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All Hands Together

Posted on 8 March 2021

A new project is now under way to set up a choir for children with, and without, disabilities. The aim is that all will feel they belong in the group. The key to encouraging inclusion is the use of an activity called ‘signing’, that allows the children to express the meaning of and emotion in songs through movement of the hands. The inspiration behind the project is the Coro do Manos Blancos -or White Hands Choir – that was begun in Venezuela. Its name refers to the white gloves worn by the children signing. I heard of this choir only recently but learning more about it has really caught my imagination, both for personal reasons and as something special that we can do in music therapy.

The personal story behind my interest is that, many years ago, as the attached photo will show, one of my older brothers was diagnosed with Down Syndrome (or Mongolism as it was called then). I don’t remember thinking of Johnny as ‘disabled’, even though clearly he was different – he couldn’t talk and didn’t go out of the house except to go to a special school for a while. What I best remember about him was his jolliness, even stuck in bed all day, and how he would bounce up and down to music. But when I look back now, I see it very differently – I was living with disability in the family, and the way it was dealt with was essentially to hide it. The photo for this piece shows that he was one of the family and I cared about him, but Johnny was not included in any gatherings beyond our home.

With this background, it meant a great deal to me to get together with the York Down Syndrome group. This happened through Rachael Harrison, someone in the next village that I have related to because of her daughter, Ellie, who has Down Syndrome and whose jolliness and bounciness brought Johnny back to me. Rachael invited my choir, Women in Harmony, to join her group at a Christmas party so that we could all sing together – and sign. Rachael came to our practice sessions to teach us how to sign (usingtheMakaton language programme) to interpret Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. It was great fun, and the party itself was a transformative experience; it really brought home the power of inclusiveness.

It is marvellous now to be again working with Rachael. She has introduced us to Jo Bryenton, another member of the York Down Syndrome group who has become a specialist in teaching Makaton, and also to Rachel Whittaker who is a primary school teacher as well as a choir leader, and now we are working together. This is really wonderful to have such a committed team working on a project that means so much to me – all hands together.

PS We’re very grateful to the D’Oyley Carte Charitable Trust for helping us get the project off the ground. We’ll be calling it “Makasing”.