Disability in The Trumpet of the Swan

Louis the Swan from The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White is a character whose disability (he can’t speak) is just part of his life instead of what defines it. It can seem very tricky for a writer to portray a character with a disability in a way that is empathetic but not patronizing, but it’s actually quite simple. So long as the character is treated like a person first rather than just a disability, it will all work out just fine.

For Louis, his inability to speak was absolutely a problem, making it very difficult for him to communicate with other swans. But once his father came up with a creative workaround – stealing a trumpet from a music shop in Billings Montana to serve as a prosthetic voice – Louis was able to have everything he could have hoped for and more.

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Activity: Musicians with Disabilities

Have students research a famous musician who has a disability. Students may present their findings as a written report or presentation. Tell the students to remember that the disability is just one part of a person’s life, and that there are many other things that define him or her. Students should find out whether the disability was congenital or due to illness or injury. They should also find out how the disability affected the musician’s ability to learn and perform music. Sometimes the modifications a musician makes to technique because of a disability results in creative new ways of playing music. If this happened, students should explain what happened.

Some examples of famous musicians with disabilities:

Rick Allen
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ray Charles
Tony Iommi
Turlough O’Carolan
Django Reinhardt
Hank Williams
Stevie Wonder

Sources

The audio clip of a Trumpeter Swan call in this episode is from Xeno-Canto and was recorded by Andrew Spencer.