words Alexa Wang
Several disability activism movements of the 20th and 21st centuries have preserved the history of disabled people’s involvement with music and the arts. It’s interesting to see how the various disability models interact with the arts and culture and how the public’s conception of disability shifted as a result of creative efforts. Here, we provide a survey of the disability activism scene across the arts, with a focus on the musical sector.
Insights from Dom Smith were used to create this article. Born in East Yorkshire, he earned a Master of Arts in Magazine Journalism from the University of Central Lancashire and now works as a digital journalist for Soundsphere M and licensed counselor. Previously named one of the happiest people in the country by the Independent on Sunday, he won the National Diversity Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence in 2012. He has also served as York’s Paralympic Flame Bearer.
Dom claims that for as long as there have been social movements, music has been an integral part of American popular culture. The passing of knowledge and stories orally from one generation to the next is reflected in music as well. The concept of “belonging” is deeply rooted in the historical roots of movements for disabled rights, which sought to ensure that people with disabilities were recognized and treated as full members of society. “Disabled people” became “people with disabilities” as “person-first language” spread.
The issue of ableism always comes up whenever a director chooses to cast a non-disabled actor in the role of a disabled character. A disabled artist’s job is to challenge norms about what it means to be an artist and to suggest new ways of including everyone. Some television shows, such as Vestiaires in France, CripTales in the United Kingdom, and Deaf U in the United States, feature disabled actors and creators. 18,19,20 Theatrical productions have developed in a comparable manner. After being turned down by mainstream theatres, disabled performers had to develop their own methods of performing and companies through which to showcase their talents. Finance for such enterprises was pioneered in England, among other places.
In the United States, Sins Invalid is not only a company of disabled dancers and actors but also a prominent disability justice-based performance project that provides political and social justice education on issues of disability, race, gender, and sexuality. Their mission is to “incubate and celebrate artists with disabilities, artists of color, and LGBTQ/gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized.” Their website features not only their shows but also a podcast, documentaries, and a blog devoted to disability justice.
Disability’s quieter ascent in the music industry has been marked by a more subdued presence. Any musician, whether or not they have a visible impairment, will need to modify their methods of study and performance in order to succeed. Musicians in the disabled community formed their own orchestras and ensembles in the same way that professional actors formed companies within the community to showcase their talents. England was one of the first countries to think about making the arts accessible to people with disabilities, and it is still making strides in this direction.
To put these figures in context, it’s important to remember that England hosted the 2012 London Paralympic Games, a global event that pushed the country to overhaul its approach to including people with disabilities. Disabled athletes and performers felt they were treated “like everyone” at the event for the first time in disability history. It served as an excellent illustration of the importance of including and advocating for people with disabilities. The opening and closing ceremonies were just as extravagant as the Olympic Games a few weeks earlier and featured performances by many disabled artists. The entire competition was broadcast on television across the country and around the world. The stadiums were packed with as many spectators as during the Olympic Games. The athletes and performers were honored for their achievements. 27 While things did change dramatically for the Olympics, that wasn’t the case afterward. Media and communication scholars Daniel Jackson, Caroline E.M. Hodges, Mike Molesworth, and Richard Scullion published a book in 2015 that included contributions from sports and disability experts.
Culturally, there has been an undeniable positive result for many disabled musicians who performed at the opening and closing ceremonies, even if it is not yet clear if the social change has occurred in a sustainable way.
Increasing the visibility of disabled artists in the music industry requires raising awareness of disability issues. However, progress has been slow in welcoming people with disabilities, either as viewers or performers.