Music Mark 2016 PART TWO: The Drake Music Breakout Session

Music Mark 2016 was a BUSY day, so much so that it took two blog posts to bring you all the news!

Our session went so well that I felt that it really warranted a thorough discussion here. I’d like extend a huge thanks to all of the attendees for giving us such a thought provoking and lively discussion.

And if you haven’t already, you can read Part One of my Music Mark 2016 coverage here.

My hastily scribbled notes from Music Mark 2016. Click for large scale view.
My hastily scribbled notes from Music Mark 2016. Click for large scale view.

The aim of our session was to help hubs and other music services make better decisions about bringing in expertise to support their SEN/D education goals.

Jonathan led the session, with the intention being for me to discuss my experiences on both sides of the story. As a pupil (and later a FE student) I’ve had some pretty lousy experiences with poor attitudes toward my disability, and I have some clear ideas about how not to deliver education.

I also have a great deal of experience as an educator, and the responsibility of getting this stuff right is one I take very seriously. And no; being disabled does not automatically mean I know how to get this stuff right by default (more on that shortly).

We were joined by around 20 individuals from hubs and music organisations throughout the UK. Despite the late afternoon slot, we were met with a vocal and lively audience, who were very keen to engage with us and each other!

Some of my anecdotal evidence of my tough time in education hit even harder than we could have anticipated, which is (of course) a very good thing. Clearly this was a room of people brought together by a strong desire to enact positive change in the sector. I have maintained both here and in the press that I felt bullied not my peers, but by teachers and staff.

I was faced with appalling prejudice from teachers in school, and I now see how badly I was let down by the system.

There is further complication in the fact that I did not attend a SEN/D school, another fact that resonated with the group; there is grave concern for those young people who have access needs due to disabilities but are not in a SEN/D school, potentially lost in a system that doesn’t support them.

I attended a mainstream school, one on several floors with no lift. My mobility impairment meant I spent most of Key Stage 4 largely in isolation in a ground floor room, work solemnly delivered to me by fellow students as each bell rang. Unthinkable in retrospect. There is clearly still cause for concern that their are young people in mainstream schools whose needs are wholly unmet.

Of course, It would be flippant to act surprised by the response in the room. My experiences were pretty appalling. We knew this discussion would have impact, but perhaps we underestimated just how much impact.

My stories of passive-aggressive abuse and complete misunderstanding of the complexity of my impairments (“You’re only disabled when it suits you!”) sounded even more shocking to me said out loud. Frustration is the correct response of course. It’s enormously encouraging to see passionate, even angry responses. It shows that there is strong desire for change.

Water tested, I moved on with an even thornier point. With this desire for change clearly in focus, did the group feel they had the tools to act? Most importantly, had they been given the training they need to better understand the needs of young people in a SEN/D context?

This question was met with a unanimous ‘NO’ – sad, but not surprising. It’s clearly a frustrating position for people in the sector; being poorly equipped to address the change that is so obviously needed.

What makes a good SEN/D Music Expert?

Moving on, we divided the room into four groups and asked them to tackle the recruitment of the right expertise. We posed the question; what makes a good SEN/D Music expert?

Discussion was immediately lively, and went almost immediately in an interesting direction with one key question from the group (that I was secretly hoping for): should hubs look to employ experts who are themselves disabled?

A very loaded question, especially with my presence in the room! Non-disabled people can struggle with talking about disability in front of people with disabilities, and it’s exactly this uncomfortable awkwardness that we need to focus on.

Nobody in that room should have felt awkward talking about disability in front of me, yet they did. I feel that it is vital to acknowledge this friction; it’s a reliable means of focus, and offers momentum towards a better understanding.

In answer to the question, the group voted unanimously; YES – Hubs should look to employ experts who themselves have disabilities.

It will come as no surprise that I welcome this, but it’s in the reasoning that the answer becomes more complex.

The general consensus in the room: hubs should employ more disabled people because disabled people will have a better understanding of what disabled pupils need.

My own (potentially controversial) view is that this well meant idea is a dangerous line of thinking, for several reasons:

  • It sets up an unhelpful presumption that all disabled people are experts on all disabilities. This is of course a complete fallacy. I wouldn’t even claim to fully understand my own changing needs – let alone another person’s!
  • It makes an unhelpful assumption that disabled people are themselves somehow incapable of ableism, either intentionally or not. There is nothing in my experience that guarantees I can’t unwittingly cause offence to someone else with a disability; for one thing, we all have different ideas about what language is deemed acceptable, and I’m referring here to unwitting ableism. I’ve witnessed many ugly interactions on social media between disabled individuals; ableist views held by disabled people are far more common than you may think. There are worrying signs of a sort of ‘pecking order’ (“I’m more disabled than you!”). Not helpful, perhaps understandable. This is a complex issue that deserves a more thorough unboxing than this post allows, but the evidence is clear in this context: being disabled does not prove you have empathy for other disabled people.
  • Possibly out of fear, it hints at an absolving of responsibility; that’s a problem for disabled people to resolve. We should get a disabled person to deal with this. No organisation can afford to take a hands-off approach; interaction with disabled people is an inevitability in any context, and I want to imagine a society where no-one feels unsure in engaging with people who have disabilities.

Despite my personal thorough debunking, I believe the answer to the question of whether more experts with disabilities should be employed is still a resounding YES, for one very simple reason: the visibility of disabled people in any position of success or authority, (esp. the student/teacher dynamic) will have a huge impact on those young individuals with disabilities who are able to interact with older, more experiences disabled people.

I speak very much from experience. I’ve enjoyed very visible success as a musician, with regular national newspaper and television appearances, as well as at festivals and large events across the UK and Europe. That’s all terribly exciting for me of course, but one person’s enjoyment of the spoils of doing-quite-well isn’t really that important. What REALLY matters is what other disabled people have seen in themselves, by result of my visibility. A bold claim; hear me out. This was my hypothesis upon venturing out on my first national tour. I figured it would make some positive noise. That was a pretty modest assumption. It really matters. There has been many interactions on tour with people who really needed to tell me their disability story, and how I play a small part in that. This isn’t about me, it’s about what they see of themselves reflected in my work. Often these are very emotional encounters; and it’s always humbling.

I’m reminded of being a young teenager, with dreams of rock superstardom kept sharply contrasted with the harsh reality of my disability. My ideas about myself as a disabled person were massively challenged by a musician and broadcaster (and nowadays a good friend and familiar to face at Drake Music) Mik Scarlet.

Seeing a musician on TV with effortless cyberpunk cool, who also happened to be disabled… it was a huge shift, and a massive boost of confidence.

This visibility is absolutely vital, and I believe it has the potential to be the most influential force for young disabled people. We must work to improve the visibility of successful disabled people in the arts, be it in the classroom, the workshop or on the Main Stage.