Column | Disability in Music

the girls are Disability in Music

the girls are 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.

Anna Madeleine

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  • Toby says:

    Thanks for the great article and resources. I was hoping you could connect me with other musicians with disabilities or open minded booking agents. Opportunities for performers with disabilities are rare so I truly appreciate them. My name is Tobias Forrest and I am a SAG-AFTRA wheelchair user who is also the lead singer in the band Cityzen. I can provide a great interview if you are ever interested. Thank you for your consideration and please contact me anytime at -Toby

    • Anna says:

      Hi Tobias

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      The best thing to do would be to contact Drake Music and Attitude Is Everything directly. Send them an introductory email and links to your stuff; both organisations put on gigs and connect disabled musicians with others where appropriate. They are always looking for role models and sometimes have other bits of work too, like workshop facilitation or gig stewarding.

      I know a fantastic booking agent at ITB who would always assess music on its own merit rather than whether the musicians fit into any specific mould. I also know a disabled musician playing for a band currently signed to Xtra Mile. It might be worth your while contacting both of those companies as a starting point. BBC Introducing is fantastic for everyone, it’s got a good DIY ethos and I know for a fact that all music submitted does get listened to.

      Unfortunately, the current industry situation leaves it hard for anyone to succeed – disabled or non – however, it is still worth researching some contacts to send your stuff to. It is really important to remain realistic: it is true that it’s tough for everyone. Bandcamp and Soundcloud are good ways to self-promote/self-sell.

      I think the hardest thing gig-wise is finding accessible venues and promoters who understand what true accessibility means (i.e. not just a ramp at the door and an ‘accessible’ toilet really being used as a store cupboard!). I would advise any musician to get a few bands together and put on your own gig in a venue you know is accessible, then make sure you advertise it well and invite a whole heap of industry contacts to come and see you play!

      I’ll go have a search for Cityzen now to have a listen. Thanks again and good luck.


  • Amy Claro says:

    Really interesting article and I agree that this is a discussion that needs to be had. I am a solo artist and have had disabling rare medical conditions for many years. They are invisible disabilities, i.e. I look ‘fine’ despite experiencing chronic pain, fatigue and other unpleasant symptoms. They impact my ability to make music, but especially to promote it.

    I could probably write forever about this subject (!) but I’ll try and keep it brief – I think that yes, music should be judged on its merits. It often is not. Hopefully this can be done while still acknowledging the real obstacles faced by disabled musicians. Chronic ill health and/or disability saps your time and energy, makes you more likely to be poor, and it’s isolating. It also makes you more likely to suffer mental health problems. These and other issues mean that developing as an artist is a more slow and painful process and is frequently interrupted. Despite the huge growth in online networks, playing live and meeting other musicians face to face is still very important for getting feedback and making contacts – so if you can’t go out one evening because you’re in pain, exhausted or the venue isn’t accessible, that’s a potential opportunity missed.

    For my own part, almost a decade of dealing with ill health has meant I’ve started late and am considered ‘old’ by music industry standards (I’m in my 30s) even though I’m only just beginning my journey as an artist. I’m also constantly slowed down by my disabilities, which gets very frustrating. Despite all this though, I’ve made one album and continue to write and produce, and perform when I’m able to. I intend to keep going and hopefully improving.

    I won’t ramble on any more, suffice it to say I’m grateful for the discussion about disability in music and thank you for the links – I’ll take a look!