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"This is not a disability gig": the musician putting on inclusive nights to break down barriers


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(Not written by me)

"This is not a disability gig": the musician putting on inclusive nights to break down barriers

Musician Robyn Steward, who has 10 disabilities, including autism and cerebral palsy, explains how venues can be more inclusive

By Sam Davies

Thursday, 21st November 2019

Robyn Steward is a trumpet player, teacher and author. She has 10 disabilities, including autism and cerebral palsy. She loves music, particularly jazz and experimental, but has rarely found gig venues where she feels comfortable, as both listener and performer. It is with this in mind that she started Robyn's Rocket, an inclusivity-conscious live music project, in 2017.

Robyn’s Rocket is not a “disability gig”, Steward says, but somewhere people can have fun regardless of their ethnicity, sexuality, religion, gender, ability or what language they speak. “Experimental music gigs often attract a bunch of white men,” she adds. “If you’re a white woman or a woman of a different colour skin... you might feel a bit overwhelmed.”

She’s been to gigs aimed at specifically at disabled fans before, but felt disillusioned. “I would go to a lot of gigs that are geared towards people with learning difficulties and autism,” she says. “And they put on loads of great bands with disabilities, and they’re just mainly playing to a disabled audience. I thought, that’s silly – those bands are just as good as bands without disabilities.

“Often the word ‘inclusion’ is just used about disabled people,” she continues. “But actually if you don’t fit into a binary gender, somewhere that has gendered toilets is not inclusive of your needs. And it shouldn’t be, ‘oh, you can only really go out if you can speak English and read English.’ Everyone should be able to follow what’s going on.”

Making it easier for audiences and performers

Robyn’s Rocket takes its name from the spaceship design of Steward’s specially made stage. On stage the equipment is all colour- and shape-coded to make it easier for performers to recognise their stuff. These shapes and colours also match with the names on the timetables around the venue, meaning fans can see who is playing when, without needing to read the words on a page.

At the bar, menus are printed in large, Arial font, complete with pictures, meaning anyone ordering can point to what they want if they would prefer not to shout over the noise of the club. Fans will also be given a rocket-shaped “communication badge” on entry: position your rocket pointing upwards if you want to talk to new people, downwards if you’d rather be left to enjoy the music, or sideways if you want to speak to people you know already.

Steward plays trumpet, though not as you know it, wiring it through a series of pedals. She plays twice on the night, first with cellist Kathy Hulme as avant-garde duo The Hairdressers, then with the funk and salsa influenced band Bassheads. Also on the bill are free improvisation band Jamaica and trumpeter Steve Pretty.

Next stop Glastonbury?

Robyn’s Rocket is a work in progress, but Steward hopes one day she might take the event to the Scala in London, or to Glastonbury. Next year she plans to invite other musicians and promoters to host their own inclusivity-conscious gigs, while Robyn’s Rocket will be going to the Wellcome Collection as part of the Beautiful Octopus Club, a disability club run by creative arts company Heart n Soul.

“I’m hoping I can influence how the industry thinks about inclusion,” says Steward. “There’s a lot of division between people at the moment. We should all be more together. And celebrate difference.”

How venues can improve their inclusivity

Venues can apply to the Arts Council for capital grants if they want to install a lift or a hearing loop. But there are lots of little things they can do, such as painting the edge of stairs white or yellow for people with a visual impairment, or having large-print bar menus.

If it’s a standing venue, have some fold-up chairs. Managers should set up an email so people can contact the venue with their requirements. And it’s important for venues not to see inclusivity as an add-on, but as something they can be creative with, and a work in progress.

The next Robyn’s Rocket is on Thursday 21 November at 7:30 pm at Cafe OTO, London E8. For more information go to

I don't see any issue with these ideas though the communication badge is the only part of it I genuinely have a use for since my appetite for socializing swings so wildly from day to day though if such a thing became widespread I could see people using it as a means to avoid being introduced to new perspectives.....
overall though im not incredibly willing to get to bothered about inclusivity changes provided it doesn't undermine the art being performed.
Compare and contrast with Robyn's first appearance (AFAIK) in the mainstream media ten years ago. No mention of any musical talents, nor even her nine other disabilities. How did she manage to go from computer technician turned job coach to a contender for the Glastonbury Festival?

(Not written by me)

Employing adults with autism: Don't write them off

They can be highly numerate and analytical, but only 15% of adults with autism are in full-time paid employment. So how can companies better cater for them?

By Louise Tickle
Sat 17 Oct 2009

At the age of 16, Robyn Steward's first taste of a career in IT seemed to augur a world of possibilities. "It was four months' work experience, supervised one-to-one by a computer technician," she recalls. "He saw that I was good and would trust me to do stuff on my own."

But for Steward, now 23 and who has Asperger's syndrome, her initial optimism was to be short-lived. "After that I struggled, which was a bit of a surprise because I felt quite confident," she says. "I seemed to have difficulties with my interpersonal skills with colleagues. I got bullied in one of the smaller computer shops I worked in: they took the mick out of me for my literal interpretation of language."

She also took a long time to complete tasks because she was so keen to do things perfectly. This riled her co-workers, who became critical and aggressive. "I ended up very anxious and was worrying about work all the time. I felt like a failure," she says. "It ended up with me getting depressed."

Steward then undertook formal training as a computer technician, which she passed with flying colours. But she has found the lack of understanding of her needs as a person with Asperger's – from her college tutors and in a range of workplaces – has meant she feels unable to contemplate applying for jobs.

Despite being at the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum, she is far from alone. A survey just published by the National Autistic Society (NAS) to accompany its Don't Write Me Off campaign discovered only 15% of adults with autism are in full-time paid work.

It's not that people with autism can't work or don't want to. But employers, says the NAS, can be anxious, ignorant and prejudiced about taking on autistic staff. This is alarming given recent research on the worldwide prevalence of autism – which includes Asperger's – found that one in 100 people have the condition to some degree.

More than 60% of those surveyed who weren't working said they wanted a job, hardly surprising when the alternative is an existence spent on benefits or dependent on parents for support. And poverty is the reality for many; over half, it turns out, have spent time with neither a job nor access to benefits, some for more than 10 years.

Some of those surveyed explained the specialist support they needed to navigate the benefits system was not available, even through disability employment advisers at their local Jobcentre Plus. This meant they could not understand the forms, could not fill them in and were unable to get money. Others spoke of years searching for a suitable job, yet being unable to find the "bridge" that would get them over the practical and psychological hurdles of starting work for the first time.

NAS chief executive Mark Lever says the issue is not about hiring someone out of charity: people with what is known as "high functioning" autism can be highly analytical and numerate. For those whose condition is more disabling, lower-level jobs – and not just as supermarket trolley-stackers – may be perfectly feasible, with a little advance preparation by employers.

But how realistic is it to expect employers to see the sense in making this kind of adjustment?

Consider the potential benefits in comparison to the initial time and training involved, says Peter Griffin, 28, who has Asperger's and works one day a week at Tesco. He graduated with a degree in astrophysics in 2005.

"Going for jobs is very daunting for someone like me," he explains. "It's only recently, thanks to a course I did with Hertfordshire council, that I got a better understanding of the process of applying."

Griffin is keen to pursue a career teaching maths, but says employers will lose out on the ability he has to guide students' understanding of complex concepts if they don't offer the right support at the start. "If we can just get that, further down the line people like me should need less and less," he says.

Debunking myths about people with autism is a huge issue, says Noel Hastings from Prospects, the NAS employment and training service.

"Employers don't know what to expect," he says. "When I see bemused or alarmed-looking faces, I know that as soon as it stops being theory and starts being someone called Joe with his own personality, that tends to disappear."

His colleague, David Perkins, adds: "When employers realise reasonable adjustments for our guys boils down to good management practices, they see there can be wider benefits."

For instance, Perkins says, if you're managing someone with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), you need to be very clear about the task, the standard to which you want it completed and the deadline. "That is basic good management and it means that [line managers] have to up their game."

Employer obligations
A lack of clarity at policy level is partly to blame, says Dr James Richards of Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, who is researching why adults with high-functioning forms of autism have such poor employment prospects. "Despite a recent ruling, it remains far from clear under the Disability Discrimination Act what adjustments employers are obliged to fulfil in relation to prospective and current employees who have ASDs," he says.

Goldman Sachs, however, is one company that has actively offered internships to people with autism, since 2003. With help from Prospects, the investment bank's human resources team has worked to make the adjustments required to enable the 31 candidates who have since come through its doors to do their best.

Three are now employed on permanent contracts. The experience the others gained at Goldman Sachs has clearly been critical in kickstarting their careers, because only one is still looking for work.

That preparation for taking on someone with autism doesn't have to be onerous, says William Elliott, a managing director at the company, but it does have to be undertaken with care.

"The first thing we have to get right is making sure the right candidates apply," he says. "Getting the right job for the individual is also important. That doesn't always go precisely right, and there are things we've learned."

Each employee is assigned a mentor, and there is training for staff who will be working with them, "so if there's shyness or hesitance in social contact, this is explained".

It can take time for an autistic person to settle into a workplace, so whether it's a job in a high-powered professional environment, or at a more administrative or vocational level, initial reactions from managers and colleagues will greatly influence whether or not it works out.

If managed well, however, says Peter Jauhal, HR director at Winton Capital Management, who has recruited two autistic candidates to work in the company's data department and another as a programmer, the highly developed analytical skills exhibited by some people with autism can give companies a valuable competitive edge.

Allowances are made for people's idiosyncrasies: giving progress updates isn't seen as particularly important by one autistic employee, for example, so his manager now understands that it is necessary to ask.

Offering internships to people with autism has also, says Elliott, had a very unexpected benefit – "the positive effect on the people involved in the placement, who seem to have appreciated that there's another dimension to coming to work", he explains.

"Overall, I think we have been surprised at how easy it has been and how well it has gone."

Showing the creativity and determination that would have made her an asset to any employer willing to make the adjustments required to help her fit in, Robyn Steward decided to use her negative experiences to educate people about how autism affects those who live with it. She now works as a self-employed coach for those who come into contact with people with Asperger's.

"I was quite proactive," Steward says. "I don't mind picking up the phone and asking people if they think that they might have a training need.

"Every person on the autistic spectrum is individual, and some will manage well in a workplace setting with small interventions. Companies need a better awareness of the condition, because there's a lot they can do quite easily that would help."

Source: Guardian

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