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  • Writer's pictureDavid Stanley

Breaking Barriers: The Impact of My Disability & Access Ambassadorship for Arts & Culture (2021-2024)

Updated: May 31

Serving as the Government’s Disability and Access Ambassador for Arts and Culture has been a great honour. Although the role is voluntary, non-political and comes without a budget or any direct power to enforce change, I have proudly influenced policy, advised stakeholders across all arts sectors around the UK and showcased the extraordinary abilities of an underrepresented, undervalued and misunderstood creative community.

During my tenure as Ambassador, I concentrated on individuals with learning disabilities and the grassroots arts and cultural organizations that assist them. Having over 25 years of personal experience and expertise in accessible music education and performance, my main emphasis has naturally been on music. However, I was privileged to both learn about and advise across the arts and culture industry as a whole, including museums, libraries and galleries. My foremost goal has been to uncover the hidden accomplishments and capabilities of individuals with learning disabilities, showcasing them not merely as consumers of accessible arts and culture, but as prominent performers and artists in their own right.

During my three years I attended 101 meetings where I advised individuals with and without a disability, charities, schools, universities, local education authorities, Government Ministers, performance venues, creative industry professionals, academic researchers and the corporate sector. I wrote 21 reports, delivered 27 seminars and presentations, supported 9 pieces of academic research, wrote 20 blogs and recorded a series of podcasts. I featured in the national press and was interviewed on the BBC, ITV, Sky News, Radio 4, Military Broadcast Services and numerous local radio programmes. I also received 12 new honours, awards and appointments during this period.

My biggest impact in the role included writing the SEND Music Education section of the new National Plan for Music Education, recording a video for the Minister for Disabled People to present at the United Nations in New York, delivering the first ever disability-led music workshop at 10 Downing Street for the Prime Minister and celebrating UK Disability History Month with a speech and an unforgettable performance by The Music Man Project with Mr Speaker! I also mentored 12 role-model musicians with learning disabilities to support and inform my work. The world-renowned “Music Man Project Global Ambassadors” and their families provided a unique insight into the challenges their community face and were positive examples of what can be achieved when high expectations and equal opportunity lie at the heart of accessible arts and culture.

I advised the Royal Albert Hall on how to improve access across their operation - from auditorium to backstage access, community engagement to ticketing and online services. I was delighted that the Hall set a national precedent by providing a fully accessible portable disabled toilet on site for disabled performers who require this facility as part of their standard hire price rather than for an additional cost. Previously, these performers had to change in a curtained-off area on the floor where other performers and production crew were forced to step over or around them. I’m confident that other theatres and concert halls will follow the nation’s most iconic venue by adopting the same policy. Plans are even being made to build a permanent changing place to serve Royal Albert Hall audiences and performers, along with the local museum district in Kensington.

Following consultation with all parts of the arts industry, I recommended the following six common goals for more inclusive and accessible arts and culture in the UK. I hope these recommendations will be acted upon by policymakers in the future:

  1. Opportunities for Creative Artists with Disabilities as well as Disabled Consumers

  2. Pathways for Disability Employment and Volunteering

  3. Bespoke Online and Human Communication to Assist Access

  4. Engagement with Local Disabled Community (children and adults)

  5. Disabled Role Models for Future Generations

  6. Regular Promotion of Disability Arts and Culture  

My greatest advantage was my unrivalled access to large-scale performance opportunities which showcased disability arts and culture more effectively than a thousand of my words or a hundred meetings and strategies. My role as CEO of The Music Man Project charity, along with significant support from global creative media company, TEAM LEWIS, His Majesty’s Royal Marines Band Service and the Rt. Hon. Penny Mordaunt MP helped me to facilitate and promote learning-disability musicianship on a scale never seen before. It is particularly fitting that the Leader of the House played such a crucial role in my Ambassadorship because she originally started the scheme as Minister for Disabled People nearly a decade ago. As a 2019 Churchill Fellow, I was also helped by an Activate Fund from the Churchill Fellowship, which enabled me to spend some time away from teaching to make an impact across the country. Finally, I was blessed with the unyielding support of my local MP, Anna Firth. Anna took over from my dear friend and patron, the late Sir David Amess following his brutal murder in October 2021. After such a tragedy, I was more determined than ever to make the most of my opportunuty, particularly because Sir David had encouraged and supported my application to become a Disability and Access Ambassador 6 months before his death.

With all this support, The Music Man Project Global Ambassadors and I were able to promote the UK as a world-leader in accessible music education and performance and a beacon for other countries to follow. My performances featuring musicians with learning disabilities have paved the way for a revolution in accessible arts and culture in which individuals with learning disabilities are now the ‘stars of the show’, rather than a tokenistic add-on to tick a box. I hope my term of service has educated general society into realising that disabled people can entertain, educate and inspire just like anyone else. This will be my greatest legacy.

Evidence backs up my bold claims. Examples of my musicians with learning disabilities breaking down barriers include the first ever top-10 single featuring the Royal Marines and musicians with learning disabilities, the first ever tour of San Diego by learning disabled musicians (including a performance onboard the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier), the first ever performance by disabled musicians at the Mountbatten Festival of Music at the Royal Albert Hall (including a standing ovation from the King), the first ever UK tour with the Royal Marines and the first ever performance by learning-disabled musicians at 10 Downing Street. The partnership between The Music Man Project and the Royal Marines Band Service is the only ongoing musical collaboration in the history of the Royal Marines and it was described by the recently retired Royal Marines Director of Music as the highlight of his career.

Mountbatten Festival of Music 2023

The climax of my Ambassadorship was my “Music is Magic” concert at the Royal Albert Hall on April 8th, 2024. As composer, director and producer, I presented 250 musicians with learning disabilities to an audience of 4000 people, supported by His Majesty’s Band of the Royal Marines and Music Man Project patron, Michael Ball. It was the UK’s largest ever celebration of accessible music-making and I received the Prime Minister’s Point of Light Award during the performance.


Music is Magic at the Royal Albert Hall 2024

I’ve been honoured to receive many other awards for services to disabled people during my time as Ambassador, including the first ever Sir David Amess Memorial Award at the Bengal’s Pride Awards, and a National Lottery Award presented by Michael Ball at the Big Night of Musicals on BBC1. I was made a Freeman of the City of Southend and listed as a trailblazer who has paved the way in Disability Rights by Motability Magazine. In May 2024 I was privileged to attend a Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in celebration of the UK’s Creative Industries, in the presence of His Majesty, The King.

With Michael Ball OBE

The final month of my service will witness my Music Man Project Ambassadors performing at the Royal Nava Scotia Military Tattoo in Canada. This will be the first time that musicians with learning disabilities have performed at the Tattoo from anywhere in the world – another proud first for the UK. In September I will work with Italian charity “Allegro Moderato” on a musical collaboration in Milan.

I thank all the Government Mininsters, MPs and Civil Servants who treated me with nothing but the utmost professionalism and respect throughout all meetings, correspondence and requests for help.

My efforts to cement the UK’s reputation as a world leader in accessible arts and culture has only just begun and I look forward to working for the Government of any party in the future, if the opportunity arose. While others campaign against restrictions, inequality, spending cuts, discrimination and ignorance at home, my strength lies in promoting the UK as a global beacon of opportunity for people with learning disabilities around the world. My 25-year positive campaign provides unique and ground-breaking opportunities for them to thrive.

Progress on both a national and international scale can be achieved by empowering this once-forgotten community through their unique creativity and culture. Having taught, performed and consulted in India, South Africa, Nepal, America and the Philippines I would welcome the chance to continue this important work on behalf of the United Kingdom as an International Accessibility Ambassador for Arts and Culture.

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