American singer, songwriter, musician, activist and ‘Disability’ advocate, Gaelynn Lea gave a talk and performance – The ABC of Disability’ organised by the Disabled Staff Forum at Manchester Metropolitan University on Friday 27th September 2019. Brian Hilton was there, soaking up the vibes.
It doesn’t always rain in Manchester, although sometimes it feels like it. Likewise, fiddle music doesn’t always evoke melancholy in me, but Gaelynn’s playing certainly has that power. So I don’t know if it’s because of the rain outside, the looping strings of the fiddle, or maybe it’s simply Gaelynn’s haunting vocals, but nevertheless I am bewitched, becalmed and temporally robbed of my usual cynicism.
I was first alerted to the talent that is Gaelynn Lea via our late comrade Sophie Partridge back in 2016, after Gaelynn won a NPR (National Public Radio) music award.
Today’s event was not a gig in the usual sense. It was part TED talk, part Q&A, with a few songs squeezed in at the end. Topics covered included sexuality, relationships, notions of beauty, family and music.
I clearly wasn’t the intended target audience but I enjoyed it nevertheless. It was primarily aimed at a non-disabled audience in order to raise awareness and promote inclusion. To that end, the event achieved what it set out to do and much more besides.
Speaking afterwards with a few other disabled people who were in attendance, we reflected on how the language used by, and politics of, the Disabled People’s Movements in the UK and North America are very different. For example Gaelynn, like many of our fellow activists from across the pond, makes no distinction between ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’. However, despite this different approach, the barriers Gaelynn explored are all too familiar.
Gaelynn talked about the lack of accessibility at the many music venues she has performed at over the years, both in terms of access for members of the public and for performers. She urged her audience to always promote good access and likewise call out bad access when they encounter it.
Gaelynn also lamented the fact that Disability Rights still lags behind other movements, both in having our lives represented within the media and our history and civil rights struggle taught within the classroom. This was the time when Gaelynn was the most passionate and articulate during her talk.
The event started a little late and so the end seemed to come much sooner than both Gaelynn and a very appreciative audience would have wished. There was just about time at the end for a few questions and a couple of songs.
Gaelynn brought proceedings to a close with a song called ‘I Wait’ which in parts touched me as deeply as many of the verses by Sue Napolitano or lyrics of Ian Stanton. It is a song that perfectly expresses that constant reminder that as disabled people we are still very much on the outside looking in. The song explores how our constant exclusion ferments both pain and rage. That pain comes through as Gaelynn delivers the line “So when you hear them make claims of progress, take a good look and see who isn’t there”. Yet it’s not a song that wallows in self pity. Gaelynn also perfectly captures our collective rage, when she sings “Did you know that when I get angry I breathe fire. I could burn this place down”. It’s not a rallying cry like so many anthems, but it’s an anthem nevertheless.
Go check out Gaelynn online or better still, watch her live if you get a chance.
Sexuality and Disability: Forging Identity in a World that Leaves You Out | Gaelynn Lea | TEDxYale
Gaelynn Lea | NPR Tiny Desk Concert:
Gaelynn Lea – I Wait (KRVB Radio Acoustic)