Back in May 2015, I tumbled out of Shoreditch Overground station for a meeting to discuss the possibility of running a series of ‘relaxed’ concerts making them more accessible to audiences with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). There was to be no particular therapeutic agenda, rather, we wanted to identify and address some of the barriers to SEND audiences attending a concert just like any other concert-goer. Feeling painfully uncool in the hip East London surroundings, I made my way to Oxford House and the offices of Children and the Arts. Oxford House on Derbyshire Street was established in 1884 as the first “settlement house” where students and graduates from Oxford undertook a period of residential volunteering to learn first-hand about the realities of urban poverty. Today, the trendily restored building (all steel and polished concrete) continues a legacy of social conscience with affordable office space (in addition to Children and the Arts, it is home to community dance and drama organisations, ethical fashion designers, the British Union of Spiritist Societies, Food Cycle - recycling surplus food for the homeless - and the Phoenix Community Housing Co-Operative – among others), a gallery and performance spaces and regular community learning and engagement activities. It seemed fitting therefore that my meeting about engaging with SEND audiences and participants should take place in a building which, for 150 years has housed efforts to engage with the marginalised, the forgotten, the difficult and, if we’re very honest, the scary.
As human beings, the unknown is always challenging at best and at worst, terrifying. For the privileged young graduates of Oxford’s Keeble College, coming to work in what was the most deprived corner of East London in the late 1800’s must have been an eye opener. Britten Sinfonia, was about to step into similarly unfamiliar and difficult territory; the world of disability and special needs.
Have I raised your eyebrows? Have I perhaps said something, even at this early stage, which might be offensive? Inappropriate? Or, god forbid, politically incorrect?
No, not yet but it's early days and the question is an example of one of the many challenges we face voyaging into new territory with which we’re relatively unfamiliar, with which the orchestral industry has engaged only in a relatively limited way, and in which we are certainly not expert but in which we’d really like to make a positive contribution.
In a previous incarnation with another orchestral organisation, I recall asking players to be involved with a project for Cooltan Arts, a London-based charity for adults with mental distress (I googled it and ‘mental illness’ is a term they prefer not to use - mental distress better describes, in a less discriminatory fashion, their clientele). I had little success in my recruitment efforts and was surprised and saddened. Here were a reliable group of enthusiastic, warm and caring musicians who greatly valued the projects with which they’d previously been involved. Why were they now reluctant? Incensed, I switched from email to phone (things were clearly getting serious) and called one of them. "It’s not that I don’t want to do it," he explained, "it’s just that I’m not an expert and I wouldn’t want to do something wrong, upset someone, say the wrong thing or make someone have a terrible experience. I don’t know anything about physical or mental disability; I’m not trained in that kind of work!"
And there it was. Much as the will is there, we worry that because we’re dealing with the less-well-known, we don’t have the way.
Even at my meeting just talking about it, I found myself worrying if I was doing or saying the right thing. It started well, I described the difficult journey amid rush hour commuters as ‘completely mental’ and, having dropped my note-book and its stuffing of loose notes, photocopies and clippings all over the floor, apologised for being ‘a complete spaz’. The more I tried not to be offensive, the more I inadvertently seemed to be so. I don’t ordinarily use these words, honestly, I haven’t used them with any frequency since the school playground in the late 1980s but for some reason, my anxious attempts to be utterly correct resulted in their bubbling irrepressibly to the surface with embarrassing frequency.
For those of us who don’t work every day with engaging SEND, it is worrying to think we might stumble as we take our first, exploratory steps and understandably, we are therefore inclined to step back and let the experts take over. For any person, a negative experience can have long-term effects and for a vulnerable person, it seems fair to assume the effects may be magnified.
The pitfalls are very real but, they’re not unique to SEND work so why, when SEND is involved are we so cowed by the fear of failure? Why do we immediately feel that SEND is something other, beyond our familiar frame of reference?
I wonder if it has something to do with the profile of this work. It’s topical which means that failure is trotted out like a cautionary tale. It’s a hot topic and hot is hard to handle correctly. We fall automatically into the trap of thinking about SEND (them) and the concert (us). SEND audience members (them) and non-disabled audience members (us).
I remember calling a Deaf and Blind…sorry, a hearing and visually impaired … sorry, a deaf blind composer and performer and asking him how we should bill him in the programme. He laughed heartily when, embarrassed, I said that honestly, I really didn’t know what the correct terminology was and that I hoped he wouldn’t be offended by my call. "Everyone’s different," he explained, "everyone identifies in different ways. Some people use the word ‘Deaf’ with a capital ‘d’, others prefer ‘hearing impaired’, some use the pre-fix ‘profoundly’ but for me, that doesn’t accurately describe my personal hearing loss and I don’t really like labels anyway so I’m happy with whatever you like. I am human though, and I might change my mind!"
Well thanks, I thought, that’s not terribly helpful! But then, as the conversation percolated over the following days, it occurred to me that is was the simplest and wisest piece of advice anyone had ever given me about working with SEND; everyone’s an individual, everyone’s different, everyone will have a different way in which they identify. Suddenly, it seemed simpler. If I stopped thinking about ‘SEND’ as an ‘other’, a collective unknown, a group outside my frame of reference and started to think about individuals, their unique needs, abilities, backgrounds, opinions, means of expression and so on, then I could even the playing field and we would all be on the same page. Rather than trying to find a way to fit SEND into a normalised frame, I could change the parameters; widen the frame to include all of us in all our special individuality.
As this realisation took place some years before my Oxford House meeting, it is clear that it was not a quick fix. We’ll always be a little anxious when we venture out of our zones of familiarity and unfortunately, in my case, this usually results in an episode of slapstick buffoonery. Focusing on individuals and what a person can do, their ability rather than disability levels the playing field. We don’t have to be experts because we’re all in the same boat. We can get involved, try things out, challenge and be challenged by a new frame of reference.
Jen, Creative Learning Director