by Author Louise Henry

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Online Network: Working with Disabled Young People Online During Social Distancing

Working online with Disabled Young People During Social Distancing

Over the last few weeks, Youth Music has held a series of online networks addressing various challenges faced by organisations in the wake of Covid 19, the most recent of which centred on working with disabled young people during social distancing.

As we all adapt and adjust our ways of working to accommodate government guidelines, we react and respond at different rates, facing various challenges along the way. We brought together grantholders from across the country, all with varying levels of experience and knowledge of facilitating online delivery for disabled young people.

It goes without saying that access to technology during this time is a lifeline for us all. And whilst there is no one-size-fits-all approach to engaging young people online, particular care is needed to ensure that young people who face additional barriers to learning (be they physical or cognitive) have a safe, accessible and enjoyable online experience.

This blog aims to summarise key thoughts, responses, challenges and resources touched upon in our 90 minute session, but is by no means the end of the conversation, as we encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Don’t attempt to replicate your usual sessions…

…But don’t lose sight of what works! For many disabled young people, routine is key. Whilst online delivery may pose barriers and limitations to the things you might normally do (e.g. it’s not possible to jam together online as a group and hear each other in real time) there may be other familiar elements of your practice that can be retained, or adapted.

Building in time for social or pastoral elements is relatively straightforward to implement and is less affected by issues of latency or limited software.

Be flexible with timings and participation

Many face to face sessions usually last an hour or so, but this doesn’t necessarily translate so well into screen time. Having said this, for many parents and carers, an hour’s respite is much needed time to spend with other siblings, cook dinner or just grab a cuppa, so think about how this time can be managed flexibly.

When pre recording sessions, try curating a library of videos varying in length. Ten minute videos may be perfect for some, 30 minutes might suit others. Shorter videos can also be played back to back.

If delivering live, try leaving your camera on for the full allotted time, but allow participants to come and go as they please. Your session may last an hour, but this doesn’t mean that young people need to be in front of the screen for the whole period. Perhaps you can set a task, such as finishing a line to as song, and they return in five minutes time, or show them how to make a shaker out of rice and a bottle – when they return you sing a song. This can be useful if sitting still for too long is difficult.

Mix social and music activities

Intersperse your music making with other interactions and be flexible with your session planning. If in a face-to-face session you’d usually spend ten minutes chatting about their week at the beginning, or stop for a tea break, or a game of I Spy, then retain those moments in your online delivery. Consider the specific learning, communication and emotional needs of your participants and build in a range of activities to meet these.

The importance of mixing social and musical activities shouldn’t just apply to live sessions. When recoding longer sessions, find natural points for parents and carers to pause, or schedule tea breaks into live sessions.

Delivering online content

Pre-recorded sessions

For those who have yet to begin delivering online sessions, choosing where to start can seem like a minefield. If you’re a little self-conscious about being on camera, pre-recorded sessions are a good place to begin. Anecdotally these seem to be working well, and young people are enjoying seeing their favourite music leaders on screen. Those who enjoy repetition are able to play videos again and again, whilst those unable to commit to set times for live sessions can fit these around their schedules.

Accessible Arts and Media have a brilliant bank of pre-recorded sessions (of varying lengths) on their YouTube Channel.

Soundabout are recording daily singalongs, available on their Youtube Channel.

Live sessions

Live sessions will always have the risk of latency, and poor connections, however they allow facilitators to respond to participants requests, and engage in real time. Zoom, Facebook Live and Youtube Live are the most popular platforms for this and can all be accessed via smartphone, tablet or laptop. In terms of logistics, it helps to have another person at hand to respond to comments and deal with any tech issues, so the facilitator can work uninterrupted.

When facilitating group work, remember to pace yourselves, if someone joins the chat late, remember to introduce them and take the time to say hello, as it can be easy to forget these crucial moments online.

Electric Umberella have an array of live gigs, singalongs and sessions on their website.

Developing content for 1:1 sessions

Again, Zoom has been a popular tool for engaging in 1:1 family sessions, particularly for writing sessions and lends itself well to call and response. As mentioned already, latency is almost unavoidable, but participants muting themselves, and playing along to music leaders at home has been a popular method.

Young people may not have access to instruments at home, but creatively utilising household objects can be fun – though pots and pans might not be what parents and neighbours are after.

In terms of resources, apps Patatap (an interactive visual animation and sound app) and ThumbJam (a high quality music making app including samples of over 30 real instruments) are popular. A guide to making ThumbJam accessible by Drake Music is linked here.

Ensuring online safety

Unsurprisingly, Zoom crept into conversation frequently, and whilst it’s proved to be an invaluable tool for many, others have their concerns regarding safeguarding. Whilst there’s a sense of urgency to hit the ground running with online delivery, many of us are still grappling with ensuring the safety of both young people and setting staff.

During an earlier online network focused on the topic of safeguarding, Youth Music were joined by two specialists in education technology and online safeguarding – notes from that session can be found here, along with signposting to further resources.


howWhen delivering online it’s important to think about learning and communication needs and build that into the way you deliver your online experiences. Drake Music have written some great blogs about online accessibility including suggestions of how to make video conferences and remote meetings more accessible as well as tips for closed captions and how to deal with concentration fatigue. People in Action have developed this accessible video on how to use Zoom.

There will inevitably be people who can’t engage online or who face additional barriers to online engagement. For young people who experience digital exclusion, mailing out at home music kits may be a possibility, or providing online training to setting staff in hospitals, hospices and prison settings can be a way of ensuring some musical activity reaches them.

Finally, we’d like to express our thanks to everyone who has attended and contributed to our online networks so far. Individually, we may not have the answers to the issues Covid 19 throws at us, but a hive mind can help us tackle problems one step at a time.

Other useful links

Working with vulnerable young people online

General advice on for cultural sector organisations about working online and online safeguarding from Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance with Arts Marketing Association, 64million Artists, and Real Ideas: