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Disability History Month: Music Making and the Fates of Disabled People

Conductor and composer Ben Lunn discusses how we need to celebrate “the disabled musicians and artists who exist,” whilst, “making sure disabled people can live in dignity and safety and are able to pursue whatever profession they desire to.”

Black and white photograph of a conductors hands, holding a baton over the music stand at the head of an orchestra. The musicians in the background are blurred.
"What I hope Disability History Month can encourage members of our trade union – and the broader trade union movement – to do, is to keep thinking of that broad struggle." Photo credit: Shutterstock

We cripples, we retards, we disabled folk are a curious breed when it comes to music making. In all areas of music, almost regardless of genre, there are disabled music makers, making a hell of a noise.

We just need to look at figures like Stevie Wonder, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Archie McNeill, Paul Wittgenstein, Kris Halpin, Gaelynn Lea, and Gustav Holst to see we, as a community, have always been there in some form.

Issues within the music industry are reflective of society as a whole

However, when you look at statistics of the arts in Britain, despite our wonderful talent you see we are often completely forgotten about. Why is this the case?

There is no short answer, mostly because there are as many issues to consider as there are various disabilities on this planet. However, what we must consider is how the issues within the music industry are reflective of society as a whole. Namely, disabled people are far more likely to be living below the poverty line, disabled people have lower life expectancy, health is expensive, living is expensive, and the bigger kicker is we are often unable to work because of inaccessible workplaces.

The TUC recently found that disabled people earn about 80% of the broader population, while disabled women are lucky if they reach 67% of earnings. So, when one considers these difficulties, it is no surprise that many disabled people are struggling to make a living in the arts.

Issues in the workplace are only part of the barriers workers must navigate

So, what is a solution? This ultimately depends on what you think equality looks like. Namely do you want disabled people represented in music on par with society, or do you want something more?

These two options, both could lead to an improvement that sees more disabled people present in the music profession in this country however, if we dream for more, we could see something even better.

Namely, if we focus purely on the barriers in the music industry – which is predominantly around discrimination on the ability of disabled people to do the job of making music, inaccessible venues, difficulties around travel to venues, and access to a fully comprehensive education that is not only accessible but challenging – we can see a profession which is open to the disabled community and able to allow the broadest selection of humanity to express themselves, which is a noble achievement worthy of a good pat on the back, however it does not go far enough.

Being in a trade union, we should all be able to deduce that issues in the workplace are only part of the barriers and complications workers must navigate; in short if workers are struggling to achieve basic things like the dignity of a home of their own, safety, and facilities to allow them to bring up a family, the work’s egalitarian nature means very little.

Without the broader class and union struggle we are not actually fixing the problem

To conclude, what I hope Disability History Month can encourage members of our trade union – and the broader trade union movement – to do, is to keep thinking of that broad struggle. The issues of disabled people are so exacerbated by class that if we focus purely on philosophical issues like intersectionality we risk missing the main problems and concerns.

We cannot have a truly equal profession if we are still in a situation where hundreds of thousands of disabled people simply died because of losing benefits, in a nation where the vast majority of d/Deaf people struggle to get an education in their language, or disabled people simply cannot get onto public transport or into venues and other workplaces.

Charities like Drake Music, Drake Music Scotland, Open Up Music, and various other wonderful charities who constantly strive for better access to many things for disabled people do noble work, but without the broader class and union struggle we fall into the trap of only bandaging the wound and not actually fixing the problem.

So going forward, we need to take this battle forward on two fronts – celebrating the disabled musicians and artists who exist because there is a lot of wonderful work out there, and making sure disabled people can live in dignity and safety and are able to pursue whatever profession they desire to.

Until we defeat the discrimination in our industry and eradicate the material problems disabled people face, we won’t be fixing much.

Thanks to Ben Lunn for this blog, which was commissioned in recognition of Disability History Month – running from 18 November to 18 December.

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Published: 17/11/2020

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