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My Normal Music Project - Key Learning from a new Intersectional Project working with LGBTQ+ and Disabled young people.

The Ark T Centre's My Normal Music project ran a pilot year funded by Youth Music in 2017. The project is an intersectional Project working with young people with disabilities (including mental health) and LGBTQ+ young people.  

This year has seen such growth in our Music Project, the young people we have worked with and our staff on the project. Below our Project Manager, Hanah Bruce, shares some of the learning and reflections on the project.

I started up My Normal as an LGBTQ+ creative youth group in 2015 seeing a lack of support and activities in Oxfordshire for this vulnerable and often missed group. At this time, and still, there is only one other LGBTQ+ youth group in Oxfordshire. 

"Just two in five LGBT young people (40 per cent) have an adult at home they can talk to about being LGBT. For black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT young people, this falls to 28 per cent." – Stonewall schools report 2017 -

"Two in five LGBT pupils (38 per cent) – including half of trans pupils (52 per cent) – don’t enjoy going to school. More than two in five LGBT pupils (43 per cent) – including half of trans pupils (52 per cent) – don’t feel part of their school community." Stonewall schools report 2017 -

The Ark T centre, where I have worked for over 5 years as a Music Practitioner, under new Leadership from our Director Emmy O'Shaughnessy has developed a new set of aims to achieve through its specialist creative interventions; increased emotional resilience and wellbeing whilst simultaneously challenging inequality through prioritising those who are marginalised by society. 

The Ark T Centre and My Normal decide to collaborate on a Music Project working with both LGBTQ+ and Disabled young people, both acknowledging the lack of support to access music these groups have in Oxfordshire.

In my 5 years working on the music project, I had done very little work with young people with a learning and/or physical disabilities. With music inclusion in Oxford, the more I learnt and looked into it, the clearer it became how little active inclusion there was in the music scene and accross other music projects (including, previously our music project). In meetings with Local charities which work with disabled young people - Parsol, KEEN & Yellow Submarine, they all identfied wanting music with their groups. Some mentioned that financial access was a barrier, some that not having music practitioner skilled or trained in inclusion approaching them was a barrier & some that skilled music practitioners were needed.

"we would need to collaborate with other groups who have the required expertise." - Leader of a group that works with disabled young people.

We find music an excellent tool for engaging young people with additional needs, it transcends disability and unifies groups. 

The main barrier to young people participating in playing music is the cost of practitioners and equipment: it is not possible for us to invest in expensive instruments or mixing equipment and a half day workshop can cost in excess of £100. Some of the Children and Family centres (formerly Early Intervention Hubs) are equipped with sound studios and instruments, complete with drum kits and all manner of exciting apparatus, but we are prohibited from using these unless we have a ‘professional’ present – which again, involves a cost." Anna Cheetham, Yellow Submarine.

Reflections I had at this time in response to this were:

1. Music provision wasn't actively inclusive in Oxfordshire. It is not enough to be passively inclusive, but in order for there to be balance, time and energy has to be put into making sure there is provision for groups who have not tradtionally been seen in the music industy and in local music projects, in order for these young people to know they can achieve in music, have the opportunity to try music and have access to continued provision.

2. Following on from this, Music leaders didn't hold high aspirations for young people with disabilities. We are affected by unconcious prejudice, we will put limitations on what young people can achieve. We need to be actively challenging these prejudices in ourselves as well as the wider community.

3. Music practitioners lacked the confidence to work with this group. Lack of experience in an area, can lead to low confidence in this work, which in turn leads to a lack of participation from these groups as leaders might not approach them to work with them (be activley inclusive.)

We identified in our bid, that in order for this to work, as a new project with a new music freelance team & myself, training, upskilling and being open & learning from mistake would be key to the project's success. 

The overall aims of our project are to:

  • Increase opportunities for marginalised musicians, dismantling barriers to music for young people with mental health and disabilites, My Normal increases visibility, challenges inequality and expands the musical aspirations of participants.
  • Upskill workforce and studio capable of delivering inclusive music projects for young people with disabiliteis and mental health issues.


Finding training for SEND music proved to be difficult, with most training appearing to be up north or down south (which shows the lack of inclusion in the area, compared to other regions), we decided the ask for training in-house from Rhythmix. We had a day with their trainer, covering  'IPads in SEN/D Settings' and 'Mix it up: How we can ensure everyone's included?', whilst this gave us some great practical activities to use with our groups, it gave our team the time to questions our beliefs, name and work through our worries. The training gave our team one main thing, confidence that they had the skills to run this work inclusively.   Before this training session, we ran a drum taster at a group for young people with disabilities. The music leader came out of this session feeling really unsure of if the session went well and had a bit of a wobble to if they could do this work as it felt so new to them. After the training with Rhythmix, they came out of the session saying that it had given them the confidence & new tools and ways of thinking to be inclusive in their work. It had challenged their believes and given them new insight, enabling them to become more inclusive in thier practice.   Some key learning points they were:
  • Consider the Language of Inclusion - 'Us, Together, We'
  • Ask Participants of their needs - have space for this in Check In's at the start of each session. (Note: the correlation to this with working with trans young people, asking what their pronoun is, is better than assuming and getting it wrong)
"I have learnt new skills such as working with different people from different backgrounds and learning new approaches of leading a workshop. Although I have run similar music sessions, it is completely different in the way it is lead because of the different groups that I work with and therefore I am constantly learning news ways to work through inclusive practice." - Music Practitioner on the project  

Mental Health Inclusion 

  Another key area of disablility and LGBTQ+ that we knew the team would need to take was around mental health. LGBTQ+ young people are at high risk of poor mental health as well as Self-Harm.   "More than four in five trans young people (84 per cent) have self-harmed. For lesbian, gay and bi young people who aren’t trans, three in five (61 per cent) have self-harmed "- Stonewall Schools Report 2017   I went to a Self Harm awareness course and CAMHS training around Mental Health. A key learning for me was that, what can seem like uncomfortable conversations with young people around mental health and self-harm, are important ones to have with young people, if done in the right way. It gave me the realisation that waiting for young people to talk to you, might actually be sending the message that you don't want to talk to them about mental health. It gave me tools to have these conversations about these subjects, which before I may not have been as comfortable to have.   Two of our staff went on Mental Health First aid training. "The training I had on mental health first aid was very useful because I learnt about spotting the signs so we can help someone earlier and how to support/talk to the person experienceing the issues correctly and safely."   


All of this training have been embedded in our sessions where one of our outcomes is increased MH wellbeing. We try to create as safe a space as possible and always open and close sessions with Check-ins and Outs, around how they are feeling. This has helped us know how someone is feeleing in a sesison and how we might best be able to adapt to their needs that day, make sure we check in with them 121 if it seems like they have more to say. Through this, we have seen an improvement in moods from start to end of sessions, written songs around themes that have come up. It has been a powerful part of the process to embedd from our training.

Inclusion training has given us the tools to be adabtable to participants need. We have also been able to buy more adaptable music equipment suck as a Skoog and iPads.

This project is funded for another year with Youth Music and we cannot wait to continue to build on the progress we have made in inclusion.