again suddenly and permanently at the age of 28, I was working part-time for the Visually Impaired Team at Leeds City Council and part-time for Youth Music. I was really lucky to have incredibly supportive colleagues at both workplaces who, through lots of advice and hand-holding (literal and metaphorical), enabled me to continue to work and to grow in confidence again. Redundancy and a new baby were thrown into the mix soon after and I needed to decide what to do next… I was a classically trained musician who had always worked in education, but who could no longer read music or travel alone and I had a tiny baby!
While on maternity leave, I met up with a friend who was also a musician and we decided to start a music class for our children and our friends’ children that we would lead together. I needed her there for support as my eyesight fluctuated a lot, but we found that we both benefitted from having another person there. With two people leading, it was a lot easier to keep our energy levels up, have a bit of time to read the mood of the room and think about what was coming next, plus we could plan the sessions together which led to loads of exciting ideas! Musically, it was brilliant having two musicians in a session; one of us could play while the other sang, we could sing in two-part harmony and we could also easily lead rounds.
Since then my eyesight has stabilised and our organisation has grown from one class for our friends to a charity promoting music education through accessible and inclusive live music activities. Working as a freelance musician can be isolating, draining and confidence-knocking sometimes and we realised that something that was originally put in place to support me would not only be beneficial to the wellbeing of the musicians that we work with but would also make the musical experience even better for anyone coming along. It has become a core part of our organisational ethos and freelance musicians working for us often comment on the positive support it brings.
It’s taken a lot of patience, perseverance and baby steps to get here – I spent a fair few weeks learning how to peg washing on a line and progressed slowly to other household tasks, independent travel and eventually back to work. As my own confidence has grown, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several more organisations in Leeds providing music and singing activities. I’m so grateful for all the support and advice I’ve received and for the friendships that I’ve formed with colleagues; it’s amazing to have someone to pick you up on your down days and to be honest about what is difficult because I can’t see and what is just difficult! I hope that I’ve also given my colleagues an insight into my experience of disability and encouraged them to think about the power of small changes that can ultimately end up benefitting everyone.
I’ve always believed in the strength of diversity and in learning from other people’s experiences, but I’ve realised since losing my sight that small positive interactions with others can change an individual’s perceptions of disability and influence their future decisions. This can, in time, change the ethos of whole organisations and enable a truly inclusive environment to develop where everyone’s strengths are valued. Even baby steps get you there eventually!
~ By Kathryn Sturman
You can access information on Kathryn’s organisation here: https://www.madewithmusic.co.uk/