Disability Arts and Activism


Disability History Month 2018 focuses on the importance of music to the history of the Disabled Peoples’ movement. Colin Cameron recalls the emergence of Disability Arts in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the early 1990s, paying tribute to three musical acts; Johnny Crescendo, Ian Stanton and The Fugertivs, who each set a precedent in the struggle for disability rights.

Disability Arts In London Magazine: anthology published in 1991

1992 was a good year to be around Newcastle upon Tyne if you were part of the Disabled People’s Movement. Disability Action North East had been set up to campaign for civil rights, the National Disability Arts Forum was based here, and the Northern Disability Arts Forum had just been established. At the Friends Meeting House in Jesmond there were loud meetings of angry, vocal crips finding a common voice and expressing anger at the experiences of inequality and marginalisation we met with on a daily basis.

What a gang of freaks we were. Wheelchair users, Deaf people, blind people, people with mental health issues, people with learning difficulties, people with epilepsy, people with prosthetic limbs, people with restricted stature, people with brain damage. It was all about access and the lack of access to things other people took for granted. It was about barriers and the need to remove barriers. It was about segregation and the need to end segregation. It was about direct payments and about people taking charge of their own lives. It was about representations of disabled people by the non-disabled and about the need to reject these and smash them up and develop our own.

Disability was about social justice rather than special needs and all this was being expressed in terms of something called the Social Model. A distinction had been made between impairment and disability. We were asserting our rights to be who we were, as people whose lives were shaped in important ways by our experiences of impairment, but to reject the disabling practices, policies, culture and everyday encounters that had such a destructive impact on our lives.

black and white photo of disabled musician performing alongside charity sculpture ChipIt was all starting up in Newcastle but there was a real sense that what was happening here was part of something much bigger. Copies of Coalition, the monthly mag issued by the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, and Disability Arts in London Magazine, circulated and gave a real sense that what was happening locally was part of a national and international movement of disabled people coming together, gaining strength from each other and demanding change. Campaigning at the local level took place in the context of wider national campaigns for anti-discrimination legislation and for the roll out of direct payments.

Just as this was new to Newcastle, it was new to me. While I had recognised myself as a disabled person for about five years by then, I had never come across disability politics before. (I had initially gone along to see the Disablement Resettlement Officer at the Job Centre in Slough, where I’d been living in 1987, expecting to be told I wasn’t disabled so that I could tell my dad to stop going on about it: “Colin, you ought to see about registering as disabled as it would improve your job chances…” “Why should I, because I’m not disabled…” etc. Unexpectedly to me, the DRO had given me one look and said: “Oh yes, you’re disabled, all right,” and I had walked out five minutes later with a green registration card and a number, SLR8812.)

Thinking in medical model terms, I had come to regard my impairments as ‘disabilities’ and to live with that identity, thinking of disability in terms of limitations resulting from my various impairments. Coming into contact with the Disabled People’s Movement changed everything. One lunchtime in The Akenside pub, just round the corner from Newcastle Quayside, Geof Armstrong, the director of NDAF, had explained the Social Model to me and a light had gone on inside my head. I was able to think about my own experience of impairment differently, to understand disability as saying something not about me but about the way society responds to physical difference.

I had always been a bit of a bolshie git, unconventional and challenging, but at least part of that had been about trying to preserve and assert myself in a world that is quick to put disabled people down. As someone living with acquired brain injury and various other long-term injuries sustained in a serious road accident when I was a boy I had experienced my fair share of discrimination and humiliation, but regarded this as my own problem, something I had to find my own ways of dealing with.

The Social Model made sense because it turned the situation around. Impairment in itself can be painful and uncomfortable and wearing, but the real problem is to do with the way society deals with it – by shutting it out, by pushing it to the edges, by making it disappear, by not letting it in, by being condescending towards it, by laughing at it, by beating it up.

The requirements for physical and attitudinal conformity are such that the appearance of bodies and minds that don’t conform is usually reacted to with various forms of negativity. The Social Model enabled me to articulate that, to express clearly an understanding which, I think like many other disabled people, I had previously fumbled towards figuring out but had never been able to put into words.

In April 1992 I had been appointed as North Tyneside Development Worker for Equal Arts, a small local arts agency that was part of the national Shape Network. Equal Arts ran various community arts projects, at that time one with older people in Gateshead and the North Tyneside one with young disabled people.

The previous development worker – a non-disabled person – had carried out some initial work shaping it up as an ‘arts and disability’ project. (A subtle distinction in terms: whereas Disability Arts involves arts by disabled people that is about the disability experience and is essentially political, ‘arts and disability’ is apolitical. It is more about disabled people engaging in art for art’s sake – and is often run by well-meaning but sometimes politically naïve middle-class non-disabled arts workers. It often involves disabled people being encouraged to “prove how much they can do in spite of their terrible afflictions” [Masefield, 2006; Cameron, 2016]).

When I took on the role I watched and listened and talked and consulted in relation to what was going on and it became pretty clear that what was wanted was something more radical. For the first 10 Thursdays that the project ran in the theatre area at the (now closed) Buddle Arts Centre in Wallsend, I organised taster sessions involving Disability Arts practitioners working within various art forms – creative writing, dance, theatre, photography, stand-up comedy and music –  in order for the group of disabled and Deaf people who had started coming along to choose what they wanted to do.

Johnny Crescendo and Ian Stanton performing together.

Among the artists who came to the Buddle were Rosita Green, Barbara Lisicki, Elspeth Morrison, Sian Vasey, Julie Storey, Sue Napolitano, Johnny Crescendo and Ian Stanton. The only non-disabled people allowed to be present were the BSL interpreters and the personal assistants, who were there to provide support to people when required but not otherwise to participate.

To those outside the theatre we were just ‘that disabled group’, but inside we were hearing things that it seemed disabled people had never said before. These were artists who were pissing on pity, who were claiming the right to feel fine about being who they were, who were – in Stanton’s words – “celebrating difference with pride”. This was about disabled people rejecting all the bullshit that we hear about how awful it must be to be disabled, and affirming our identities.

While the young people made a collective decision to see the project develop as a theatre project – emerging to name themselves Get Off Our Backs, a group that stayed together and grew and went through various changes over the next few years, performing mainly comedy sketches highlighting the everyday oppression and absurdity encountered by disabled people – many of those artists became frequent visitors to the North East and to the Buddle, performing regularly at the disability cabarets put on there.

These were raucous, drunken and joyous events where disabled people and our allies could gather to celebrate our culture and our identity, consisting of performances by a variety of local disabled artists, and being rounded off with a musical set involving either Johnny Crescendo, Ian Stanton or, on several occasions, both.

My memories of Johnny and Ian are many and varied. I remember Hannah, our epileptic dog, nearly savaging Johnny the first night he stayed with us after he’d removed his leg brace and started making his way on hands and knees to the stairs.

I remember Ian’s declaration that the fish and chips in Whitley Bay were the best he’d ever had. I remember falling down the stairs and breaking my front teeth leaving The Marriott Hotel after one particularly heavy post-gig session. But what I want to talk about here is about what made both these artists so important as Disability Arts performers and so great as people.

The passages below on Johnny Crescendo, Ian Stanton and The Fugertivs are taken from a 2009 article entitled Tragic But Brave or Just Crips With Chips? Songs and their lyrics in the Disability arts Movement in Britain, published in a special issue of the journal Popular Music focusing on disability and pop.

Johnny Crescendo
In a description of why he wrote the song I Love My Body, blues singer and guitarist Johnny Crescendo (aka Direct Action Network organiser Alan Holdsworth) tells of how during his formative years he had neither mixed with other disabled people nor felt comfortable with his impairment:

If I was sitting down and a potential girlfriend came up to me I would dread the moment I had to stand up. I met some disabled people but they seemed to be saying “thank you” and “God bless you” all the time and I didn’t want to do that. This continued until my early 30’s when I started to come in contact with disabled people who said “fuck you” instead of “bless you” and “fuck off” instead of “thank you”. I’d always been political and when the penny dropped it was so easy to see how I had been oppressed. (Holdsworth 2004)

This twelve-bar blues song involves a reclamation and affirmation of self and identity. The strength in these lines is rooted in a rejection of cultural norms and an assertion of the right to be different.

I love my body – it’s the only one I got
I love my body – and that relationship means a lot
My body’s got what yours has
But there’s something else it’s got

My body’s got self-dignity
My body’s got self-respect
No one can take that away from me
In this world or the next

In the late 1980s, while working in Chesterfield as a youth worker running a project for people with learning difficulties, Crescendo wrote the song ‘Choices and Rights’, which was later adopted as the anthem of the disabled people’s movement. He joined the Derbyshire Coalition of Disabled People where ‘people began to hear “Choices and Rights” and started booking me for gigs’ (quoted in Campbell and Oliver 1996, p. 118).

I don’t want your charity
Or you to be paid to care for me
I want choices and rights in my life

We don’t want your ‘special schools’
We gotta get out and teach the fools
We’ve got choices and rights in our lives

While Crescendo’s music and lyrics are mostly blunt and direct, using traditional blues and rhythm and blues sounds to accompany a clear and direct political message, his observational humour and direct language come through most clearly in his performance poetry. Disabled People aren’t Allowed to Say “Fuck” (Holdsworth 1989, p. 9) was written after he had been booked to perform at a residential home but had been told to ‘mind his language’.

Disabled people are allowed to say spastic, cripple, handicapped, mongoloid, difficult, tragic, but they’re not allowed to say ‘fuck’.

Here Crescendo contrasts the offensive and oppressive use of medical and emotional jargon that is routinely applied to frame the conditions and lives of disabled people with the offence that might be caused by the possibility of a disabled person swearing. So culturally entrenched is the stereotype of the disabled person as diminutive passive victim that the possibility that disabled people might utter this coarse word is considered appalling.

Disabled people are allowed to say Leslie Crowther, Jimmy Tarbuck, Terry Wogan, Bernard Manning, Cliff Richard, but they’re not allowed to say ‘fuck’.

Crescendo makes the point that, while disabled people might be expected to be able to list the names of all the celebrities who have given time to raise funds for charities purportedly supporting their interests, they are not allowed to express themselves in terms considered vulgar. Such a thing would be to express ingratitude and would represent a failure in ‘coming to terms’ with their conditions (Marks 1999). While most of the celebrities listed here have either died or dropped out of sight, their functional role has been filled by others. As Taylor and Harris (2008) suggest, celebrities are pretty much interchangeable.

Disabled people are allowed to say victim, brave, helpless, special, little, severely, chronically, profoundly, vegetable, but they’re not allowed to say ‘fuck’.

But they do.

Crescendo’s final point is made by naming terms through which disabled people are encouraged by mainstream culture to recognise themselves. The discourse of ‘specialness’ provides a particularly seductive lexicon, suggesting that the needs of people with impairments are most appropriately met within segregated settings outwith the mainstream. Crescendo finishes, however, by drawing the listener back to reality. The power of this piece is enhanced by the context in which it is performed. At an arts event attended by disabled people who have experienced countless restrictions upon what is considered acceptable to say simply because they are disabled, the very fact that a disabled person is on stage saying the word ‘fuck’ is funny, daring, challenging. At a deeper level there is an appreciation of the absurdity that disability oppression involves. The abuses of human rights which are considered justifiable in order to maintain a veneer of respectable normality are profound.

In ‘Where d’ya Get that Leg?’ (Holdsworth 1989, pp. 6, 7) Crescendo reflects on the stupid, unwanted interference of the non-disabled:

I’ve known you now for how long is it?
And where d’ya get that leg?
Are you alright on the stairs?
And where d’ya get that leg?
Why d’you walk silly?
And where d’ya get that leg?
Have you got a willy?
And where d’ya get that leg?

The asinine nature of the interminable questions, remarks and comments about their impairments that disabled people have to put up with is illustrated here. What is experienced as objectifying intrusion when experienced all of a sudden, from out of nowhere, as one is going about minding one’s own business, can be seen as ridiculous when turned into a performance piece. After coming out with a barrage of other similar questions, reflecting the relentless persistence with which disabled people are harried, Crescendo finishes – in a taboo-busting gesture of masculine aggression – by throwing some questions of his own back on the questioner:

Which leg are you talking about?
I don’t know what you mean
It’s a downpayment on a robot
It’s a jockstrap for my dick
And where d’ya get your questions from
’Cos they really make me . . . SICK!

Ian Stanton
To hear him singing was a personal thrill and the experience was uplifting and amusing. Amusing because he was singing about how crap day centres were in front of a number of politicians, social workers, and the conference was held in a day centre. (Bagley 1998)

Ian Stanton was someone who instinctively enjoyed challenging non-disabled authority. While editor of Coalition, the journal of the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, his musical career began in clubs around Oldham in the north-west of England and led to performances at venues including day centres, disability arts gigs, Direct Action Network actions, Glastonbury Festival and Vancouver Folk Festival. In the sleeve notes to Stanton’s 1992 Freewheelin’ cassette, Johnny Crescendo comments that Stanton ‘has been described as “the Bob Dylan of the disability arts movement”. But “old slaphead from Oldham”, as we know him, is much better than that’. Folk singer Stanton’s songs range from the emotional ‘We’ve Got Each Other’ and ‘A Bloody Funny Way’ to the rousing rights anthems ‘Tragic but Brave’ and ‘Rollin’ Thunder’. While his tunes range from cheery pub sing-alongs (good for encouraging audience participation) to melancholic ballads, it is in his lyrics that Stanton’s comedy lies.

As with Crescendo, the admixture of anger at injustice with dry humour is a key tactic. Adam Martin (2008) has stated that ‘the structure of “Chip on yer shoulder” sounds like a joke being delivered: the verse is like a slow build-up in its pace, leaving the listener hanging on, whilst the chorus is the punch line in the way it is belted out’. In this song, Stanton pokes fun at various representatives of nondisabled petty officialdom, including cinema and railway staff. Drawing on personal experience of being an amputee and a wheelchair user, he sings of the experiences of being placed in uncomfortable and demeaning situations, which are both site specific (cinema, train) but also resonate with wider questions of social mobility, access, pleasure for disabled people:

Going to the pictures
To see the late, late show
You’re told that you’re a fire risk
So the wheelchair has to go.

Waiting on the platform
To board the 9.05
You travel with the livestock
Least it proves that you’re alive…

It is expected, Stanton observes, that disabled people will put up and shut up about the little humiliations they are expected to endure on a daily basis and just be thankful that they are permitted at all to be present in public spaces or on public transport. If, however, a disabled person does have the audacity to complain about the situation:

You can guarantee there’ll always be
Somebody there who’ll say…

You’ve got a chip on your shoulder
Got a really bad attitude
Is it any wonder
That people treat you the way they do
You really should be grateful
For all we do for you
And be a quiet little crip
Without a chip.

What is reflected here is the oppressive situation in which, in everyday life, disabled people are identified in terms of stereotypes. Resisting categorisation in terms of one stereotype (passive, uncomplaining victim) simply leads to being identified in terms of another (bitter and twisted) (Swain and Cameron 1999). Finally, Stanton draws us back to the stranger who feels no awkwardness in asking personal questions:

I’ve never run a marathon I’d sooner drink and smoke
But what’s your opening question
‘You that t.v. wheelchair bloke?

And how’d you get like that then?
Was it some great tragedy?’
‘I was stuntman in Jaws II
And I really earned my fee . . .’

But I sit here and wonder
What you hear and what you see
Are you looking at my chair
Or are you listening to me?

Disabled people are expected to keep up their happy smiles, to always be ready with the cheery riposte, the joke, to be able to laugh at themselves. In his concluding thoughts, Stanton questions the ability of the stranger to see beyond the stereotype. What makes this both funny and empowering for disabled audiences and listeners is the familiarity of the situation.

To have to put up with being patronised and infantilised when the only challenging response that can be made leads to being patronised and stereotyped in another way is a frustrating experience. In Chip on yer Shoulder, Stanton provides the words with which to begin to understand these encounters in a different light. To be able to begin to understand these interactions in terms of absurd roles grounded within oppressive social relations offers a way of seeing how things might be otherwise.

In Remember Douglas Bader, Stanton draws attention to the way in which figures considered edifying role models are held up to disabled people as exemplars.

When I feel life’s getting harder
I remember Douglas Bader
’Cos that’s what my doctor said to do
Overcome those negative feelings
You will find yourself revealing
Sides of you you never even knew

And I will smile
And nod and smile
And I’ll be happy all the while
You might think that I’m a hero too…

In this song, Stanton draws attention to the way in which, within contemporary mainstream culture, disability is represented as something to be both endured and overcome. The reference in the lyric by the medical doctor is to Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader (1910–1976), the famous World War 2 limbless fighter ace who was presented as an inspiring caricature in the 1956 film Reach For The Sky.

As a figure to emulate, Bader is used here to illustrate the ways in which disabled people are repeatedly told that the main thing is attitude; that the problems they experience can be conquered simply by having the right frame of mind. The doctor in the song is dispensing the medical model, the idea that disability is something wrong with the bodies of disabled people that can be overcome with courage and determination. In writing and performing these lyrics, Stanton draws attention to the ways in which stereotyping demeans disabled people.

For those who feel that ‘every bead of sweat’ and ‘every muscle strained’ (Stanton) is a price worth paying in order to pass, to appear normal and non-disabled, what is also involved is an alienation from the self. The idea that disabled people can gain recognition and validation only by becoming what other people want them to be is identified by Stanton as part of disability oppression.

Stanton’s lyrics reflect the time at which they were written. He died in 1998 and did not live to see many of the access improvements that have been made since. But it is a fact that his songs inspired the movement that campaigned for legislation to force these improvements. While real inclusion as equals within the social mainstream is still a long way off for disabled people, the debt owed to Stanton remains.

The Fugertivs
Equal Arts’ North Tyneside project had initially been funded (by North Tyneside Council, Northern Arts and The Platinum Trust) to run for just 18 months, but we managed to secure continued funding and to keep it going for years. Get Off Our Backs was a continually evolving group. People joined and stayed for a bit and left and then new people joined, though there was a fairly stable core: Craig Barrass, Christine Lyddon, Michael Waterson, Michael Clark, Michael Hall and Shiralee Grey.

It was important in different ways.  After one performance by Craig Barrass of The Tiny Tim Memorial Day Centre sketch, a mock David Attenborough-esque nature documentary observing the rigid and repetitive basket weaving routines of the ‘inmates’, the manager of the local day centre said that he had been so enlightened by what he had seen that he initiated moves to start getting this segregated council service closed down.

A number of Disability Arts practitioners worked with the group: Julie Storey, Tom Shakespeare, Geof Armstrong, Maggie Cameron, Paula Greenwell. Other photography and poetry projects developed as offshoots and 1996 saw the emergence of a new organisation, Tyneside Disability Arts, which was to build on the ongoing work in North Tyneside and develop new work in the surrounding boroughs of Newcastle, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland.

The launch of Tyneside Disability Arts involved comedy performances by theatre groups The Invisible Cabaret and Get Off Our Backs as well as music by local Disability Arts band GOB! and singing duo, Karen and Niall Raftery from Hartlepool. The Rafterys had appeared on the local Disability Arts scene relatively recently, Niall rocking away on his guitar and Karen belting out the lyrics. A welcome addition to what was going on, but there was just one problem in Disability Arts terms – they were singing Beatles songs.

One of the great things about being part of the Disabled People’s Movement is the way in which people have always supported, encouraged and educated each other. Just as Geof Armstrong had explained the Social Model and its relation to Disability Arts to me, now I sat with the Rafterys in The Anson in Wallsend and explained this all to them. This is how organic culture works. Karen and Niall were both receptive and straight away embraced the political aspect of Disability Arts. The following year their work for Tyneside Disability Arts with a group of young disabled people in Sunderland led to the formation of the Fugertivs.

The Fugertivs was a trash/punk band that emerged from the wreckage of a Disability Arts project run in Sunderland by Tyneside Disability Arts (TDA) in the late 1990s. One of the project participants had been overheard in a shop singing lyrics from The No Hope ATC (Sheader), a song musing on the bleak prospects involved in perennial attendance at an ‘ATC’ (Adult Training Centre).

I woke up this morning with a bad pain in my head
In came a care assistant who dragged me out of bed
They tell me it’s for my own good that I must go for training
I’ve been training 27 years besides it’s fucking raining
The bus is outside waiting, they’re hanging round for me
To take me on a journey to the No Hope ATC…

This matter was reported to the local authority and the disabled people involved in the project were told to have no further involvement with TDA (Sheader, quoted in McConnell 2005). The remaining project members carried on working together in North Tyneside. Karen Sheader, lead singer of the Fugertivs, recounts that:

the material we were producing fell into the hands of Sunderland Social Services Department. They were absolutely appalled . . . That’s how the Fugertivs got their name. We were fugitives from Sunderland Social Services. (quoted in McConnell 2005)

Retaining the original spelling of the band’s name by lead guitarist Niall Raftery, who has dyslexia, the Fugertivs brought a ‘new’ sound to the disability arts scene which, according to Johnny Crescendo, had after a decade become ‘sick of one man and his guitar’ (McConnell 2005). Drawing heavily upon standard punk riffs but also purloining other styles, the Fugertivs played at disability arts gigs across the north of England, at the Independence Festivals in Manchester and Birmingham, and regularly at Direct Action Network demonstrations.

While the Fugertivs’ sound was new (in Disability Arts terms), their song lyrics remained rooted in anger at disability oppression, even where ironically presented, as in the title of their 1999 CD, Joyful Noise. Adam Martin (2008) has stated that ‘while the Fugertivs could perhaps be described as less technically gifted than Ian Stanton, their DIY sound goes hand-in-hand with the rebellious nature of their lyrics and themes’.

The raucous Melissa (Sheader), for example, offers a simple driving rhythm twinned with a direct message. This song involves an exchange between a disabled woman and her carers, sung in regional language. Melissa aches to be able to make decisions for herself but her carers have other ideas, and mock her ambitions for selfhood and life choices around sexual activity and independence:

Divvent think ye can gan oot
At this time of night
Yer kna that it’s really too late
Why, I divvent think ye’re safe
Once ye’re out of me sight
Even though you just turned 38 . . .

You want to have sex
I don’t know what you mean
People like you don’t do that
I’m glad I’m not the one
Who’ll be taking you on
Cos, let’s face it, he must be a prat . . .

So you think you can manage
To live on your own
Where on earth did you learn all this cheek?
You’ve got such a good home
Just try living alone
You’ll be back by the end of the week…

Voiced by Niall Raftery, Andrew Kerr and Mandy Metters, these statements are expressions of a care that is experienced by many disabled people as stifling and oppressive (Swain and French 1998). Simon Brisenden has commented that, when disabled people are forced to remain at home, dependent upon assistance, this ‘exploits both the carer and the person receiving care. It ruins relationships between people and results in thwarted life opportunities on both sides of the caring equation’ (quoted in Hasler 2004, p. 227).

Over-protection is an issue familiar to disabled people. Dependency is created on both sides of the caring relationship and carers often find it very difficult to let go. When the Fugertivs bawl out the words and concerns of controlling carers, these are seen for what they are: fears which would rather stifle than set free. They are revealed as grotesque, as part of disabled people’s oppression. Through long campaigning, the Independent Living Movement has seen

Through long campaigning, the Independent Living Movement has seen established direct payments systems through which local authorities are required to make available funds so that disabled people (assessed as eligible) can directly employ their own personal assistants and take control of their own lives (Mercer 2004). In the last verse of this song, Melissa (whose lines are sung by Karen Sheader) has managed to break free of the family home and is living as she wants to:

Six months have gone by
I can go out at night
And come back when I want to my place
Got a boyfriend called Mike
And we shag when we like
So the rest of you get off my case

Yeah your over-protection Is not what we need
Or your ridicule, whispers and stares
What we need is privacy
Freedom and trust
Which you’d give us if you really cared…

Dependency is not the inevitable outcome of impairment, but is socially created. While care is a heavily loaded word, a real concern with social justice would address the environmental and cultural barriers which maintain that lack of privacy, freedom and trust. In contrast to the solo voices of Crescendo and Stanton, the use by the Fugertivs of multiple vocalists works to create both a sense of tension and comedy effect. The voices of the parents/carers/interfering busybody in ‘Melissa’ and ‘Bar-room Bollocks’ are in north-eastern accents (almost to the extent of parody), emphasising age difference between the two groups of antagonists. A more diluted accent suggests a younger generation. The use of call and response sets out exactly what is being argued against. (Martin 2008)

In Bar-room Bollocks (Sheader), the Fugertivs re-visit that familiar presence around disabled people, the obnoxious stranger who feels free to pass comment, the regular who holds forth ‘in an irritatingly public manner’ (Miller and McHoul 1998). This song is narrated by three characters, the first (Karen Sheader) being a garrulous ‘character’ at the local pub, and the others (Niall Raftery and Mandy Metters) two disabled people who have had to listen to the regular’s offensive ramblings:

I’ve got nowt against the poor handicapped
Some of them even drink beer
And I don’t mind admitting I’ll mix with them
Well, the odd time one wanders in here
I’ve been known to buy Jack a Newcastle Brown
He’s blind and he uses a crutch
We always let him sit here next to us
Mind, nobody talks to him much…

The unwanted sympathy and annoying condescension of the non-disabled towards disabled people on the understanding that impairment equals personal tragedy is voiced here. While disabled people have demanded, and are increasingly seeing, access to public spaces, what is suggested here is that they are more often met with patronising tolerance rather than with respectful acknowledgement as equals.

Now me sister’s bairn was born spastic
Confined to an invalid chair
But it’s marvellous what all them specialist schools
Can do for the poor kids like her
So don’t make fun of the handicapped
Cos some of them have feelings too
It’s not their fault that they’re made like they are
Just be thankful it’s not one of you
And I think they were sent for a bloody good cause
To make normal folk stop and think
There but for the grace of the good Lord go I
‘Ere, does anyone want one more drink?

What makes these remarks insidious as part of an oppressive discourse on disability is that the regular apparently considers herself enlightened. There is no conscious intention to be dismissive but by measuring impairment against the ideological standard of normality, she draws favour upon herself and those she identifies as her peers (‘normal folk’) at the expense of disabled people. This woman fails to recognise her own oppressed situation within late capitalism or, at least, finds it easier to bear so long as there are others she can identify as being ‘worse off’. ‘Bar-room Bollocks’ draw attention to the ludicrous nature of such statements.

You reckon that you’re our champion
Defender of all poor crips
Well, I just can’t believe the crap that I’ve heard
That comes pouring out of your lips
You like to keep us where you think we belong
With sentiment and prejudice
Well, I hope that some tosspot talks shite about you
Next time you go out on the piss.

In letting the regular know what they think of her, the two listeners express the anger of all disabled people who have found themselves, in everyday life, being subjected to little acts of degradation; being reminded, in chance encounters, glances, comments, that ‘we need to know our place in the world’ (Montgomery 2006).

The song closes with a lengthy (one and a half minutes) repeated and then fading phrase:

Bollocks to you
Bollocks to you
Bollocks to you
And bollocks to you…


It makes me proud that Bar Room Bollocks is among the songs Dennis Queen would like to see listed on a compilation CD of Disability Arts hits (Disability Rights, Music and Activism). Almost 20 years after its release I still feel involved.

Possibly I am even more chuffed at the inclusion in Queen’s list of The Bus Driver, another Fugertivs’ song – as I wrote the lyrics for that. (It is attributed to Alasdair Stewart on the original CD sleeve notes, those being my middle names.) To have been involved in Disability Arts for the past quarter of a century has been one of the most important, interesting and exciting experiences of my life.

The disabled people I have met, known, become friends with, worked with, laughed with, got pissed with, argued with, made a prat of myself with, fallen out with, made up again with, written with… it’s a part of life I would never once have anticipated, but that I wouldn’t now have missed for the world.

I can recall a conversation with Ian Stanton shortly before he died in which I asked if he thought Disability Culture was dead (there have been people saying that Disability Culture is dead for almost as long as it has been alive). Ian’s reply was that Disability Culture will continue to exist whenever and wherever disabled people get together and talk together and share their experiences with each other. I have to say I agree with him.

Bagley, M. 1998. Tribute to Ian Stanton, http://www.choicesandrights.org.uk/loudandproud0003.pdf

Cameron, C. (2016) ‘Disability Arts: the building of critical community politics and identity’. In Meade, R. Shaw, M. and Banks, S. (eds.) Politics, power and community development. Bristol: Policy Press

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