Proud heritage and Hall of Fame for Sheffield’s Disability Arts

As the UK celebrates Disability History Month, Sheffield celebrates the unique contribution that the city has made to creative self-expression amongst disabled people.

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Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen
Def Leppard drummer, Rick Allen

UKDHM 2018 focuses on Disability and Music. Sheffield has a strong musical portfolio from the likes of Human League, Pulp, The Arctic Monkeys, Richard Hawley, Toddler T and Moloko, not forgetting legendary rock band Def Leppard, featuring disabled drummer Rick Allen.

Rick, known as the Thunder God to his fans, lost his arm in a car accident in 1984 but continued to play for Def Leppard after the accident using specially adapted drums with extra pedals.

The disability did not constrain Allen’s creative expression, and he continues to drum for Def Leppard to this day. Earlier this week it was announced that the band would be the first band ever from Sheffield to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

With a focus on disability and music, UKDHM has been exploring the experience of disablement in a world where the barriers people with impairments face can be overwhelming. The creative impulse, urge for self-expression and the need to connect to fellow human beings often ‘trumps’ the oppression disabled people have faced, do face and will face in the future.

Looking back at Sheffield’s archives, in the early 19th century, the city was renowned for its talented blind musicians. A number of popular troupes played at the ‘Q in the Corner’ pub, famous for its music in Paradise Square. Blind Owen, who played the concertina, was resident just outside the Town Hall, entertaining hundreds of passers-by on Saturday nights with his amazing melodies.

historic newspaper image
Blind Owen, copyright Sheffield Local Studies Library: SLSL-MP317M

Moving into the arts more broadly, disabled people in Sheffield made an enormous contribution to the design world, with the establishment of the Painted Fabrics factory in Norton Woodseats in the 1920s.

Painted Fabrics set the art and fashion world alight with its production of glorious colourful materials, produced by men seriously injured in the First World War.

Developing from occupational therapy for men who had lost not life but limb for their country in the horrors of WW1, it was a unique combination of physical and psychological rehabilitation. The men enjoyed their work, and acquired a wide range of new skills very different from their pre-war occupations.

The beautifully painted silks and rayons they created were sold to the Queen and most of the aristocracy in the country. They became such sought-after fashion items that in 1937 at a Claridges sale, Scotland Yard had to be called to control crowds attempting to get their hands on them.

men working in the fabric factory
Men at Work at the Painted fabrics factory. Copyright Sheffield Archives reference: Original at Sheffield Archives, ref. PF/4/2/4.

Sheffield Archives and Local Studies have produced a guide detailing the interesting works of Painted Fabrics.

Today expression through music and the arts among disabled people continues to make a huge difference to their lives and to Sheffield’s society. Last month it was announced that GigBuddies, an organisation who connect people with learning disabilities to a volunteer who shares similar interests and musical tastes, would be bringing the initiative to Sheffield. The volunteers support them to attend events, become less isolated, develop friendships outside of social care settings and on the whole help individuals lead healthy and fulfilling social lives.

Earlier this month Spectrum Theatre Group, a Sheffield-based acting group which contains both autistic and neurotypical members, performed their Christmas show, Sterling Silver, at the Library Theatre.

Andy Gardiner, co-ordinator for the group, which was founded in 2016, said: “We’re a truly integrated group and we feel we all benefit from that. We’re delighted that audiences comment on the quality of what we do. Our signature show about Autism, ‘In Someone Else’s Shoes’, which we’ve performed to a range of audiences in Sheffield, makes a plea for us all to try to see things as others see them – a first step towards a society more accepting of difference.”

People can find out more about Sheffield’s fascinating history of disabled people and disability activism looking through the Archives and Local Studies research guides.