This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.
Earlier this year, UK-based charity Attitude Is Everything released the results of its Next Stage Survey, which found that the music industry is severely failing deaf and disabled artists. The disability-led organization asked a total of 96 disabled musicians, who represent more than 15 different impairment groups, about everything from studio accessibility to industry attitudes more generally.
The results were sobering: 38% of respondents were physically unable to access their nearest rehearsal space; 45% of artists who had used recording studios encountered barriers while doing so; one in five were even forced to cancel shows due to access issues. A fear of stigma was also prevalent among respondents, with 70% withholding details of their impairments for fear of potentially souring professional relationships. “Sometimes promoters agree to things in advance but don’t realize how important they are,” explained one anonymous artist. “They ignore the request.”
Studies like this show there’s still plenty of work to be done before the music industry can truly call itself accessible, but it seems that progress is at least being made in terms of new technology. From hands-free instruments like Clarion and the Magic Flute to Native Instruments’ KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboards, which use touch-sensitive technology to open up a huge library of sounds to visually-impaired musicians, a handful of new instruments are specifically aiming to empower artists with disabilities.
Innovations aren’t unique to instruments, either; Jacob Adams, Head of Research at Attitude is Everything, says that progress is being made by tech companies across the board to enhance the live experiences of deaf and disabled fans. He specifically praises the SUBPAC, describing it as “a rumble pack that you wear as a vest – you can plug it into an output, and it rumbles. Gamers and producers in studios are using it already, but some event organizers are providing them to fans. That’s important, because vibrations are a big part of the live music experience for deaf people.”
Similar breakthroughs include the smart caption glasses currently available at the National Theatre, which display descriptive transcripts of on-stage dialogue. Attitude is Everything also awarded Soundsense with a prize this year, praising its research into a headphone system which can be teamed with vibration pads and rumble vests.
“A lot of people associate disability with wheelchair users, but they’re a minority,” Jacob continues. “In terms of representation, it’s important to make that point. 1 in 10 people who go to gigs generally have some kind of access requirement, so we’re not talking about a small number of people.”
Statistics like these indicate that companies need to adapt, even if they are cynically grabbing at the ‘purple pound’ – in other words, “the spending power of disabled households.” UK research found that businesses lose approximately £2 billion per month by ignoring the needs of disabled shoppers, which range from accessible websites to discrimination training in stores.”
However, making decisions based solely on profit creates another set of barriers. Miss Jacqui has carved out a career for herself by teaming spoken word poetry with beautiful melodies, a formula which earned her a performance slot at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games. Despite talent and passion, she constantly finds herself coming up against obstacles in the music industry – namely, cost. “I want to go and record my music,” she states, “but the accessible studios – and I’m not saying there aren’t any – are extremely expensive, especially when you’re an up-and-coming artist.”
The same can be said of some of these “accessible” breakthroughs in music technology, which are often reserved for musicians with enough status to try them freely or enough money to buy them outright. “The MI-MU gloves are absolutely phenomenal,” says Miss Jacqui, “but they aren’t mass-produced, so only a small number of people have them. Then there are the incredible Roli seaboards, but I can’t afford them either.”
The MI-MU gloves in particular have been hailed as revolutionary; since being developed by Imogen Heap and launched in 2014, the company’s website states that they’ve been handed out to a “small group of pioneer musicians.” But their popularity skyrocketed in 2015, when Ariana Grande wore them on her world tour. “It really is about the people they’re asking to try out their equipment,” Miss Jacqui continues, saying that more research and engagement with disabled musicians is needed. “I can’t speak on behalf of any tech companies, but I don’t know of any which have said, ‘there’s this really dope disabled artist, I would like them to either try or be part of creating the product.’”
Some disabled musicians are finding their own solutions, and groups like Performance Without Barriers and Drake Music are actively working alongside disabled creatives to develop new technology. But there’s a limit to what individual creativity and grassroots initiatives can achieve – Miss Jacqui argues that this is where big record labels could come in to fund research projects, or to actively scout disabled artists. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like this is happening.
This creates invisibility, which in turn can discourage young, disabled creatives from pursuing their goals. “I had dabbled in music and theatre for years, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was around 18 years old, because people told me that I couldn’t do it – and I believed them,” says Miss Jacqui, who recalls being sent to an inclusive drama class by her mother and eventually falling in love with performance and spoken word. “[But] until I was a teenager, I never saw people that looked like me making the art that I wanted to make,” she says. "Even when mainstream conversations about diversity were happening, I wasn’t seeing anyone like me.” As a black woman with a disability, she describes herself as a “minority within a minority within a minority; I realized that I had to stop waiting for someone else to be that person, and just become it myself.”
There are disabled artists fighting to remedy this lack of representation, and Attitude is Everything encourages potential musicians to get in touch for support. ALIUS is one example; he lives with Crohn’s Disease, often referred to as an example of an invisible illness.
“I feel as though the music industry doesn’t see the connection between artistry and disability,” he explains via e-mail. “I don’t think it wholeheartedly gives access to disabled musicians, either. Living with an impairment makes life harder, so I feel like the industry should give more access because music can feel like therapy, a means to heal.”
He describes the catharsis of writing poetry when he was in his early teens, and calls creating music “a form of therapy for what goes on in my head, and what goes on around me.” ALIUS’ musings have already resonated with a global audience, racking up 20 million Spotify streams so far. But support is still needed to help artists offline, and Miss Jacqui knows from experience that too many people are still reluctant to have the difficult conversations needed to make progress.
“I do sometimes feel that people simply don’t know how to talk to me,” she laments, recalling a night when one of her regular gigs changed location to a new, inaccessible venue. “The team had a conversation, but it was off to the side, and they were whispering and panicking. If they had just said: ‘Jacqui, we’re really sorry but the stage isn’t accessible – what would you like to do?,’ I would have gladly offered to perform in front of the stage, because I know it was probably just an oversight. People try to make decisions for me.”
From a mental health perspective, she explains that this feeling of being sidelined can take its toll. “People constantly focus on my body and what it can and can’t do, but nobody ever talks to me about how I’m feeling. It took a long time for me to accept that therapy was something I needed, but now I try to do a check-up at least once a year.” Again, access to mental health services like these can be dependent on class and privilege; even in countries with free healthcare, waiting lists can be lengthy and private treatments expensive.
Although it’s important to praise tech companies aiming to empower disabled artists, it’s worth examining the use of the term “accessible” when it’s used to describe extremely expensive equipment; these innovations are being designed with disabled users in mind, yet their target audience is priced out. This is slowly changing thanks to organizations like Drake Music and Attitude is Everything, which can help with funding bids and offer support, but the industry’s lack of representation can’t change if disabled musicians can’t even get into a studio to record, let alone tour. Technology represents at least a glimmer of hope, but tech wizards need to put social change before profit if they truly want to democratize the music industry for good.