BEFORE YOU READ THIS LETTER: Please remember that I am sharing from my personal experience as a white, cis-gender, physically-disabled woman. I can’t pretend to know or fully understand the experiences of other disabled artists – because there are as many ways to be disabled as there are to be human! Disabled people exist in every race, class, gender identity, body type, age, creed, sexual expression, and we live within every nation of the world. But after talking to many other disabled musicians, I do know that the barriers I face are not imagined. They are real and they deserve to be discussed. But please do yourself a favor and listen and learn from other disabled artists, too! Sprinkled throughout this letter there are some music videos by disabled musicians that speak to me… I encourage you to dig in and find out more about Disability Culture.
My name is Gaelynn Lea and I am a violinist and songwriter from Minnesota. In 2016, I won NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest – my song was selected out of over 6,100 submissions from every state in the US. For an independent folk artist like me this was a big deal. I thought I’d “made it”, you know? And I definitely made the most of the opportunity. Since then I have released 3 full length albums and two EP’s. I’ve played over 600 shows in 45 states and 9 countries. I’ve opened for bands like Wilco and The Decemberists and I’ve been an official artist at SXSW twice. This all sounds great on paper, but it’s only half the story.
When I started touring, I realized that the barrier to entry for disabled artists is so high that it makes it incredibly difficult to pursue music professionally. It’s exhausting to constantly advocate for yourself. For example, I got to play a big show in New York City a couple years ago at a well-known venue called Mercury Lounge and the ramp they’d promised – after several extra emails back and forth – was so steep and flimsy that I couldn’t use it because it would have been dangerous. So I played from the floor instead of on the stage. And unsurprisingly, the Green Room was upstairs. So I ended up preparing for my set in the mop closet with only a curtain separating me and the audience – the bleach fumes were so strong that I had to ask them to remove the mop from the space. It was a sad and somewhat humiliating reminder of how far we have to go before disabled artists are given the same dignity and accommodations as their nondisabled peers. Nonetheless, I performed a killer set to an appreciative audience, because if disabled musicians are anything, we are the consummate professionals. We give the audience our all despite woefully inadequate circumstances. It shouldn’t have to be this way.
It would be one thing if the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires public spaces like music venues be accessible, was a new thing… But this is a 31 year old law, and it’s just not being taken seriously enough. Over the span of 3 decades a venue should be able to build a wooden ramp or switch an office out with the green room in order to make the space accessible to disabled artists. Or even move to a different building altogether that doesn’t discriminate against disabled artists and audiences. Because at this point, inaccessibility is no longer a sin of omission, or even a matter of an operating budget… 31 years is too long to use that excuse. If we are not ready to raise awareness about the inequality and lack of safety disabled performers are facing on a regular basis, then we are complicit to discrimination… It’s time for us to say it.
Another huge barrier is the lack of behind-the-scenes support for disabled artists. I worked with a small booking agency for the first 18 months, but all too often my agent wouldn’t take the time needed to confirm the existence of a ramp or a bathroom I could use and so I’d end up troubleshooting it all myself just days or hours before the show. I have yet to find a booking agency that is centered on the concept of accessibility for its artists and their audiences. This would be a game changer.
I’ve also never been signed to a label, and I’ve never found a manager that would take me – even though I have looked for both – and I have to wonder if it is because no one wants to do the extra work. Or perhaps they don’t think a disabled artist can really resonate with nondisabled audiences, even though 26% of Americans have some type of disability. In talking with one potential manager, he even had the nerve to recommend I just focus on public speaking and abandon music altogether! This outright lack of attention from the industry may be one reason why some people with invisible disabilities choose not to disclose – the industry isn’t assuring them that it’s got their backs if they decide to be open about their disability. No one is telling them that a disability won’t ruin their career.
The press we receive as disabled performers is another barrier to entry in the music industry. I am so grateful to NPR Music for giving me the huge opportunity to reach a wider audience, but ever since then, the majority of the press I have received has been centered on my disability or my activism and not on my music. I’ve turned down one segment on CNN three different times because they insist on centering the piece on how I adapted my playing style on violin with my very first teacher when I was 10 years old. When I say that I’d much rather talk about how I am working to make the music industry more accessible, they drop the story. We are still click-bait… inspirational stories about “overcoming” disability. The press often does not treat us like real musicians. Sometimes they barely treat us as human. One article started with this line, and I quote: “It didn’t seem like she’d be able to do much with her life — until she found music.” How can you be seen as a legitimate artist if this is your press?
Now, I’m telling you about these barriers not to overwhelm or depress you. I’m telling you this because change is possible – if we all work together within the music industry. There are many practical steps we can take to help make inclusion and access a reality. Artists (nondisabled and disabled) – as well as booking agencies – can commit to choosing only accessible venues for their gigs. Arts organizations can advocate for access funding in Congress, including for things like ASL and captioning. Festivals can intentionally diversify their rosters, ensure the facilities are accessible, and include disabled people in their planning and leadership teams. Artists and music journalists can put pressure on the agencies and labels to be more inclusive in their rosters. The press can honor and highlight those agencies that actually make a commitment to accessibility for all its artists. Music journalists can write articles about disabled artists and Disability Culture. Basically every music organization with staff can commit to hiring disabled people. You can take the survey at RAMPD to join a growing network of recording artists and music professionals with disabilities (and their allies!) to amplify Disability Culture, promote inclusion, and advocate for accessibility in the music industry. Together, each of us can do our part to give these issues a place and a sense of urgency in the wider culture.
Because while “inclusion” is important – and I can’t stress how important it is – it’s not the whole story. If you include disabled artists but then say nothing as they are forced to work in unsafe or degrading situations, you have missed the point. If you talk about the importance of disabled artists in our culture, but leave them to fend for themselves without the support or investment of the industry, you are only going halfway. If you say you advocate for diversity but then never showcase disabled talent in your niche of the industry, you’re not hitting the bar.
Despite the barriers, this is an exciting time for disability in music. Because we’re finding each other and we are creating a movement. Wherever your power lies in the music industry, don’t be afraid to take radical action to support disabled artists who are facing discrimination, exclusion, and indifference in the industry. We are proud of our culture, our community, our tenacity and our creativity – and we know we have something to offer the music industry. Your support now will make this vision a reality for disabled musicians like us and for future generations of disabled kids.