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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 June 2006, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
Making music against the odds
By Peter White
BBC disability affairs correspondent

The plight of physically disabled performers in the music industry is explored this week in BBC Radio 2's I Don't Need No Doctor.

Robert Wyatt
Robert Wyatt was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2004
One man who will weep few tears over the axing of Top of the Pops is songwriter Robert Wyatt.

Wyatt was a cult figure in the early 1970s as drummer with alternative band Soft Machine.

But a fall from a fourth floor window left him paralysed and in a wheelchair.

After leaving hospital, he was scheduled for a Top of the Pops appearance at the height of its popularity.

Then a producer asked him if he could get out of his wheelchair for the performance.

"He told me it was not quite the image the programme wanted," Wyatt explains.

"It was genuinely the first time I had realised since the accident that I might be considered unsightly."

It was this, coupled with the problems of performing in unsuitable venues, that made Wyatt exchange touring for contemplative songwriting.

But bigger names than Wyatt have experienced similar problems.


In the early 1980s, soul singer Teddy Pendergrass crashed his Rolls Royce off a Philadelphia bridge. Like Wyatt, he was left in a wheelchair.

It took 20 years to summon up the energy and determination to go on the road again. But when he did, in 2001, he realised it was something he would only do once.

Evelyn Glennie
Deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie has carved out a successful career
The US is well ahead of Britain in creating laws protecting disabled people against discrimination. However, it still took an enormous effort to keep Pendergrass on the road.

"For a start, I had to have a group of people with me to look after my health needs," he reveals.

"But if you add to that the problems of transporting a wheelchair from airport to airport, it was all just too much effort."

Pendergrass has some sympathy for the music industry. "They are in the business of selling, and image is important.

"They have to be sure the visual impression is going to make people buy the record."

Not all disabled artists are prepared to take such an understanding view, however.

"The problem is many people, record producers and promoters included, are scared of disability," says singer and journalist Mik Scarlett, who has flirted with the rock business from his wheelchair.

"But this is perception, rather than reality. All the public want is a good gig and good music."


One need only look at Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder to see talent and star quality can transcend a physical disability.

There is a view among disabled artists, however, that blindness is easier to promote.

Stevie Wonder
Music legend Stevie Wonder has been blind from infancy
"If an artist's blind, give him or her a pair of dark glasses," says Scarlett. "Nearly everyone in the business wears those anyway."

There are signs, though, that things are changing.

The Disability Discrimination Act requires public places, including rock venues, to provide equal accessibility.

The Attitude is Everything organisation has been working to see the act is enforced and has decided to lead by example.

One of the acts it has helped, the Mystery Jets, are currently in the charts. Band member Blaine Harrison was born with Spina Bifida and needs crutches to get around.

Harrison acknowledges there is still a taboo about disability, but thinks the problem lies more with the image men than the public.

"Often in interviews, the press almost ignore my disability. A lot of our fans don't even know I've got Spina Bifida, and I don't think they'd care if they did."

Attitude is Everything hopes its work will change the climate and end the situation where a disabled artist has to be a superhero to go on tour.

It also hopes the kind of reaction Robert Wyatt faced on Top of the Pops 30 years ago will die when the show does.

I Don't Need No Doctor will be broadcast on Tuesday, 27 June on BBC Radio 2 at 2030 BST.

BBC calls time on Top of the Pops
20 Jun 06 |  Entertainment
Disabled singer's wheelchair dilemma
19 May 05 |  Entertainment
Wyatt win 'would disgrace' prize
21 Jul 04 |  Entertainment


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