I Want Respect—On Punk Music and Learning Disabilities

I attended the first night of a Punk Music Tour and discovered what inclusion for those with learning disabilities really means. It was a celebration of the lack of any barriers. Most of all, though, it was a night of great music.

There is a lot of talk about inclusion across the areas of gender, gender identity, race and other important issues. But the topic of how we treat those with learning disabilities like everyone else is just now coming to the forefront of the discussion. No matter how hard we work to include those who seem to be not like us, many people still find those with learning disabilities a challenge. I know I do. Autism and Downs Syndrome can be especially difficult as the effect is to disable simple communication. If we cannot communicate through words with someone how do we include them in our life?

Punk Music Tour

I came across this issue last week when I went to the first night of a punk music tour in the UK. A band called the Fish Police embarked on an eight day UK tour. This, in itself is nothing new and it's likely that you might be asking yourself, "why should I care?"

As Richard Phoenix, who organised the tour, said in a recent article,

You have to recognize that the band, Fish Police, are breaking barriers and pushing boundaries as musicians with learning disabilities. By being a band at the forefront of a nascent music scene, they are helping to shift perceptions and attitudes towards the learning disabled community.

Up until this point, the concept of these musicians being able to tour across the UK has sometimes felt impossible. For years there have been arts organisations who have helped support people with learning disabilities to make amazing music, which in turn has created pockets of creativity and scenes across the world. However, making the transition into the more traditional pastimes of bands – such as releasing records and going on tour – has been elusive.


This where inclusion becomes difficult. Even where there is the desire for inclusion what does it actually men?

Help is already provided by a number of other organisations for people with learning disabilities to learn instruments, read music, remember the music and write words. This does not, though, bring them into the main stream of playing and touring.

Richard says,

Some of the musicians are truly exceptional, particularly some on the autistic or Asperger's spectrum, but they can need support with things like booking rehearsals and setting up gigs. Much of my job is like that of a tour manager. We also, for example, look after a band called The Express who play and write all their own songs but it's difficult for them to communicate so a lot of the support we offer is helping them engage with each other.

I used to encounter so many musicians who were really passionate but frustrated about the lack of opportunities for playing with other bands, getting records out, or getting people to hear their music. So it's incredible to now be able to find ways to make that happen.

Patrick Strudwick in a recent Guardian newspaper article said,

Punk, with its raging, mad-eyed, opiate-guzzling musicians, might be a far cry from the patronised, victimised stereotype of people with learning disabilities. But in the burgeoning live music scene for people with learning disabilities it is punk and heavy metal that predominate. Lyrics, stripped of opacity, punch with the fury of the sidelined: "Why don't you understand me?/You always torture me/Force me to clean toilets/Force me to eat/I don't understand why you don't let me outside".

Other songs by Finland's Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, one of the more established groups on the British scene, convey the disempowerment of living with autism, Asperger's, Down's syndrome or other learning-affected conditions: "I don't want to live in a group home/I don't want institution/I want respect."

Richard Phoenix is himself a musician who is deeply embedded in the UK Punk Scene. He was once called 'The Drumming Icon of the British Punk Scene'. He continues to play and tour with his own bands, including 'Sauna Youth', but has become increasingly involved in the crossover between punk music and learning disabilities. Last year he set up his organisation Constant Flux, whose aim is to create more opportunities for musicians with learning disabilities.

He says,

I applied for a grant from the Arts Council England to put the Fish Police on tour to Nottingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Sunderland, London, Brighton and Swansea. They're playing with some of the best bands in the UK's DIY, alternative and learning disabled scenes, bands as diverse as the music The Fish Police make. All the gigs are in accessible venues and will be fully integrated, meaning the stages and the audiences will contain people with and without learning disabilities.

Having a Good Time

There is, of course, a serious side to the tour – it combats social exclusion and perceptions of ability. But mainly it's going to be about dancing and having a good time.

It is not always apparent which musicians have learning disabilities or what the diagnosis might be. This challenges audiences to think about how often people with learning disabilities' needs go unnoticed simply because they are not obviously disabled. A lot of audience members say they don't know what to expect or how they are going to react to the musicians but in the end people are just into the music and forget they are watching people with learning disabilities.

The musical world in which the Fish Police exist has been created by and informed by singer Dean Rodney and guitarist Matt Howe's autism, and the way they see the world. Dean pictures the world as if it were a TV show, he takes things he observes in his own life and twists them into unique creations.

When I attended the first night of their tour, I found it hard to understand who, on stage, had disabilities, that, of course, is the point. Off stage Dean and Matt joined in the dancing and celebrating the music of the other bands, as everyone else, but still lived with their communication difficulties. Their lives, though, were significantly improved through the use of music to break down their barriers.

The evening was a celebration of inclusion which really means the lack of any distinction or barriers. Most of all, though, it was a night of great music.