On the surface, I may seem like any other professional mix engineer. Every day, I head to my studio to work on mixing projects coming to me from around the country. I love my job, the art and science of audio, and the ability to help artists bring their music to life. Little do most people know, I happen to be disabled. I do most things differently, but there are few things I cannot do.
Two years ago, I caught a virus that attacked my nervous system. I never fully recovered. I went from attending conservatory full-time to being unable to walk down the driveway. I couldn’t play piano for more than twenty minutes at a time without setting off flu-like symptoms that left me bed-bound for days. I developed light and sound sensitivity, to the point where even low-volume mixing hurt my ears. I thought for sure my career was over. How could I be an audio engineer if I could barely sit up or listen to music? Fortunately, over time, I improved enough to work, but I realized my new disability meant I’d need to forge my own path in the industry.
Before that fateful virus, I attended Belmont University and earned degrees in Audio Engineering Technology and Music Composition. I went on to graduate school at the Chicago College of Performing Arts on an assistantship earned by my audio skills. There, I began collaborating with the folks at Atlas Arts Media to record conservatory concerts. Once we got to know each other, they offered to bring me on as Lead Engineer.
Unfortunately, that offer came right as I got sick. I soon realized I needed to leave Chicago to be closer to family. I thought for sure that Atlas would rescind their invitation once I told them of my illness. Nevertheless, they knew the quality of the work I produced and weren’t fazed at all. For the past two years, I have served remotely as Lead Engineer for Atlas Arts Media from my home studio in Virginia. Atlas makes recordings in Chicago and sends them to me to edit, mix, and master. My colleagues value my skills and expertise. They don’t let the fact that I happen to be disabled negatively impact their opinions of me or my work.
And why should my disability impact anyone’s view of me as an engineer? Thanks to a few simple modifications, my condition has no effect on my ability to deliver mixes with which my clients are thrilled. To manage my job, I take more breaks, work shorter days, have my feet elevated when mixing, and keep my screens dim and red-tinted. If I’ve found a way for myself, why aren’t there more disabled engineers working?
Before joining Atlas, I’d witnessed much ableism in the studio world. There’s an expectation that you need to work as hard as possible for as many hours as possible, especially when just starting out. If you have circumstances that prevent you from working as much as a non-disabled person thinks you should, people will say that you don’t belong in this industry. “That’s just the way this business is,” you’re told. Yet in reality, that thinking is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many cases, jobs could be done in a more accessible way without compromising the final product, as I believe my own mixing work shows.
I understand that not every person is suited to every job. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and those of us with disabilities are most acutely aware of this. But when it’s possible to make a position accessible, it’s high time we make it that way. How much potential talent have we lost from other disabled engineers who, unlike me, couldn’t find people that valued their skills enough to give them a chance?
Accessibility may mean allowing a person more breaks, as Atlas does for me when we host live listening sessions with clients. It may mean allowing remote work, as Atlas also supports. It may mean choosing a wheelchair-accessible business or meeting location. It may mean a modified work area. It may mean allowing someone time off for medical treatment. Above all else, accessibility means not making negative assumptions about a person’s skills just because they happen to be disabled. Rather than assume a person with a disability can’t accomplish something, just ask, and then work together on modifications that make the job possible.
Being able-bodied is not the ultimate litmus test for being a good engineer. We must let people sink or swim in our industry not based on their health status, but based on their skills, work ethic, and attitude.
Shelby Lock is an audio engineer, composer, and pianist from Charlottesville, Virginia who specializes in mixing classical and acoustic music. She is a three-time Finalist in the American Prize in Composition (Student Division) and Winner of the Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2016 Composition Competition. The owner of the studio River Rock Records and Lead Engineer for Atlas Arts Media, Shelby holds dual bachelor’s degrees in Audio Engineering Technology and Music Composition from Belmont University.