In 1989 I was born without my right hand. Twenty-six years later, I'm an international concert pianist - something that perhaps few people would have envisaged. Being a professional pianist might not be the most obvious career choice if you have one hand but why shouldn't it be?
I was 14 when I first took an interest in the piano and it didn't take me long to realise that some people would find it difficult to support my decision to pursue this. When I was 15 I was denied an audition for a music school based on the fact that I had one hand. To the Headteacher it seemed ridiculous that I could even consider becoming a pianist and so, without even hearing me play, she took it upon herself to stand in my way and discourage me. Thankfully, I didn't take her advice and pressed on - I couldn't let that one person decide my future - but that experience gave me a new appreciation for the power of people's expectations and the importance of support networks.
My parents never brought me up as being different from anyone else and never set limitations on what I could and couldn't do. I think that's where the self-belief stemmed from when I decided to continue applying for music schools until I got offered a place. Fortunately, the encouragement from my friends and family outweighed the obstacles that I faced because of disability prejudice. But being denied the opportunity to audition made me ask: 'How many other disabled musicians and artists have been discouraged from following their dreams and how many of them didn't recover from this attack on their ambition?'
36% of people admit to thinking that disabled people are not as productive as others and a quarter of disabled people have experienced people expecting less of them because of their disability. Producers, curators, funders and event organisers can all tackle this problem directly by creating opportunities for disabled people to get involved, develop as artists and share their work with the public. My parents approached it by helping me find ways that I could do things with what I had instead of saying 'You can't possibly do that'. This approach should be at the heart of any programme increasing accessibility. If those opportunities aren't created, or if we are discouraged from developing our skills because of presumptions about ability, the cycle is reinforced and it becomes increasingly difficult for disabled people to take part equally in society.
Last week I was excited to be asked by creative arts charity Create (of which I am a Patron) to give an opening speech at its current exhibition Beyond at KPMG in Canary Wharf. Over the past year, Create has supported 351 young disabled artists and the exhibition showcases some of the artwork that they have produced during that time. The event that Create hosted for the young artists coincided with International Day of Persons with Disabilities and was an opportunity to showcase what these young disabled people are capable of producing, spreading the message that they can go above and beyond any expectations that people have of them. If we are to have any hope of changing the minds of those who think disabled people are less productive than others, they have to be able to see evidence that contradicts their assumptions. As Create demonstrates, there are lots of talented young disabled artists out there, but they need support to develop their skills and raise their visibility in the public domain.
For me as an artist, seeing my one hand as a barrier to becoming a professional pianist is missing the point. It was the external expectations and assumptions that people placed on me that acted as the biggest barrier that I had to overcome. Those expectations were what tried to hold me back from what I could achieve, and all of those expectations came from people who didn't know anything about me. If you are disabled, you might be used to people telling you what you can and can't do but, remember this: you know yourself best. Believe in yourself, embrace your qualities and work with what you've got. If we all listened to the negative in life, we would never do anything.
To find out more about Create's work, visit createarts.org.uk
To find out more about Nicholas McCarthy, visit nicholasmccarthy.co.uk