As a musician in the bands Spaceships are Cool and Yunioshi I thought I had a good handle on the music industry, but after suffering a spinal injury five years ago my eyes were really opened to a whole set of issues I had never previously considered. I thought 'surely being a disabled musician can't be that different, right?' Erm, wrong.
Where are they all? Of course everyone's heard of Ian Dury but there are actually loads of amazing disabled musicians out there that one simply never hears about. Following last year's Paralympics, disability awareness in general society is at an all time high, but how does the music industry fare? Well a bit crap to be honest. Despite seeing little prejudice in the industry, there is a conspicuous lack of support.
It took me a long while to feel confident enough to start playing live again after having a rare spinal tumour removed and the regaining of my confidence was mainly made possible by the amazing support of my fellow band members and friends, not everyone is that lucky. There's actually very little advice or information available that would give disabled musicians the confidence to get out there and perform their music. I firmly believe that if there was some kind of industry-lead support and information network you'd soon see a huge difference in the amount of disabled musicians who make it to the big time!
It's also incredibly frustrating when you suddenly realize that all those venues, recording studios and rehearsal rooms that you once went to are now inaccessible and there's nowhere to even take a leak (although there's always a temptation to go all punk-rock and lob a full leg bag into the audience). A lot of the time you only discover these issues when you arrive on the day; 'yes, there's a big door you can get a wheelchair through at the back of the venue and you can get straight onto the stage from there' great, but they neglected to mention that the door is at the top of a spiral staircase! Yep, that did really happen.
One area that would be great to develop as well is the access to music technology and adapted instruments. Imagine having a creative talent that you can't express just because you can't pick up an instrument anymore. My particular favourite instrument is the Theremin, not only the world's first ever electronic musical instrument, but also the only instrument that you don't need any hands to play as you don't even have to touch it to make a sound. I recently bought an electric double-bass that has just the neck and no body after deciding that no matter how I tried there was no way I could get my arms around a normal one whilst sitting in a wheelchair. If there was some sort of funding available to buy or hire adapted instruments and help nurture some new talent, then I think we'd start to see more disabled musicians on stage.
However, things ARE on the up. More disabled musicians are getting gigs and airplay - BBC 6Music HQ even has posh accessible showers! A lot of this (not the showers) is down to the lovely people at Attitude is Everything who run a range of projects including our upcoming Yunioshi gig with The Wave Machines at Village Underground as one of their 'Club Attitude' nights. I first discovered Attitude is Everything when they asked Spaceships are Cool to play at Glastonbury festival in 2009. It was an amazing experience for me as a relative 'newbie' to the life of a disabled musician as I figured that I wouldn't be doing any gigs again let alone festivals.
Attitude is Everything not only help raise the profile of disabled musicians but champion deaf and disabled people's right to go and see live music by promoting accessible club nights, organising viewing platforms at festivals, providing sign language interpreters and recently creating the UK's first music venue charter that encourages venues to be fully accessible for audiences.
Where I see it, the next step (excuse the pun from a wheelchair user) will be to make sure venues have decent access for us disabled musicians too. Although this might take a bit of the adventure out of it for me, will I be able to cope without the excitement of travelling in bin-lifts? What are all those roadies who carry me gonna do for a job if they get rid of the steps?
There's a lot to be done but we are definitely heading in the right direction, so all I need now is that dressing room that's not up three flights of stairs and perhaps more importantly, one that has a fully accessible minibar.
Rob is playing at Club Attitude with his band Yunioshi in support of Wave Machines at the Village Underground on 26 March.