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Disability History Month: Heidi McGeough

Heidi McGeough shares her experiences as a singer/songwriter and a registered blind guide dog owner, this Disability History Month.

Hi! My name is Heidi and I’m a singer/songwriter from the Wirral. I also teach singing, both from my home and from Tafel Musik – an after school music school, based in Oxton, Birkenhead. Now, if you’re wondering where on earth the Wirral is, well, it’s that little sticky-out bit between Liverpool and North Wales. We are a peninsula, as we have the River Mersey on one side, the River Dee on the other and the Irish Sea out in front. Ok, geography lesson over!
 
So, about my work; well, I go out with a band – an acoustic trio called ‘The Law of Three’ – and I also go out as a solo artist with backing tracks, under the name of ‘Heidi’. I have a spare room in my flat, which I use for recording, writing, rehearsing and teaching. This is where my little studio, ‘The Purple Room’ lives and it is VERY purple! Just how I like it! One night a week I head off to Tafel Musik, where I give individual singing lessons to children and teenagers. Tafel is for people of all ages – my bassist is nearly 70 and he has lessons there – but my students tend to be from around the age of 8 or 9, through to late teens. Currently, my eldest student is 19 and he’s doing brilliant! Some of my students like to prepare for exams, so I teach the Trinity Rockschool syllabus and the lower grades of ABRSM. However, some people just want to increase their confidence and have a bit of fun in the process. This is where I excel and the people who come to my home for lessons fall into this category. I have taught people from the age of 11 to late 60’s at home and everything in between.
 
Oh, did I mention, I am also a registered blind guide dog owner? Must have slipped my mind.
 
Perhaps you’re wondering then, ‘how does she manage to do all those things if she can’t see?’ Good question and I’ll be honest, there are many barriers, some of which I can’t overcome and this gets me extremely frustrated, but many of them have been overcome and I feel blessed. Perhaps I shouldn’t feel this way, but I do. When you don’t have to fight tooth and nail for what you need just to do your job, you do tend to feel blessed, and relieved. I should just point out here that I do have a little bit of useful sight, for which I also feel blessed! It’s not a huge amount of sight, but I use it to the max.
 
So what are the barriers I face in my work, and how do I overcome them? Ok, let’s start with an easy one – the computer. Nobody can run a business these days without a computer and I think if you’re a musician, it’s very hard to ignore them. You have to do you’re accounts, update your  Facebook and Twitter feeds, put stuff on SoundCloud or YouTube, find backing tracks, print off lyrics, compose, produce and record your music, use email, search for stuff on the internet, buy stuff off Amazon (everybody does that, right?), talk to other musicians on forums etc. etc. How does somebody who is registered blind manage all this? Well truth be told, I wouldn’t without Zoomtext – a specialist software package I have on both my laptop and my main recording computer (‘The Beast’), which magnifies everything on the screen to whatever size you like, changes fonts and colours to your liking, changes the size and colour of the mouse and cursor, speaks everything I type and reads things back to me and has various other useful features. That’s it. With the Zoomtext I can do everything. Without it, I can’t do anything at all and the best bit is, Access to Work helped me pay for it.   
 
My phone is a different ball game. I can’t have a cheap phone, as it doesn’t have all the accessibility features on it that I need, so I’ve had to spend as much as I can afford on a very ‘smart’ smart phone! It has zoom and magnification features, it will speak to me if I need it to, it has colour-change features, a large screen and various other accessibility options. Whilst it’s expensive having such a phone, it does allow me to live in the 21st century with everyone else – I can update my Facebook whilst on the bus and purchase backing tracks for a student whilst watching the telly! Just like everybody else, I wouldn’t be without my smart phone.
 
So how do I manage with the gigging?  Well my main barrier here is actually getting to the gigs with all my equipment. Obviously, I don’t drive and I can’t carry the gear in and out of venues, whilst working a guide dog. As a solo artist, this has been the most difficult thing to deal with. I’ve had a roadie for many years, funded by Access to Work. He told me some time ago that he didn’t want to do it anymore, as he’s too old (his words, not mine!). He then decides to join my band and automatically becomes a band roadie, along with the guitarist! This has meant I haven’t had to worry about how I’ll get to gigs with all the gear – they both drive and the guitarist has a van. They have also both roadied for me on the odd solo gig that has come in. I claim money from Access to Work, part of Jobcentre Plus, as they will fund a driver for me to get to gigs. This also covers the cost of petrol, van wear and tear etc. However, I can only do weekend gigs, as the man with the van works during the week. Now the band has decided to wind things down and I am left in this frustrating situation again – I don’t have a way to get to gigs, although we will still be gigging on and off well into next year.
 
Ok, so I’ve covered getting to gigs and getting the gear in and out, but what about when we’re actually onstage? For me, this is the best place to be in all the world! But it can be problematic. Often, I can’t see the edge of the stage, or if I can, I can’t trust my judgement as I have no depth perception. I usually use my foot to regularly check how close I am to the edge and how much leeway I have. We have to make sure there are no lose wires in my path, or edges of stands that I could catch my foot on and fall over. I have my set list on a music stand, which is light purple, not just because it’s my fave colour, but so I can see its feet! I have to know exactly where my water is and I have to have the mixer positioned close enough and high up enough for me to access it without moving too far or leaning over too much. I also need somewhere for my guide dog to lie, where she is not in the way and is not going to get pestered by loads of people while I’m performing. We usually manage this ok and I always bring a little bed for her. Sometimes though, I do have problems with the public wanting to fuss the dog while I’m performing, which I can’t allow. If the dog where to get over-excited I would have to stop the performance to come and calm her down and anyway, I must be able to supervise any attention the public give her. I don’t want somebody who’s either drunk or well-meaning feeding her something that will make her sick. This has happened on many occasions in the past. If left to chill, and she can see and hear me, my guide dog will behave beautifully! In the main, you are not supposed to pet a working guide dog, but my situation is rather unusual. Most guide dog owners don’t go out gigging, so sometimes, as well as sticking to the general Guide Dog rules, I have to invent one or two of my own. If I’m performing, the dog is not allowed a fuss. If she is wearing her Guide Dog harness, she is not allowed a fuss. If I’m on a break, or I have finished performing and she’s not wearing her harness, the general rule is, you can say hello to her, but it’s always best to ask.
 
As I currently work with people who have a good understanding of my eyesight (or lack of it!) this isn’t usually a problem. However, when I start working with other musicians, they will have to learn all this and try to be understanding. Some people think I’m a bit diva-ish because when I perform at other events, such as open mic nights, festivals, charity events etc. and there are other artists performing on the bill, I often have to say rather assertively what I need, so people will understand and don’t leave anything to chance. Some people are great about it and do what they can to help and reassure me, but there are others who I feel don’t really understand. However if my needs are not met in these situations, I become terribly anxious and this invariably affects my voice and my performance.  This kind of brings me on to people’s attitudes, which are many and varied!  So there’s those who think I’m a bit of a diva (well maybe an insy winsy little bit!).  Then there’s those who think I can’t possibly be a singer because I can’t see. You can’t do anything amazing or out of the ordinary if you can’t see! However, I do think this attitude is slowly changing since the success of the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics. Then there are the ‘non-believers’, the people who think I’m pretending to be blind. I hear them talking about me whilst I’m singing (well, they assume I’m deaf as well!), ‘is she blind?’ ‘Nahh, she can’t be! She doesn’t look blind!’ Isn’t that a guide dog lying there though?’ ‘I dunno.  But she’s reading a set list!’ And so it goes on. I do wish they’d get over it and just come and ask me. I would explain that I am registered blind and yes that is my guide dog, but I can see a little bit and yes I do read my set list but it is in such large print that it spans five A4 pages – hence the music stand! I really don’t mind explaining this stuff to people, but I hate it when people make assumptions, which leads me onto something else – discrimination. 
 
Yes, I know it’s a dirty word, but discrimination is still happening – a lot. I know that some of the venues I approach for work will not book me because I have a disability. Sometimes it’s for ‘health and safety reasons’, sometimes it’s because they don’t want a visually impaired guide dog owner performing in their venue – it’s not cool. And sometimes it’s because they don’t want the dog in the venue. All these things are against the law and whilst in the past, people were a little more honest about why they didn’t want to book me, they know the law now and are not going to incriminate themselves by telling me that they do not want to give me work for a reason relating to my disability. I have so many examples of being refused work over the years, because of my disability that this blog would run on and on and on and on… However, these days, people just don’t return your calls or say they’re fully booked up this year or that your act isn’t suitable for their venue or some other rubbish. I don’t approach venues that I’m not suitable for! They never say it’s because I’m not good enough though, because they know damn straight I am! Once, I even got refused entrance into a local am dram operatic group because of my disability. I have also been refused the opportunity to audition for paid work. Would you believe it!
 
Discrimination is fuelled by fear and assumptions. I just wish people would tell me what they’re so worried about because I’m sure that I could allay their fears and their often misguided assumptions are usually totally unfounded.
 
The other aspect of my work, the teaching, has its own barriers. The first one is actually the same as gigging - getting there and back, as public transport isn’t the best. This is where Access to Work also comes into play. They fund a support worker who drives me to work, helps me with my stuff and makes sure the room is set out correctly and safely for me. As I am only there one evening a week and other people use the room in between times, the items in the room – music stands, chairs etc. get moved around a lot and this is a hazard for me. I have to know where everything is in a room, so I don’t walk into things, or trip over. ‘Everything in its place and a place for everything’, that’s my motto! Once my support worker has made sure everything is ok, he leaves me to it and comes back for me at the end of the evening to take me home.
 
Now due to the fact that I can’t see past the end of my nose, reading music is a massive issue for me and the long and short of it is I try to avoid it like the plague! I do have a magnifier, but I can still only manage a small amount of very basic score music. However, as I mentioned earlier, I do teach Rockschool and ABRSM exam syllabi and a certain amount of sight-reading is required for this. Most of the stuff I can teach by ear, because what I don’t have on CD I can find on YouTube – when the WIFI is working! And I print all song lyrics out in large print so we can all read them. However, this doesn’t work for everything and that is where my boss comes in. Yep, literally comes into the lesson and goes through all the stuff I can’t read and we record it onto our phones for posterity! My last student got a distinction in her Grade 3 Rockschool exam, so this system appears to be working. My boss is very understanding and never says no when I ask for help. He just likes a bit of notice so he can put the time aside for me. I am provided with whatever I need to do my job – a CD player, an amp, a microphone, time – whatever. Oh and my boss also makes THE most AMAZING frothy coffee! Oooh, I could just go one of those now…
 
Heidi McGeough
 
Published: 08/12/2016
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