My Research trip to Reykjavik: ‘othered’ bodies and The Toilet

Our new animation, The Toilet is on tour!   A few weeks ago, the tour began as Dr Jenny Slater (Reader in Education & Disability Studies) and I travelled to Reykjavik, Iceland for our animation’s WORLD PREMIERE. 

Over the next year, we will be taking conversations of toilets, disability, gender and access to grassroots disability and queer arts and activist spaces internationally to different spaces, including film festivals and activist groups.

This blog post summarises the event:

Activists in Reykjavik launch the new Around the Toilet film

On spoken word and accessible tools

Sound and Music's Pathways Logo

My recent interview for Sound and Music’s New Voices development programme …

“I’m very interested in the ‘anterior states’ to language, or silence altogether.  And how verbal communication could be replaced by movement (disjointed or otherwise).  So much of the artistic process (applying for things, pitching ideas etc) is based on language, talking, describing. I’d love to see a system where physical presence, doing things, silent presentations were just as common.”

Can comedy create a fairer world? Comedian Laurence Clark thinks so.

At the start of this year’s UK Disability History Month, I spoke to writer, actor and funny guy Laurence Clark about his latest show Independence, disability rights and ‘speaking proper’.

Laurence came up with the title Independence back in January, although it bore no relation to the UK’s EU referendum result, little did he know just how topical it would be by now. His show is less about Brexit, and more about the true meaning of ‘independence’ for disabled people.

From idiosyncratic needs assessments to the funny side of other people assisting you with personal care; “Life sometimes throws up the unexpected when you depend on someone else to fasten your jeans for you”- his show challenges notions of independence in a sharp witted, good-natured manner. And after my grueling assessment for Personal Independence Payment, this is one hot topic that certainly appeals to me.

Laurence (Ed Fringe 2016)

Journey to comedy

From an early age Laurence wanted to pursue a career in drama and comedy, but was warned by the careers advisor at his school that he would never get any work. So at University he opted to study Computing (BSc) and Molecular Biology (Ph.D) — subjects he may have excelled at, but didn’t hold his passion.

Like a lot of disabled students, his success was very much dependent on the help of a variety of disability related allowances — including Independent Living Fund and Disability Living Allowance.

Laurence feels that the abolition of these funds will be absolutely disastrous for future disabled students.

Whilst at University Laurence became involved in an exciting new disability based arts and academic scene in Liverpool, run for and by disabled activists.

His Ph.D may not have covered these interests, but it did enable him to carry on living independently in an adapted University flat. Ultimately these additional ‘interests’ led to the launch of his impressive comedy career. Now spanning 16 years, the career has included 8 critically-acclaimed solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.

For Laurence, anecdotal humour is where the best material comes from; otherwise, he says, “you are just someone telling jokes”. His comedy is about his experiences, and that happens to include being disabled. “It would be hard and disingenuous to do a show and ignore that, after all nobody tells Graham Norton to stop telling jokes about being gay”.

He considers that his most controversial show was ‘Spastic fantastic’. The premise for this show was about reclaiming the word spastic — which involved a speech impaired boy band singing a ‘name that tune’ game show with the audience.

“I got a lot of disabled people come up to me after a show saying that they came prepared to hate it’ Laurence recalls, “which I never understood. If you are going to be offended why bother giving it the time of day? But people said it was not what they expected, and I really liked that.”

And his most enjoyable show was ‘Moments of Instant Regrets’, which focused on Laurence’s misdemeanors. He wanted the audience to laugh at some of the bad things he has done, often unwittingly. “I don’t think it worked as well for a mainstream audience” he states, “it’s hard to get them to laugh at a disabled person, which is what I was trying to do.”

Biggest barrier

Laurence feels having speech impairment disables and limits him the most, and it’s an impairment that always seems to get forgotten about. He explains “There is always a big debate about whether to subtitle me or not. Part of me thinks why should it be a big debate? It’s not like people can’t understand what I am saying.”

At his Special School it was really unusual for someone with a speech impairment to get a named role in the yearly school play, Laurence recalls. So when his friend with a speech impairment got a part in the play, Laurence was jubilant. However that jubilance soon wore off when he read the script and discovered his friend’s part was a character that had his tongue cut out!

Laurence said that he usually got minor roles, but did some directing, that was their solution. This is probably more impressive than my childhood amateur dramatics; I was once ‘a doorbell’.

“People are not used to hearing people with cerebral palsy and sometimes panic when they hear voices they are not used to. It’s similar to when people hear a strong accent — they panic and switch off.” notes Laurence.

I would agree with Laurence, speech as a bodily activity has been subject to the enforcing of normalcy throughout history, and this intriguing subject is the focus for my latest sound investigation — Beyond Vocal Norms.

Talking about challenging perceptions of vocal norms — Laurence tells me about a recent chat he had with his five-year-old son around why it isn’t nice to impersonate deaf classmates.

 This little chat was going well, until his son’s sudden disclosure to Laurence’s wife that ‘Daddy shouted at a deaf man in London!’ Laurence had apparently got annoyed when a security guard turned his back to him in what appeared to be mid conversation. Laurence verbally slated the guard for this action — until the guard turned around and pointed at his two hearing aids. Whoops!

Where next?

Currently Laurence is working on a pilot comedy project, a TV sitcom co-written and directed by Matt Holt. The premise for the sitcom was an equality awareness course for particularly unaware employees. Funny, irreverent and sharp, the pilot aims to make equality politics, and its academic theories and concepts, more accessible to mainstream audiences.

“I think there is a certain type of person that gets a lot out of equality training, but they tend to be quite open minded to start with, and probably aren’t the worst offenders…. if you can get people to laugh with you, that is far more powerful than any training.”

You can read more about Laurence’s work at catch Independence on Fri 25 — Sat 26 Nov at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool (as part of DaDaFest 2016).

“If you can get people to laugh with you, that is far more powerful than any training.”

“I think there is a certain type of person that gets a lot out of equality training, but they tend to be quite open minded to start with”

The Music Learning Revolution: Can we do better?

Google Classroom at Music Learning Revolution

After singing pop songs Amy Coombe’s interactive ‘Google classroom’ session at this year’s Music Learning Revolution conference, Shawn Mendes’ ‘Treat You Better’ has been on loop in my head. However ‘Treat you Better’ was certainly not the only memorable aspect of this years MLR.

 Meet, make music and network …

MLR is a conference for anybody working in music education, and prides itself on being somewhat of an Unconference, providing a creative setting for practitioners to meet, make music and network.

From a keynote speech by Radio 1 DJ Hew Stephens to a flamboyant fast paced ‘Gareth Malone’ style ensemble by pianist Adam Saunders, inclusion was a common theme throughout the conference. However I’m not sure the needs of disabled children were always considered when presenters talked about ‘inclusion’ – which is ironic given that inclusion is a term championed by disability rights advocates.

Hew Stephens, Music Learning Revolution, 2016

Very few of the workshops I attended made reference to the needs of disabled children – for example, Adam Saunders’ ‘On Cue’ ensemble. This 7-step approach to learning musical content utilises body percussion, vocalising, singing and playing by ear.   And whilst this session certainly addressed some inclusion problems, as it didn’t require either note reading abilities or instrumental skills, it involved robust physical and mental abilities.   In it’s current format, this would present disabling barriers for many of the children Drake Music work with.

So, it was good to see Drake Music’s Open Space Session – Imagination and Rigour – which was about overcoming disabling barriers within music education.  Led by Jocelyn Watkins and Jonathon Westrup, this session focused on how to assess and accredit music in Special Schools. Jocelyn and Jonathan spoke about the Compose and Perform music qualification developed by Drake Music.

Compose, perform and include …

An Open College Network qualification, Compose and Perform has three levels. The highest level, level two is equivalent to GCSE grade A-C.  Students complete four units: Music Skills for performance; Creating Soundtracks for Films; Writing Music Down and Composing Music using Chance Methods.

The qualification is very much part of the Think2020 initiative which aims to increase musical opportunities for disabled children and young people through strategic and sustainable partnership work in the music education sector.

For me, the Drake Music Open Space Session almost felt like a bit of a fringe event, unintentionally isolated from the other sessions. This was a shame because the participants obviously enjoyed the session, and there were people there who hadn’t necessarily been to a Drake Music workshop before.

I wonder if maybe a way to attract a bigger audience to this session, would be for Drake Music to run a workshop in collaboration with another organisation with a more mainstream appeal?

Choose ‘the arts’ or ‘the sciences’ …

David M Howard. Music Learning Revolution, 2016

One of the presentations I found really interesting was David M Howar’s talk on music, creativity and engineering. Howard spoke about how children often have to choose between arts or science based subjects at A-level.  He believes that this ‘choice’ exacerbates our dwindling number of engineers. He also spoke about the lack of female engineers, and how mixing up subjects like Music and Engineering, make Engineering more appealing to a wider number if students

The false dichotomy of choosing between ‘the arts’ or ‘the sciences’ is in many ways nonsensical, when in Howard’s own words ‘creativity underpins ingenuity which sparks invention…’

Although the talk wasn’t specifically referring to disability, I could relate to the limitations of having to choose between perceivably different subjects because of my physical impairment. When talking to other disabled artists, this is quite a common problem across a range of abilities, and continues to be the case.

Which is why initiatives like Drake Music’s ‘Compose and perform’ qualification are so important for achieving real inclusivity and ‘doing better’.

Blog commissioned by Drake Music, October 2016

Cause I know I can treat you better than he can
And any girl like you deserves a gentleman
Tell me why are we wasting time
On all your wasted crying
When you should be with me instead
I know I can treat you better
Better than he can
Better than he can
Better than he can

Lyrics by Shawn Mendes

Autistics are square pegs re Music Education
Quote from Jocelyn Watkins presentation

Reimagining Creativity


August Natterer My Eyes in the Time of Apparition (1913)
August Natterer
My Eyes in the Time of Apparition (1913)

Recently I’ve attended two MMU led events that I found particularly interesting, both of which broadly examined ‘human’ ways of being, notions of creativity and human flourishing.  In connection with the first of these events – Theorising Normalcy And The Mundane – I have been working with the fantastic Drake Music Innovation Lab North  on my Beyond Vocal Norms sound investigation and research project. I’ll be blogging about Normalcy and Beyond Vocal Norms later this month … so watch this space.

Extending the concepts of creativity and value…

In the meantime I will focus on the second event – VCHF (Value, Creativity and Human Flourishing) – and its relevance on music making for people with significant learning disabilities. VCHF brought together artists, academics and activists to re-examine and extend the concepts of creativity and value within different arts practices. The two day symposium had a particular emphasis on what these concepts mean for people with learning disabilities, dementia and mental health problems. Concepts around creativity are of particular interest to Drake Music’s research into bespoke instruments, and how these developments invariably challenge perceptions of what musical expression is and how music is made.

The symposium featured nine internationally acclaimed speakers, and I will reflect on two sessions that were of particular relevance to many philosophical discussions we have at Drake Music. Drake Music has a core belief that everyone can fulfil their creative and musical potential if given the right opportunities.

One of the aims of the Drake Music Think2020 Education project is to explore more meaningful and inclusive frameworks for measuring musical development for those with profound and multiple learning difficulties.  This can be difficult as mainstream definitions of creativity often excludes people with learning disabilities, dementia and mental health problems.  Currently Drake Music Associates try to overcome this difficulty by using both the Sound of Intent framework and the Youth Music Quality framework, both of which work beyond the limitations of the ‘P-Scales’ for music education.

Co-production and human flourishing …

One of the speakers, Julian West, discussed these concepts, amongst others, in relation to music making with people living with dementia.   West is a Creative Music Leader, Oboist and Consultant, and has spent 14 years working on music projects with older people. He is currently working with Spitalfields Music on an innovative project called LivingArts. LivingArts explores and celebrates the creativity of residents at a care home in East London. West and a small team of artists and musicians visit the care home each week enabling residents to express themselves through music, movement and visual arts. Manchester Camerata have been running a similar project at an early dementia centre, with huge success.

Musicians by Kate Munro, LivingArts
Musicians by Kate Munro, LivingArts

The overall aim of LivingArt was to challenge public perceptions and improve wellbeing for people living with dementia, through the creative arts.  In order to meet this aim, West describes the importance of working beyond conventional ways to measure outputs, and making musical expression and co-production a core value.

The LivingArts group were invited to bring various objects to make sounds with – a particularly successful object was an old typewriter that a participant found engaging as he used to work in an office. They also had a dancer who integrated walking frames, and other disability related equipment during her session there. This all happened with the participants taking a leading role in the creative process with no pressure of defined outputs, therefore providing value for all taking part. West describes how this project also helped the artists to re-examine their own perceptions of creativity and co-production.

Like West and the LivingArts team, Drake Music associate musicians continue to re-evaluate their notions of creativity, and creative potential within the field of music production.   This can be particularly challenging in a culture dominated by the language of the ‘medical model’ and ableist notions of who is ‘allowed’ to be creative, and for whom.

 Who is ‘allowed’ to be creative? …

Tokyo panorama by Stephen Wiltshire
Tokyo panorama by Stephen Wiltshire

Conference organiser, and speaker Dr Lucy Burke, discussed these notions in her talk – Human Trouble and the Cognitive Difference. Dr Burke is Principle lecturer in English at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at MMU. Prompted by Oliver Sacks essay The Autistic Artist, her session explored the ethical and ideological implications of particular concepts of creativity, personhood and the human.

In the Autistic Artist, Sacks examines a 21 year old called Jose who can allegedly only copy draw and deemed to be ‘retarded’. Sacks recognises that Jose’s artwork demonstrates the powers of imagination and expression, and describes his work as both verisimilitude, animated and richly expressive. It could be said that Sacks is being quite progressive by inferring that Jose’s ability is more than that of the stereotypical ‘idiot savant’. However, he also describes Jose’s work as child-art and primitive, whilst paradoxically deliberating whether Jose could gain a meaningful life through being employed to draw. Burke argues that Jose’s work is put under the kind of scrutiny rarely experienced by neurotypical artists. Jose’s art is ‘not allowed’ to be understood outside of the lens of diagnosis, or beyond the belief that personhood is fundamentally interconnected with work and labour.

Music therapy or music education? …

Dancers by Kate Munro, LivingArts
Dancers by Kate Munro, LivingArts

The Autistic Artist case study reminded me of the way musicians with learning disabilities and/or autism still experience harsher artistic scrutiny and barriers to creative expression. The authenticity of their musical abilities are either considered a symptom of impairment and therefore disbelieved, or used to somehow validate their initiation into the work-based notion of personhood. And whilst this validation can be empowering, the superhuman or curative disability narrative often accompanies it. Music therapy, for example, is often based around the notion that people are broken and need fixing. On the other hand music education is becoming less about the actual learning experience and more about the potential monetisation it can offer.

How do we measure music potential and value against mainstream definitions of creativity ? Leave a comment with examples of your own experiences of good or bad practice. Also If you’re interested in these kinds of philosophical discussions visit

Blog commissioned by Drake Music.

How do we measure outcomes against normative values about what creativity actually means?




Clock (c) Mreadz
Clock (c) Mreadz


Art is ‘not allowed’ to be understood outside of the lens of diagnosis.




Two Fishes (c) Mreadz
Two Fishes (c) Mreadz