An orchestra comprised of professional disabled musicians headlined the Bluedot Music Festival in July, the BBC reports. The ensemble, known as Paraorchestra, broke new ground, and helped to raise the profile of a group that rarely gets an equal platform in mainstream society. 

The Bluedot festival usually takes place every year in the grounds of Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. It has a reputation for being diverse and inclusive, but this is the first year that Paraorchestra, who are from Bristol, have played in the headline slot. They have previously played at major music festivals, including Glastonbury this year. 

The group hope that their higher profile will lead to a greater acceptance of disabled musicians, who face a range of problems and prejudices. These can be practical, such as a lack of wheelchair access to stages and dressing rooms, or social, such as the assumption that their performance will be of lower quality than able-bodied musicians.

Chief executive Jonathan Harper told the BBC: “We have had to work so hard to get to this point.” He added: “Progress in general for artists that identify as disabled continues to be at a snail’s pace and I sincerely hope it is the start of serious change.” 

“The music sector is, quite rightly, pushing themselves to ensure their line-ups are increasingly balanced by gender and ethnic diversity, but the disabled community hasn’t yet had its ‘moment’ where it feels that real change is happening. It’s about time that disability is no longer marginalised when talking about diversity.”

The headliners shared the stage with acclaimed musician Hannah Peel, who has recorded an album with Paraorchestra, which was released this spring.  Tracks from the album The Unfolding were performed on the opening night, against the striking backdrop of the world-famous Lovell telescope, which panned around to provide some superb projections. 

The festival returned after a two year hiatus due to the pandemic. Perhaps fortunately, it missed the fierce heatwave of the previous few days, and the weather was more typical of Cheshire —that is to say, cloudy and overcast.

Cello player Hattie McCall Davis said: “I lost my career due to my disability and not being able to perform full time in a professional symphony orchestra; Paraorchestra has given it back. To be performing on a stage again and bringing music to appreciative audiences… is both a dream come true and one of the most enriching and rewarding experiences.”

She added: “Visibility is so important and there still aren’t enough opportunities for disabled musicians to prosper. If I had been able to see a professional orchestra like Paraorchestra headlining a major festival when I was studying at the Royal Academy of Music, I might have felt like there was a place for me within the industry.”

The Musicians Union commented that more action needed to be taken to address the lack of disabled inclusion within the music industry. Many musicians are currently afraid to mention that they need special requirements, for fear that they will be excluded or discouraged from performing. 

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