6 Mar 2013
Column | Disability in Music
How many disabled artists can you name? Did you hear about them because of their disability or because of their talent? Is any of this relevant? Don’t all musicians face the same challenges?
the girls are is acknowledging the need for better discourse around the subject of music and disability. Over the next 6 months I will be increasing the profile of disabled artists and having a good old rant about accessibility and the music industry: my favourite subject!
Stop The Press
There are disabled people out there who just make music, not because it is healing them in some way but just because they do. Some are good and some are bad, just like non-disabled musicians.
Tokenism is rife within all sectors of music. When was the last time you heard a disabled artist described as emotive because of their “battle to overcome odds”? Or what about when a musician really could do better and we allow them to be a bit crap just because they are disabled? I’ve thought a lot about how to prevent this from happening; how to make audiences start judging disabled artists on an equal base to non-disabled artists. One answer put to me was to “close your eyes and listen” and one awful high-profile group defines themselves as “what you hear, not what you see”: this process is not the answer; it encourages the audience to ignore disability rather than embrace it.
The industry and music consumers must start assessing and promoting musicians’ sound on an equal basis and broaden the sense of what beauty is at the same time. We need to start celebrating difference. The work of great gender activists and fat activists alike is pushing society to acknowledge and applaud different image types, particularly with female musicians. Why can’t this happen with disabled musicians as well?
The music industry has the power to affect society in a uniquely positive way. Music fans, particularly young people who are still deciding what they think about the world, find their answers in the music they listen to. Subcultures are built on the images of specific artists or genres and we could (if we chose to) teach the younger generation new definitions of themselves.
The Nitty Gritty
Where are all these brilliant, talented disabled musicians? Without adequate training, access to gigging opportunities and a true understanding that ambitions and expectations should be the same for disabled and non-disabled artists, how can disabled musicians become professionals in the first place? Yes, there are some disabled artists who have succeeded in this brutal, competitive industry but these are few and far between.
We need to develop high profile musicians in order to show the younger generation that role models exist. We need to make all aspects of music as a career accessible. We need to start assessing music just on the basis of whether we like it or not, rather than whether someone has two arms or uses a wheelchair or has learning difficulties. Or even whether they are fat or thin or whatever colour their skin is. We need to redefine what ‘normal’ is and start using respectful language when talking about disabled artists. We need to get away from the idea that when music and disability are mentioned, the first things that come to mind are someone who is ‘outside our community’ or someone who is ‘in need’.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with two UK organisations that are so progressive in their ethos and approach that they have become international leaders in the field of music and disability:
Drake Music, which develops new ways for artists to progress, changes the way music is taught in schools to young people who face a variety of disabling barriers, and creates and adapts technologies to ensure there are instruments that anyone can play.
Attitude Is Everything, which engages directly with the music industry, music promoters and government to improve access to music events and venues for disabled music fans and performers.
Check them out; check out your music collection; and check out the my next column.