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IMAGE DESCRIPTION: three band members on a smoky blue background. At the back stands a tall king, white and fat, in a golden crown, white robe and purple eye makeup, a tired gaze in his eye. Seated on the left is a tired small white, blonde person in a black skirt and boots, shirtless with four large baby milk bottles strapped to his chest like grenades, and the white veil of mother Mary draped over her head, a submissive gaze on her features as she clutches at a bottle. On the right is a stocky white butch with short hair, shirtless with top surgery scars and tattoos, and leather bib, raising one muscular arm, hand curled into a fist, fury in their eyes. Photograph by Jarrad Levy
IMAGE DESCRIPTION: three band members on a smoky blue background. At the back stands a tall king, white and fat, in a golden crown, white robe and purple eye makeup, a tired gaze in his eye. Seated on the left is a tired small white, blonde person in a black skirt and boots, shirtless with four large baby milk bottles strapped to his chest like grenades, and the white veil of mother Mary draped over her head, a submissive gaze on her features as she clutches at a bottle. On the right is a stocky white butch with short hair, shirtless with top surgery scars and tattoos, and leather bib, raising one muscular arm, hand curled into a fist, fury in their eyes. Photograph by Jarrad Levy

Depending on how you measure time during a pandemic, Perth’s Alter Boy have been making music for around a year, maybe 18 months.  Either way, their short existence has resulted, so far, in a storied career that has them marked down as next big things and seen them featured on Triple J Unearthed, perform at Nannup Music Festival, Fairbridge Festival and RTRFM’s In The Pines, and open this year’s WA Music Industry Association Awards ceremony; and those are just some of many highlights. To maintain their forward momentum, Alter Boy have just released a new single, ‘Section 504’ (pronounced ‘five oh four’), which they describe as “an anthem for the disabled community.”

“There are all of these beautiful moments, but we just need the industry to… we would like a little bit more awareness in the industry.”

Alter Boy

‘Section 504’ pays homage to the fight of disabled people in the United States to amend the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, which was significant in securing equal rights for the disabled community globally and informed revisions to Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act.  It also just happens to be a slick and shiny slice of electro pop that wraps clarion call lyrics in a crystalline dreamscape of sound laid over subtle but insistent beats.  ‘Cause this world’s not made for us / Could we dream another up?, sings Molly/Aaron in the chorus of ‘Section 504’, leaving the listener in no doubt as to the size of Alter Boy’s vision.  And, just in case that wasn’t clear enough, the song’s fade out rides over the repeated lyric, You’re in her way, move away.  When you stop and think about it, it’s as subtle as a bolt gun right between the eyes, but it’s the wakeup call we need right now, because, well meaning though most of us are, we remain firmly parked between disabled people and their opportunity to live lives of equal value.

To learn more, I sat down with Alter Boy’s singer, Molly/Aaron and the band’s Auslan Signers, Jack Meakins and Laura Bullock for what was one of the more enlightening conversations I’ve had in a good while, if not my most enlightening so far.  You see, I thought were going to be talking about music and, while I did persuade the band’s members to talk about their new single, right at the end of our conversation, this was a discussion about the sort of prejudice and discrimination that rarely gets discussed in public: the ableism that disabled people experience every day of their lives. Molly/Aaron, Jack and Laura are queer, trans, and deaf and hard of hearing.  Enough of their lived experience intersects with my own to have had me naively thinking that Alter Boy are making their way in the music industry because they create outstanding music and are a force to be reckoned with on stage; with a live show that is a combination of music and theatre, and which incorporates Auslan interpretation of their songs. All of that is true, but what I wasn’t expecting to learn about was the depth and breadth of discrimination that Alter Boy and its disabled members face as they try to make it in the music industry.

Speaking of listening, the conversation I was invited to was one where massive adjustments were made by Molly/Aaron, Jack and Laura to accommodate my monolingualism.  The only concession they asked of me was to take off my mask while we talked so they could read my lips.  Meanwhile, the three of them spoke two languages simultaneously, Auslan and English, so that everyone could understand what each other was saying.  Just to confirm, they didn’t listen to a sentence and translate it afterwards, they spoke both languages at the same time. Auslan, which has been recognised as a language since 1987, has its own unique grammatical structures that are different from English, so speaking both languages simultaneously can lead to diminished richness of expression, although this wasn’t evident to me during our conversation.

Speaking of language, Alter Boy’s deaf and hard of hearing members made mention of the way their disabilities have been represented in past interviews, saying, “We’ve only had deaf, hard of hearing like three times, all of the other articles say ‘hearing impaired’, and the problem with that is that we’ve never used that language to refer to ourselves. If they just read our blog or went onto our Instagram or Facebook, anywhere, they would see ‘deaf/ hard of hearing.’ Our deaf community, they see those articles and that makes us look like shit. Then, on another level, hearing people read that and they’re like oh, ‘hearing impaired’ and it’s really hard to change that language. Journalists will come and see our show and then call us ‘hearing impaired’ and it’s really frustrating. We can’t share that. We can’t share those articles.”

In past articles journalists also have made a point of writing about how ‘intelligent’ and ‘articulate’ the deaf and hard of hearing members of Alter Boy are, “like they’re compliments,” they said, “You wouldn’t go up to another band and say they’re intelligent and articulate. That’s the kind of compliment you give to a 12-year-old who’s doing a speech, or deaf people, apparently.”

“We think what it is, in articles,” they said, “we are being called ‘intelligent’ and we think what’s happening is, yes, we have disabilities, and they’re trying to convince the audience, or the people who are reading the articles that we are not cognitively, quote unquote, impaired, as if that would be a bad thing so, ‘Oh yes they’re deaf but their brains work.’ We think that’s completely ableist. What other band gets called intelligent and articulate?”

This is an example of people without lived experience trying to do the right thing and, in the process, coming off as patronising at best and, at worst, perpetuating the myth that the more like ‘normal’ people disabled people appear and behave, the better it is for society and, in the music industry, the more palatable it will be for audiences.  This is a consequence of the prevailing idea that disabled people’s problems stem from their disabilities rather than society’s response to those disabilities.  Turn that thinking around and it becomes everyone’s responsibility to create a world in which all people are included and valued, because people are often disabled by barriers in society, not their disabilities.

Alter Boy suggested that there is a simple solution to this.  “Just ask,” they said, “We would appreciate if journalists would use our language or check with us before publishing.”

Disabled people are still fighting daily for the most basic access, things that most of us take for granted.  In the music industry, this translates into practicalities such as access to venues and equal representation.

“We don’t know a single venue that has equal access for people with mobility disabilities, it’s like they’re not allowed to play music,” they said. “We honestly do not know a single venue that has a stage ramp, or a venue that’s accessible in Perth, in WA. We’re looking and we can’t find it. We really struggle to find many artists in Perth who have disabilities. We know that not everyone talks about their disability and there are invisible disabilities, and we need to recognise that, but we’re struggling. There’s a directionality issue here, it’s not that disabled people who are artists don’t exist, it’s that they don’t have a place where they are represented, first and foremost, and secondly they can’t access the spaces that they need to be able to access to represent themselves as artists.”

“It’s a vicious cycle,” they added, “because disabled people aren’t welcome to venues, because there’s no seating, or there are stairs, or there’s no accessible bathroom, or no sensory friendly zones, people who don’t have disabilities can say, ‘Why do we need these accommodations when disabled people aren’t coming?’, but the reality is they aren’t coming because there’s no accessibility. It’s just a vicious cycle.

“If we were to invite our deaf friends, they would be able to understand our show, but the rest of the show they wouldn’t be able to understand, but they have to pay the same amount for their tickets.”

When was the last time you saw a disabled band on a stage, not just in Perth, but anywhere?  For that matter, when was the last time that you saw a disabled person in the audience at a venue?  Yes, disability is not always visible or declared, but at any given time one in five people in Australia have a disability, so surely there should be greater representation of disabled people among performers and audiences?  This is something the music industry needs to consider carefully because, based on the lived experience of the disabled members of Alter Boy, disabled people are, at the very least, passively discouraged from participating.

“It’s really important for us to recognise that we do not speak for all people with disabilities,” they said, “we don’t even speak for the deaf community. There are infinite types of experiences of having a disability, we do not speak for them, but when you have a disability, you notice inaccessibility in unique ways. You notice, and we are telling you as one of Perth’s only disabled bands, we’re telling you that this industry is not accessible.”

There is an obvious need here to reconceptualise live music venues and to put pressure on venues to be accessible.  “There needs to be a broader conversation about accessibility,” they said, “and disabled people involved in consultation should be paid for their expertise. Also, promoters should reconsider ticket prices for people who don’t have full access to line ups and venues should hire disabled staff.”

Event organisers’ attempts at inclusion can also go horribly wrong.  Again, this can be put in the category of well intentioned, but we really do need to do better with representation of the diversity of society on event line ups.

“We’ve been on line ups when everyone’s white, everyone’s cis, everyone’s able bodied and we’re included, we believe, to diversify that line up,” they said, “but there are also no people of colour on the line up.  We’re not a substitute for that, we’re white people. Yes, we have disabilities, yes, we’re trans, yes, we have fat representation, but we’re not people of colour, we’re not First Nations people.”

At music industry speaking engagements, they recounted, “we have requested an Auslan interpreter, and that request has supposedly been approved. Then they seat us at the back of the room where we can’t hear anything, and we mean at the fucking back, in the darkness where we can’t lipread, there is no interpreter, and we are also expected to perform. If we were organising a show like this, firstly we would book the interpreter, secondly if for any reason we fucked up and didn’t book the interpreter, or something went wrong, we would be asking the band, ‘What do you need?’, we would be putting you at the front, we would be donating the money we didn’t spend on the interpreter to a deaf organisation. Make reparations, fix the mistake that you made.

“Maybe we should have just stopped speaking and singing and just signed our set, like, ‘You can all have a moment where you don’t understand what’s happening’.  We want to give the industry the opportunity to change … which is why we wanted to do this interview, because we’re sick of these things happening.”

Discrimination through exclusion of their first language also has occurred when Alter Boy have done interviews for some high-profile media outlets, with the band’s deaf and hard of hearing members suggesting that their involvement results in little more than surface level inclusion, in particular when interviews are published in visual formats but do not include captions.

“There seems to be a lot of self-congratulatory attitude as well,” they said, “that we’ve noticed when we arrive, but no follow through. They say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to include deaf and hard of hearing [people]’, but then they don’t caption us. Why did you bother inviting us if you didn’t mean it?

“This means that our own deaf community cannot access the interview of the only band that is supposed to be accessible to them.”

The issues Alter Boy raised during our conversation are not insignificant, but neither are they insurmountable.  This probably accounts for what I can only describe as their irrepressible positivity in the face of what often must feel like an impossible task: to bring about change in the industry they love and in society more broadly.

“Recognising that people are allowed to make mistakes, and that’s OK,” they said when talking about these experiences, “but you need to be ready to accept your error and accept that you need to start thinking about access if you’re going to be working with bands like Alter Boy. Often, we find that people either just avoid, or ignore, or we just never hear from them again. That’s a barrier for us. It tells us what we need to know about the industry or about working with this specific area of the industry, or this person in the industry, but it’s also a barrier for us. We’ve seen some really amazing changes. It’s really cool to see that radio stations, which are hearing dominated and historically sound only, are ready to start changing the way that they do things. That’s been really cool to see. It’s awesome to see a disabled band performing at a big festival, that’s amazing. There are all of these beautiful moments, but we just need the industry to… we would like a little bit more awareness in the industry.”

Considering the systemic discrimination they face, asking for “a little bit more awareness in the industry” is a mild request on Alter Boy’s part. Requesting an interpreter or captioning of videos is hardly in the category of requesting no brown M&Ms or indoor plants that do not exceed a performer’s height. Such requests are made for a bit of a laugh (mostly) and to make sure promoters are paying attention, but they’re hardly showstoppers.  For Alter Boy, however, organisations’ lack of willingness to act on their reasonable requests to be included and not discriminated against on the basis of their disability likely will become showstoppers.

“We’re actually concerned that that’s going to happen and these businesses and industry professionals, they’ll see Alter Boy asking for this change, an interpreter once in a while, captioning their videos, or changes in language they use to refer to us, and then they’ll say, ‘Don’t worry about it then’,” they said.

“The burnout rate among people with disabilities is high for this reason,” they said, “people leave industries like this for this reason. We don’t want that to happen to us. We’re really excited to keep this momentum going, but the fear is that we are going to burnout. That is the worry.”

Let’s go back to the music for a moment, because if it wasn’t for that, this article wouldn’t exist.  Alter Boy create a brand of electropop that derives its appeal from its aural goodness.  Make no mistake, this is a band that is making waves because of the music it produces.  If Alter Boy get played on Triple J, booked for major festivals, ultimately make it big in the music biz that’s all about the music they produce.  That their music is inextricably linked to Alter Boy’s members and the fact that some of the band happen to be queer, trans, and deaf and hard of hearing only serves to enrich the experience of being an Alter Boy fan. As with any band, the members are the music and the music is the members, the two are inextricably linked.

So, now that Alter Boy have a foot in the door of the music industry, there’s also an opportunity for the broader conversation about inclusion of disabled people in an industry that has been so obstinately, at least on the surface of it, white, cis, abled and male dominated while working hard to give the impression that it is inclusive.

Alter Boy are an opportunity for the music industry to reflect on, broaden and deepen its attempts at inclusion, but, as one band with three disabled members, the responsibility for carrying this conversation forward is not theirs.

“If you want to do this properly it’s going to be a lot of work,” they said, “because this work has never been done before, that we’ve seen. This would be groundwork. It would be foundational work. It wouldn’t be work that would necessarily provide instant success or instant profits, or anything. It’s going to be something that people with disabilities benefit from in 20 years or in 50 years.

“Disabled people are an untapped market. A huge market. If we are represented, we show up.

“This article is not going to fix all of the problems, we know that, but we think it will help us to have a bigger conversation so that we don’t have to keep having little conversations every day. We’re not saying that this conversation is going to reach everybody, but if it reaches 50 people who are working in the industry, and they can have that awareness and have those conversations among themselves. Then we don’t have to do this one-on-one every day.”

Over to you, music industry.

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Follow Alter Boy on Facebook and Instagram.

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