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  • Writer's pictureDavid Stanley

The UK Disability and Access Ambassador for Arts and Culture - An opportunity and a responsibility

I was deeply honoured to be appointed as the Government’s new Disability and Access Ambassador for Arts and Culture in July 2021. The role is a great opportunity to improve the quality and range of opportunities available for people with disabilities to access Arts and Culture, both as consumers and creatives. It is also a great responsibility.

My experience of leading an award-winning music education and performance service for children and adults with learning disabilities (“The Music Man Project”) has given me a unique insight into the challenges faced by this once-forgotten society in the Arts. I believe we should look beyond just access to education, employment or buildings, towards the fulfilment of creative potential, role models and challenging ignorance head-on with a narrative informed and performed by people with disabilities themselves. While great strides have been made in the world of Paralympic Sport, the Arts significantly lag behind in terms of awareness, acceptance, opportunity and investment. Expectation remains too low across large parts of the UK. It seems life-changing, large scale, prestigious performance platforms are considered too expensive, too difficult and ultimately beyond their reach. Yet, for thousands of disabled people, the Arts is the key to unlocking their potential as performers, creative artists and most of all individuals.

My primary focus will be to empower more people with learning disabilities to show what they can achieve through the Arts – to tell their story. The Arts has lifted underrepresented communities above discrimination throughout our history. Now it is the turn of people with learning disabilities to be heard. My lived experience of over 20 years working in the accessible Music industry is proof that anything is possible, but the nature and enormous range of learning disability means that most of these remarkable people need some help to realise their true potential. In 1999 I taught music to one student with Down’s Syndrome. 20 years later, I presented 200 musicians with learning disabilities at the Royal Albert Hall in front of 3000 people. In the two decades between these musicians played the London Palladium twice, broke a world record, toured the UK to launch Music Man Projects across our country, inspired 10,000 Primary School children, performed to members of the Royal family and starred in a TV advert.

My first task will be to find and promote other effective practice in accessible arts and culture which can be duplicated across the country. I will also champion the latest research in this field, emphasising the distinction between education and clinical therapy and the importance of showcasing learning-disabled talent to entertain, inspire and influence the general public.

I will also celebrate the best performance venues and centres of cultural interest, recognising their work to provide accessible arts and culture for consumers and for creative artists and performers with disabilities. Accessible performances have been a wonderful advancement but now is the time to add accessible “performers” to the legacy of disability Arts and Culture. I want to see people with learning disabilities as much on the stage as in the dress circle. Venues must find ways to adapt both their buildings and their attitudes so they are more practical and affordable for disabled performers.

I would like to deliver a new approach to diversity awareness training which utilises the talents of learning-disabled artists to present directly to the business world, reducing ignorance and misunderstanding and showing the potential value of people with learning disabilities in the workforce.

In August I was appointed to the advisory board of the new National Plan for Music Education. My role is to represent the interests of children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Drawing upon experience of teaching in special schools for over 2 decades and my research in New York with the Churchill Fellowship, I intend to make a positive contribution to improving musical opportunities and outcomes for children and adults with SEND, a significantly underrepresented group in the education system today.

High expectation has always been a guiding principle for my endeavours in accessible Arts and Culture. With this in mind, I hope to celebrate the talents of learning-disabled performers and share the progress of my fellow Ambassadors in a grand concert at an inconic performance venue. I can think of no better culmination of my work!

I will act as a conduit for the voices of people with disabilities, their families and support network. I want Arts and Culture to connect this community, both nationally and internationally. I want to celebrate and promote the amazing potential of disability Arts and Culture to change lives and inspire us all.

I stand against all forms of discrimination and believe Arts and Culture can play a pivotal role in driving change. As we emerge from the pandemic, this is more vital than ever for people with learning disabilities. We must guard against a return to the dark days of medicalisation, isolation and cruelty. Instead, we must continue the march toward community care, engagement, equality, freedom and opportunity. These goals have defined their struggle over recent decades and ultimately created the environment for Disability and Access Ambassadors to exist in today’s more accepting society.

Click here for the full list of Disability and Access Ambassadors across a wide range of industries.

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