My name is Gaelynn Lea. I am a violinist turned songwriter from Duluth Minnesota. I have been performing for over a decade, but my music career took a national twist when I won NPR Music’s 2016 Tiny Desk Contest. After that I started getting a lot more offers to play out of state so I started working with a booking agent to help me arrange tours. My husband and I both quit our jobs, sold the house, bought a van and hit the road! As of this writing I have played over 250 shows in the past 18 months which took us to 42 states and 6 countries – life has been a whirlwind indeed!
I have a disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or Brittle Bones Disease. This is a genetic condition that affects the collagen in my body and causes my bones to be fragile. I broke between 30-50 bones in utero and this caused my legs and arms to be bent and shortened since birth. I have used an electric wheelchair since the age of 2 and a half…. I ruined many a doorway while learning how to drive at such a young age!
Anyway, when I was 10 years old I decided that I wanted to play a stringed instrument. Lucky for me, I had a very encouraging and creative teacher. Because of my small stature, I couldn’t play the violin or cello the regular way. So instead we had to figure out a way to adapt the instrument to fit me. We realized that I could play the violin upright like a tiny cello. It worked out great and I have been playing that way ever since. I started performing in bands in 2006, writing songs in 2011, and touring in 2016.
As a touring musician with a disability I have faced a number of unique challenges on the road. Some of these are just part of the deal, like needing the assistance of a travel companion (who is fortunately also my husband, Paul). But some of these difficulties could be fixed if we just raised awareness! So here is my list of the FIXABLE WAYS we can make the music industry more accessible… Get ready, buckle up, and take a ride with my wheels…
Make sure your venue is accessible to your guests!! This means an entry to the venue without stairs or with a ramp… and access to the concert space! Either have your public events on the main floor or make sure there’s an elevator. This is so important! You may never have thought of this before, but a venue with a step and no ramp might as well have a sign outside that says “People with Disabilities Not Welcome Here”. Ultimately it’s no different than saying Black people or LGBTQ people are not welcome – we just haven’t been conditioned to think that way. Although the Disability Rights Movement is alive and well, it’s not quite as ingrained as other Civil Rights movements… yet. That’s why I am writing this list – to help raise awareness! What’s , this isn’t just about being a “nice” venue owner – accessibility is the law in the United States! The Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) has been around for 27 years and counting – so every venue owner has a legal responsibility to be as accessible as possible, no matter how old the building is… So get with the times!
Be clear about whether or not you are an accessible venue! If you’re an accessible venue already, be loud and proud! Put it on your website! Write it on the posters! I assure you, people with disabilities will take notice – 20% of the population has some sort of disability and that’s a lot of potential customers! If you’re not accessible, make sure that is on your website and posters too – although it sucks to have to write it, it is WAY better than someone showing up to a show to rock out to their favorite band only to find they can’t get up your staircase or they can’t go to the bathroom all night! Plus maybe having to actually write the words “We are Not Accessible” on all your posters will motivate you to invest in a ramp or a bigger bathroom stall first – instead of upgrading your sound system or espresso machine. Accessibility needs to be a priority – it is the law and it affects 20% of your potential customer base! Feel like you can’t afford to modify your venue? There are tax credits for making these accommodations. There are electric lifts that are WAY cheaper than elevators. There are boy scouts looking for service projects. There are crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe… So stop making excuses and start getting creative! Somehow you’ve always managed to pay your taxes and your rent (at least I hope so!) and if you treat it like another legal obligation (umm, because it is) you will find a way! Don’t put this off any longer! Can’t get up to code? Consider moving into a new space, or partner with a more accessible venue like a church and start co-hosting your public shows there instead! Perhaps that is tough to read, but that’s reality!
Help your guests with disabilities feel welcome at your show! Not everyone with a disability uses a wheelchair – in fact, many don’t! So there are ways to be accessible to people with other types of disabilities. Here are some ways to become more accessible:
Build a ramp to the stage… Seriously! I have played a lot of shows in my life and unfortunately only about 25% of these venues have accessible stages. The other 75% have elevated stages without a ramp, ranging from 6 inches to 4 feet off the ground. But no matter how high the stage, my electric wheelchair can’t climb it – not even “just one step”. So this means I either have to be lifted on the stage (it takes 4 adults to lift my chair because it is 260 pounds) which is bad for my chair and dangerous for me, or I have to play on the floor in front of the stage. This is not cool for obvious reasons, but also for a more subtle reason – no one else has to get lifted onstage. It is discriminatory! You don’t see 4 dudes lugging Paul McCartney or Beyoncé or anyone else onstage – it would be uncomfortable to watch and you’d wonder what was going on. But for some reason it’s still deemed acceptable in our society for musicians with disabilities to be reliant on the help of others to get on and off stage. It doesn’t have to be that way! Either:
Build a permanent ramp
Buy a portable ramp
Buy a lift if the stage is really tall – there are both manual and electric lifts, depending on your budget
Take away the stage! If you can’t afford to build a ramp than have ALL the bands play from the floor!
Advertise your shows and music programs to people with disabilities! Look up some disability organizations in your community and send flyers or email blasts to them too. Part of the reason people with disabilities may not go to shows is because they’re not sure if the venue is accessible. Or maybe they were never invited in the first place! You can help to change that by being inclusive about where you advertise your events! If you run an open mic or a community music group, it’s especially important to advertise to people with disabilities. It’s hard to hone your craft if you are not able to practice in front of people, and open mics and community music groups are great places to work on your chops! We will start seeing more musicians with disabilities as they are given more chances to perform! I started at open mics myself, unfortunately in a venue that was completely inaccessible. I I had to enter the venue through the kitchen, be carried onto the stage, and have help in the bathroom because my wheelchair wouldn’t fit. I wish I could say it was different than that, but I’m still glad I was able to play! However not everybody can be able to attend an open mic unless they are invited and the venue is accessible. We can and should be doing better to help support new musicians with disabilities!
Book more musicians with disabilities in venues and festivals! It might not seem like it (due to lack of representation in the media), but there are many talented people out there playing music who have disabilities! I have been lucky enough to meet many of them on the road… and you can meet them too! You just have to do some research and find them! One of the things that music promoters and other bands can do is to search out and book shows with artists who have disabilities! Call your State’s VSA Office (which stands for Very Special Arts) if you are having trouble finding people! 35 states have a VSA agency and many of them have a database of artists with disabilities. Otherwise call local disability organizations. Or turn to good old Google and Facebook!
Remember that music is activism! The more society sees people with disabilities out there performing, the more disability will become a central focus when we talk about things like healthcare or accessibility or even just fashion, dating, or events in our community! Right now disability seems like an anomaly because it’s not part of the cultural norm… But it doesn’t have to be that way! Everybody has varying levels of disability and at one point or another… you might end up being disabled yourself someday even if you are able bodied now! There’s no shame in that, and part of the way we can express Disability Pride is to include disability in the Arts! So if you book a venue or a festival remember to be inclusive. Nobody would book a festival filled with all white dudes… at least not in 2017. In the same way we don’t need all able-bodied people to be performing all the time! Spread your wings a little bit and help change the social norms! On a similar note, if you are a radio DJ or a music writer, make sure you are including musicians with disabilities in your playlist/ content! Representation matters!
So that’s my list! I know all these ideas put together might seem intense if you’ve never thought about disabilities in the music industry before. It’s a lot to take in, and change won’t happen overnight. But I want you to know what real challenges there are facing people with disabilities in the music world…. Things will never get better if we don’t start talking about them and educating ourselves and working for change. I also want you to know that performing has been one of my greatest joys in life, despite all the barriers that currently exist. Music is medicine. Music is energy. Music is love. Music is light. But still, I know as a society we can do better and I want to see progress happening for the future generations! Together we can make the world more accessible for everyone, including musicians with disabilities! So let’s get out there and change the world!
Want to learn more about how to make your events more accessible? Check out the the DIY Access Guide from the UK-based disability arts group, Attitude is Everything! You can download their helpful guide for FREE!