Simon Mark Smith (





Mainstream music culture is continually
being affected by sections of society
which are made up of ‘outsiders’. It is
undeniable that the mainstream is reliant
upon the influences of ‘outsiders’ to
move musical style on – Punk, Rap, South
American drummers or blind black blues
singers- whatever the culture, the
mainstream could not exist without them.
Conversely it is through music that
artists such as Tracey Chapman, Boy
George and Ian Drury have brought
attention to their communities and
associated cultures, simultaneously
changing the identity of the music scene
whilst bringing about some social
awareness. As music technology becomes
cheaper and more widely available more
‘outsiders’ are going to infiltrate the
mainstream causing further evolution.
Accessible music technology means that
untrained musicians have been able to
compose and produce their own music,
producing many exciting and original
innovations without the ‘benefit’ of
academic music training. In relation to
disabled people, music technology not
only allows control over instruments
previously thought inaccessible, it could
also offer opportunities to take
advantage of the limitations of musical
Judith Robinson, a project leader for The
Drake Research Project (an organisation
at the forefront of empowering disabled
people to become musicians), said that
she found ‘Many chords, rifts and so on
are created by ‘playing around’ on an
instrument and are likely to be based on
hand patterns which are easy to form or
repeated patterns of finger movements.
In the same vein, a musician who has a
physical disability is likely to have very
different kinds of movements and so
come up with musical ideas other
musicians would not or could not create
[for instance), Mark Rowland, plays his
keyboard with his feet. Some of the
trademarks of his live playing are note
clusters of up to four or five
neighbouring notes on a massive ‘pad’
sound and huge stabs and sweeps across
the black notes using a distorted guitar
sound. Another musician who plays with
his feet, Steve Knight, often plays in
parallel fourths – forbidden in the
harmony books – because this is a
comfortable interval for the size of his
Sometimes a disabled person may have to
use an adaptation in order to control an
instrument, as simple as a mechanism
that allows several keys on the computer
or musical keyboard to be pressed
simultaneously or as advanced as a
‘distance to MIDI (Musical Instrument
Digital Interface) converter’. Whatever
the adaptation, it seems reasonable to
assume that the adaptations may also
affect the compositions created. Thus, if
being disabled is likely to have an effect
on how music is made, one is led to ask
what evidence exists to suggest that there
is such a thing as ‘disability music’?
As I see it, the ‘Disability Community’
views ‘Disability Music’ as music that is
made by a disabled person that does not
undermine the fundamental ideologies of
the disability movement, meaning music
that promotes a realistic view of
disability and attempts to dismiss the
myths surrounding disability. Or, to be
more direct, music which makes clear
that the biggest problem for disabled
people is the disabling attitudes
legislation and structures of society. It
does not, however, make clear that any
music made by a disabled person is
automatically ‘disability music’, because
that would encourage the ghettoisation
and patronisation of disabled people.
Obviously, as with all ‘new’ cultures or
styles of music there is a period of time
in which people need to get acclimatised
to it. With disability music, too, there is
going to be a period where a musician’s
physical image, while significant, does
not override their right to be commercially
viable. So that a singer’s wheelchair
will one day become as secondary as
Stevie Wonder’s blindness is today. While
some people will feel a knee-jerk reaction
to dismiss these ‘new’ ideas, many will
realise that it is in everyone’s own interest to
listen to the opinions of the disability
community because while it’s relatively easy
(unfortunately) for someone to be racist,
sexist or homophobic and feel they will
never be the victim of their own cruelty,
disability can affect everyone.
People from all walks of life can be
affected due to the indiscriminate nature
of disablement. There’s no clear physical
or social common denominator.

Anyway back to the music… thing
that is different to many political issue
based musical cultures is the type of “form”
that disability music takes. unlike single
female singer songwriters or black rap
artists, there is no underlying “sound” that
comes from disabled people. Whilst
individual disabled musicians may
pioneer new styles it’s unlikely that others
will feel obliged to use them as well.
However, if they do so, then one
may find a similar situation to that found
in black culture where many styles exist
beneath the umbrella of the term ‘black
culture’. For example there may develop
a section of the disability culture whose
style is distinctive because they use voice
synthesisers, (you never know!), and
another who are identifiable through
their use of ‘wheelchair noise samples’
(O.K., I agree that’s pushing it a bit!).
Of course disability has already had its
effect on mainstream culture, albeit in a
subtle way. Artists like Ian Drury, Stevie
Wonder and many others (such as many
of the original blues players, many of
whom were blind), have all had their
influence on the mainstream. However,
up until now there has not been any
single established musician or group in
the mainstream who has been
particularly identifiable as being
preoccupied with disability issues. But,
thanks to music technology, it is not hard
to believe that, in the near future, things
will be different.