In November 2019 I travelled to New York to learn about music education and performance for people with learning disabilities in America. I visited charities, special schools, performance venues, churches, the British Consulate and Ellis Island. I taught at Salvation Army care homes, played for the homeless on Thanksgiving and even attended a concert by Gloria Gaynor! It was the most inspirational trip imaginable and all thanks to a Churchill Fellowship.
I also spent a day visiting the United Nations where I was disappointed by a lack reference to people with disabilities of any kind. If my UK students visited the UN, they wouldn’t see a single image looking back at them that they could relate to and yet they form 15% of the population, approximately half a billion people. In fact, I could not find a single use of the word ‘disability’ anywhere. I searched for displays about people with disabilities, for books about their achievements, their role-models, heroes and reformers. I wanted to learn of their journey and their struggle, and the actions taken to address their plight across the world today. I wrote a blog Who is the UN for? and included a section about my findings in my final report:
“This experience stirred me on to continue the journey of struggle for equality, rights, recognition and opportunity on behalf of people with learning disabilities and their families. Everyone should have a voice and a platform to shine, regardless of their disability or disadvantage. We must present our achievements to business, political and religious leaders and to the Assembly of the United Nations so that society learns from the past to enlighten the future.”
I was therefore delighted to be invited by the Minister for Disabled People, Chloe Smith MP to contribute a video about The Music Man Project and my role as Disability and Access Ambassador for Arts and Culture for her presentation at the UN’s Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in New York. It was my chance to fulfill a key recommendation from my Churchill Report – albeit remotely and with the help of a Minister of State. The film was produced by The Music Man Project’s global PR partner, TEAM LEWIS FOUNDATION.
UK Government Video Presentation featuring three Disability and Access Ambassadors
I intend to visit the United Nations again in person to showcase my musicians with learning disabilities. I am grateful for the opportunity to make an impact at such an esteemed and globally significant institution.
“My name is David Stanley. I’m the UK Government’s Disability and Access Ambassador for Arts and Culture and the Founder of The Music Man Project – a world record-breaking international music education and performance service for children and adults with learning disabilities.
I provide unique opportunities for musicians with learning disabilities to perform; not corrective music therapy, but accessible music education where they sing, play and entertain thousands of people at the world’s greatest performance venues. My musicians have performed in London’s West End and at the iconic Royal Albert Hall. They have featured on TV and radio, performed to members of the Royal Family and they have even broken a Guinness World Record. Their appearance on a national TV advert reached millions. I have taken my service across the United Kingdom and around the world to South Africa, India, Nepal and the Philippines – countries where attitudes towards disabled people are still developing. I aim to connect this unique global community through my music, country by country.
Empowered to express themselves freely, my musicians are confident, with a clear sense of identity and purpose. They learn patience, team work and how to support others. They learn discipline and resilience through rehearsals, critical feedback and overcoming nerves. They build the stamina required to deliver a hundred public performances every year. This positive effect on their wellbeing is the subject of PhD research at the Royal College of Music. Disabled performers and creative artists of any standard are happier and better equipped for the workplace than their peers.
People with learning disabilities are traditionally the last to achieve equal access and inclusion. Most cannot speak up for themselves so struggle to improve their prospects without advocacy or a platform for change. Only a few decades ago they were hidden away from society.
Arts and Culture shines a bright light on this once-forgotten society. It showcases their passion, incredible energy and, most of all, their ability. It changes perceptions of disabled people, leading to more inclusive employment across all industries. It also provides a unique platform for disabled people to become role models for future generations.
I hope my ambassadorship encourages high expectations in every aspect of disability access and my two decades of progress in special needs music education shows what these wonderful people can offer – not just what they need.
An audience member once attended a concert featuring musicians with disabilities. He only went as a favour for a friend and expected to feel nothing but pity for all the performers. After a few moments he felt like there was a mirror rising in front of his eyes and he quickly realised it was himself he was pitying. From that moment on he changed his view of people with disabilities and went on to employ disabled people in his business. Without Disability Arts and Culture there is no concert. There is no mirror. The audience member would never have opened his mind.
My own journey continues with a performance on Broadway and the establishment of the UK’s first purpose-built centre of excellence for Special Needs music education – a global beacon of accessible Arts and Culture.”