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The Awkward Silences' Paul Hawkins on Music and Disability

Growing up as a disabled teenager in a small village on the outskirts of Bristol, making music never felt like an option for me. For one thing, school music lessons were a nightmare. I couldn’t sing, could never master any instruments and I certainly for the life of me couldn’t stay in time with anyone else. Things did not look promising.

And, whilst music was a major part of my life, there didn’t seem to be any disabled musicians and there were very few songs where people sung about being disabled. And where they did, the picture tended to be pretty bleak. There was the amputee in Metallica’s One who sang about he would “hold my breath as I wished for death” and here was the subject of Morrissey’s November Spawned a Monster, who he described as a “poor, twisted child” and a “frame of useless limbs” as he told her that her dreams were the “closest you’ll ever get to love” and whose very existence was a “symbol of where mad, mad lovers must pause and draw the line.”

You probably shouldn’t take these things personally but the fact that people like me didn’t exist in music, except when people whose music I enjoyed were saying that people like me shouldn’t exist at all was a pretty demoralising. The closest I could find to a song suggesting being disabled wasn’t a terrible thing was REM’s The Wrong Child with its refrain of “I’m not supposed to be like this but it’s okay”.

The frustrating bit was that, despite what a lot of non-disabled people seem to think, being disabled for me has never really been a terrible experience. My lifestyle is a bit different, I need to do an hour long medical procedure every morning, which is a great time to read, and I need a few adjustments in my daily life. It’s really not the material of a Shakespearean tragedy but we live in a society that constantly tells people becoming disabled would be a truly awful thing, and then denies disabled people a voice to say “well, we’re actually just sort of here and just getting on with it.”

Of course, it would be easier for a lot of us to just get on with it if more reasonable adjustments were in place. With my impairment, I’m basically sorted as long as I’ve got access to a decent toilet and there is a certain irony in the fact that, outside of a lockdown, I spend much of life at festivals and grassroots venues, which are two places where decent toilets can often be in short supply However a lot of disabled musicians find their basic access requirements are rarely met at all.

The charity Attitude is Everything, where I am the Head of Volunteering and Skills Development, run an initiative called Next Stage which seeks to address barriers Deaf and disabled artists face when accessing performance spaces. In a 2018 survey, Attitude is Everything found that:

· 38% of disabled artists cannot access their nearest rehearsal space.

· 2 in 3 have had to compromise their health and wellbeing to perform live

· 70% have withheld details of an impairment or health condition due to a fear that doing so will cause problems and impact on a relationship with a promoter, venue or festival.

Rich Legate, Attitude is Everything's Artist Development Manager, runs the project. He says "The Next Stage artist survey showed that artists with access requirements are not able to rehearse, perform and network without meeting disabling barriers. Although experiences vary, nearly all disabled artists feel apprehensive about sharing what they need with the music industry, fearing that they'll damage a relationship and be stigmatised. As a result of this, many Deaf and disabled artists are compromising their health and wellbeing to keep their careers moving forward."

A huge step promoters could take to address this would simply to ask artists if they have access requirements during booking and simply make this a standard question. I suspect many promoters would be scared of asking this question for fear of a request that they cannot meet but I feel from my experience is the vast majority of disabled artists will understand that the promoter can only do what they are genuinely able to do, as long as they are genuinely doing what they are able to do.

96% of the survey respondents said that they felt, like me, that live music would be more accessible if disabled artists were more visible and had more opportunities to speak out about their experiences.

But speaking out is not easy when there is stigma around being disabled in the first place. Ali Hirsz of the Idealistics says "I have had disabled artists actually tell me to hide my disability to get somewhere in the industry and it was very difficult to hear, if more artists were talking about their disabilities I think it would help start to end the stigma within the industry"

Rob Maddison from Revenge of Calculon agrees. "So many artists who are disabled are given the idea that it’s not possible for them to ‘make it’ in the music industry purely because they don’t see anyone like them on stage or on their screens and on the radio. It’s partially due to this under-representation that there is just this kind of vicious circle for artists who are disabled that results in them never leaving their home studios and feeling like the music industry is just something that they aren’t ever going to be made a part of. The knock on effect is that fewer and fewer artists who are disabled end up pursuing a career in the music industry. Without artists who are disabled having a high profile in the industry, that inspiration will never exist."

My experience is that part of this stigma is a slightly perplexing belief that disabled artists can only ever make music that only appeals to disabled people. However this is clearly absurd. For one thing, one in six people in the UK have an impairment or health condition which would mean they could be considered disabled under the 2010 Equality Act and the vast majority of those will have family and friends who are aware of their experiences. For another, the success of Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Ian Dury clearly shows disabled artists can reach a wider audience.

And, besides, the sense of feeling you are different to other people is pretty universal at one time or another. In the absence of disabled musicians I could identify with, many of the artists I listened to growing up – such as REM, the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure – had songwriters who identified as being part of the LGBT+ community. Even at a young age, I instinctively felt their songs captured the experience of being different to others whilst looking the same and that’s not really different to having a non-visible impairment. It’s absurd we live in a society that doesn’t seem to fully understand that disabled people might have things to say that everyone can identify with.

To finish this article, I’ve decided to list some songs written by disabled artists about lived experience of disability that I’d recommend listening to.

5 songs about lived experience of disability:

1. Ian Dury and the Blockheads - "Spasticus Austicus"

The obvious one to start with but a glorious one nonetheless. Ian Dury was angry about patronising charities doing things "for the disabled" instead of treating us as people in our own right. The song is an utterly satisfying pisstake of attitudes towards disability with a chorus that succeeded in getting a lot of people misguidedly offended on behalf of disabled people but, for many disabled people, is an utterly liberating song to listen to. When the Paralympics came to the UK, it rightly took its place at the heart of the opening ceremony.

2. Gaelyn Lea - "I Wait"

Minnesota Violinist and songwriter Gaelynn Lea's 2018 album "Learning How to Stay" is a masterpiece for many reasons, not least an utterly mesmerising six and a half minute version of the Finnish folk tune "Metsäkukkia" but the centrepiece of the album is arguably "I Wait", which is probably the most articulate expression I've ever heard of the central dilemma many disabled people of a desire to scream at an inaccessible world clashing with a need to be diplomatic enough to not fall out with everyone in a desire to achieve it. "How long much we keep fighting for our right to be living?", she asks, and the wait sometimes feels exponential.

3. Wheelchair Sports Camp "Hard out Here for a Gimp"

Denver-based Wheelchair Sports Camp are, coincidentally a band I came across through Gaelynn Lea talking them up. Fronted by Kalyn Heffernan, "Hard Out Here for a Gimp" is an extremely funny piece of DIY hip-hop activism. "If there's a stairway to Heaven, how the Hell are we going to get in?", Heffernan asks, proving that inaccessibility isn't necessarily going to be fixed in the afterlife...

4. Belle & Sebastian - "Nobody's Empire"

I've no idea whether Stuart Murdoch seems himself as disabled but he's talked in interviews about the way his existence as a songwriter was shaped of his experiences of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Hearing Belle & Sebastian when I was 15 made me connect with music in a way I had never had before and I think there's something very specific in their songs which spoke to me as a disabled person. This is a much later song but is a spectacularly frank song about feeling disabled. "Intellect, ambition, they fell away and they locked me up for my own good" is certainly something that really relates to moments I've had with my own impairment and this song is honest, uplifting and utterly beautiful.

5. The Awkward Silences "The Medical Model"

Disability has been a theme of a number of our songs on previous albums but this one on our new album is certainly the most explicitly political of those songs. It's about the way that disabled people are often dismissed as having a problem that needs to be cured by people who have no understanding of the fact that, for someone born with an impairment or who has had it for a long time, it is a key part of your identity. Certainly speaking for myself, I'm not who I am now in in spite of my disability but because my disability is one of the many experiences that has shaped who I am and, when people talk about erasing disability, it's actually a part of me that they are trying to erase. This feels particularly relevant in the age of COVID where a lot of people feel disturbingly comfortable with the idea of locking us and the elderly up until the virus passes, and all too unwilling to engage with the ethical questions that brings.

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