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Choir of Unheard Voices helps people living with disabilities to find their voice

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In Joshua Clarke's spare bedroom Elvis Presley memorabilia plasters every inch of the walls, shelves, and bedside tables.

The 38-year-old mega fan even has an Elvis Presley bedspread and night light.

Growing up, Mr Clarke aspired to follow in his idol's footsteps with dreams of using his voice to connect with others.

"I like his dancing moves. I like his strumming moves on the guitar," he says.

But Mr Clarke says that as a youngster his dreams of being a performer or a radio presenter felt unobtainable.

Joshua Clarke seated on a couch playing a guitar, an Elvis Presley statue is visible behind him
Finding music has changed Joshua Clarke's life.(ABC Tropical North: Ashleigh Bagshaw)

His mother, Diane, says prior to his diagnosis of autism at age three, doctors believed Mr Clarke was deaf, mistaking a failure to respond to conversation for an inability to hear.

"Josh has always been a very quiet kid, bit of an introvert spending more time in the room listening to his music and stuff," she says.

Although Mr Clarke was mostly unable to hold conversations or eye contact, Ms Clarke said there was a minor improvement while he was at school — although he regressed after graduation.

That was until he met long-term disability carer Margaret Ross who for 15 years has been helping people like Mr Clarke to find their voice.

Ms Ross is behind a project to "change people's lives through singing", with a choir that showcases the talents of people living with mental illness and disability.

Joshua Clarke standing with part of his collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia
Joshua Clarke has a large collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia.(ABC Tropical North: Ashleigh Bagshaw)

And while the Choir of Unheard Voices initially catered for those with a mental illness, over time it expanded to include those living with a disability.

"Over the years, I just kept it going and then I made it an all-inclusive choir where anybody could come," Ms Ross says.

"And it's just been this beautiful way of connecting with people and to bring music into the hearts and souls of everyone."

Ms Ross says she has seen an unexpected change in Mr Clarke.

"To get to know Joshua 10 years ago and then all of a sudden he's just the total opposite," she says.

"He's just so outgoing."

Overcoming barriers through music

Danielle Alvers, 36, also knows firsthand the transformative power of song. As a child, a bout of meningitis left her with an intellectual disability and heavy visual impairment.

Her mother, Helen Alvers, says although the family spent their daughter's early years trying to "unlock" her potential, they had little success.

Danielle Alvers next to a banner with the words "the choir of unheard voices" visible on it
Danielle Alvers has come out of her "own world" since joining the choir.(Supplied: Helen Alvers)

"The teachers at school and carers didn't seem to know what to do with her because she never reacted the same way everybody else did," she says.

Ms Alvers said her daughter struggled to communicate with others and this caused her child to become frustrated.

When Danielle was 26, many believed she wouldn't improve, but her parents refused to give up.

They brought her to choir and Ms Alvers says the change has been extraordinary.

"When she first started, she wouldn't talk much," Ms Alvers says.

Joshua Clarke sitting on a couch speaking to Danielle Alvers, who is lying on another couch
Joshua Clarke (left) and Danielle Alvers have gained a sense of community through the choir.(Supplied: Helen Alvers)

"Now she listens to what's going on. She follows things and the feedback that we get is that she's now starting to interact. She's got lots of friends."

Ms Alvers says that joining a choir gave her daughter a sense of belonging she'd never had before, which helped her open up to others.

"It's not just a choir. This is her community."

"What's changed for her is that she's got a group of friends that she can rely on now, and they all look after her no matter what."

Ms Clarke says she'd never imagined she'd see her son performing in front of a crowd.

"I wouldn't have thought that he would have done it. He's just really come out of his shell. It's just amazing to watch," she says.

She believes music could help other people living with a disability to gain more confidence.


Source: ABC

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