In Haunt

A free two-day digital festival from the ever-innovative Manchester Histories – DigiFest – is taking place on Friday 4 and Saturday 5 September 2020, featuring a feast of creativity, performances, conversation, music, film and more; all aiming to celebrate the legacy of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (1970). This was an act with widespread implications … and has a profound link to Manchester.

Manchester Histories DigiFest

How so? The legislation was pioneered by Lord Alf Morris, who was born in Manchester and went on to serve as the MP for Wythenshawe for over 30 years, as well as becoming the first ever Minister For the Disabled in the UK. He was determined that disability discussion and inclusion should not be hidden from society – and now 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic act, and a key focus of the festival. 

DigiFest will be broadcast live from Manchester’s Central Library and available across the world. That means audiences far and wide can tune in and enjoy the packed programme, bringing together disabled and non-disabled people from a range of backgrounds, organisations and individuals alike. The host is multi-award winning artist and activist Jackie Hagan, and celebrations will be led by the family of Lord Alf Morris himself.

Jackie Hagan (pictured below - image credit: Lee Baxter) reflected:

Jackie Hagan By Lee Baxter

I'm delighted to be hosting this event - to celebrate a local working class man like Alf Morris who worked so hard to give disabled people the legal recognition we need.

“We've got a fantastic array of talent on board and an exciting way of getting round lock-down that I think will mean more disabled and non-disabled people can attend.  People can come to hear so many brilliant disabled artists, a fitting tribute to Alf Morris and his work.”

Alf’s daughter Gill Morris added:

 “It is just fantastic that so many brilliant people are coming together to Celebrate Alf’s Act. The Covid-19 pandemic shone a light on the huge inequalities in our society. No more so than on disabled people.  It has also exposed just how vulnerable everyone’s future health and wellbeing is. 50 years ago, my Dad recognised the social injustices suffered by those with disabilities and that inevitably disability impacts on all our lives.  This ground-breaking legislation – one of the first of its kind – was about creating equal opportunities and fairness for disabled people. 

“DigiFest shines a light on Alf’s Act which changed the lives of millions of disabled people worldwide and provides an historic opportunity for us to celebrate and learn.  Most of all it will look to the future and how, together, we must shape a more equal society for disabled people.  I hope that everyone will tune in, feel inspired, motivated and proud.”

What’s the story behind ‘Alf’s Act’?  Throughout his life, Alf Morris (pictured below - image credit: family of Lord Alf Morris) dedicatedly campaigned for the rights and equal opportunities of disabled people in society. As part of this, he outlined measures that should be taken to support people and improve accessibility. Beginning as a private members’ bill, the act initially faced opposition – yet thankfully survived following the 1970 General Election. One of the first acts of its kind, it outlined the importance of provisions such as support at home and equal access to educational as well recreational facilities – meaning the growth of travel assistance and responsibility taken by local authorities to ensure that this was the case. In terms of education, just some of the pioneering change included improved provisions for disabled children and greater awareness of conditions such as autism and dyslexia. Another area transformed by the act was that of building legislation, with public premises required to provide accessible parking and toilet facilities for disabled people, for example. Disabled badges for cars also became a reality.

The above highlights just some examples of how the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (1970) transformed provisions for and awareness of disability in society, and the importance of upholding equal opportunities. It also paved the way for the likes of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Equality Act 2010.

Lord Alf Morris - Image credit: Family of Lord Alf MorrisDigiFest will explore the significance of this ground-breaking legislation and celebrate Alf Morris’ achievements, with the festival championing disabled people expressing their voices and perspectives through performance, music and creativity. This will include conversation around themes such as positive empowerment and the importance of disabled people authoring their own narrative and future.

Friday 4 September marks the opening night (6-7.30pm), and will include the first screening of part one of the documentary Alf, made alongside Lord Alf Morris’ family. There is also the opportunity to hear Gill Morris and documentary maker Jules Hussey from Brazen Productions in conversation about it. Other highlights include host Jackie Hagan in conversation with Alicia Dillion, discussing living with a Chronic illness, and the artist, writer and actor Mat Fraser will consider the change in tone regarding how disability rights have been handled in recent years. The evening will come to a close with a performance by cellist Georgina Aasgaard of the work of Lucy Hale, in a piece created in collaboration with Drake Music as part of a special commission for DigiFest.

The Drake Music collaboration is an exciting example of how DigiFest is providing innovative new content – and features three brand new works from North West-based disabled artists Lucy Hale, James Holt and Ollie Hyland, all responding to the three festival themes: Celebrate, Learn and Challenge. Whilst Lucy has composed three short movements for the cello, Ollie is singer-songwriter set to give an exciting performance. The third artist is multi-instrumentalist James Holt, who has created two new songs for the occasion. Haunt Manchester spoke to James to find more:

Hello James. Congratulations on the commission! The focus of this year’s festival is the 50th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act (1970). Had you heard of this before the commission and has it been a historical learning experience so far?

“Thank you Emily! I hadn’t heard of the Act itself before this commission but the more I researched it the more I found that its impact is still being felt on my life today. I felt like I had to really deep-dive into the Bill to do it justice through a song, and Manchester Histories were wonderful in providing me with all the resources I needed. I managed to find a lot of additional info too including the Hansard script of the official reading of the Bill in 1969, this was a key resource for one of my pieces.”

Do you think the work and stories of disabled people are reflected widely enough in music? How do you think things could be improved?

“There’s a distinct lack of representation across the board at the moment. I remember studying music when I was school and wondering why there wasn’t any deaf/disabled music - I didn’t have anybody to look up to really, especially in my genre of music. Moods are changing but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

 As part of the commission, you will be using your music to respond to the 1970 act and the themes of the festival. Why does reflecting on topics such as this through music matter?

“One of my commissions, 'Sea Of Silence', directly responds to my personal disability (hearing loss) and I felt it was important to include a personal aspect while also addressing the Act itself and to highlight the impact the Bill has had on disabled people through my own experience. For me personally it is important as I’m reflecting on this topic using an audio medium with an audio sensory impairment.”

You have created two songs for the occasion – can you tell us a little more about the process? What was the most rewarding thing? And what was the most challenging? ​​

“For the first song, 'Sea of Silence', I researched the Hansard online archive and went through the whole script of the reading - I was really inspired by Alf Morris’ (and the other MPs) words and I thought one of the crucial points, and themes, of the bill was to give disabled people their own independence. A lot of the words in the song are picked from phrases from the speech in 1969, as is the title of the song. I wanted to get this point across of the changes the Bill brought about and convey that through the words and music - you’ll notice in the first half it is much slower and I sing about feeling trapped and in a cage, and then towards the second half I sing about being liberated and freedom.

“The second song  'Make My Day' was written quite early on in the commission. I was given some source reading of an account by Pamela La Fane who admitted onto a geriatric ward when she was 16 and she wrote at length about her experience. I aimed to write a song that explored the idea of receiving visitors when you’re in hospital and the feeling of happiness and relief that somebody cares for you - it is, in a way, an ode to the NHS.”

James Holt By Debbie Ellis

Above: James Holt. Image credit - Debbie Ellis 

Saturday 5 September will feature performances from James and Ollie in the afternoon, preceded by a morning (10am-12 noon) packed with workshops, resources and digital content exploring the perspectives of disabled people throughout history. This includes the likes of a talk on Disability and The Tudors by Phillipa Vincent-Connolly of Manchester Metropolitan University, and Dennis Queen’s creative  response to Covid-19 on the disabled community, It’s Been Carnage.

The afternoon will additionally present a series of live broadcasts, introduced by Jackie Hagan and running until 6pm. Audiences tuning-in can experience a talk from DIY Theatre, a performance by artist Janet Charlesworth of Proud and Loud Arts, in-conversations led by Jackie, and more.

A series of online exhibitions have also been created as part of the festival, with collaborators across the North. This includes an exhibition and short film from artist Louise Stern, artists from Pure Arts responding to the Heritage Future exhibition at Manchester Museum, The John Rylands Library exploring the archive of The 66 Club – a group founded for young deaf adults in 1966, and Furiously Mad, an exhibition presented by Poole Arts. Why Furiously Mad? That was the description shockingly given to disabled people in a legal document from 1714 – and in turn, the exhibition will consider past prejudices and the importance of progress forward.

DigiFest 2020 is a collaboration between Manchester Histories and a range of groups, individuals and organisations across the North. These include The University of Manchester and its Disabled Staff Network, the family of the late Lord Morris of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Manchester’s Students’ Union, North West TUC, Manchester City Council and the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People.  It is funded by Manchester City Council, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, National Lottery Heritage Fund, Granada Foundation, Wellcome Trust, Historic England, Sir Robert McAlpine Strong Foundations Grant, supported by Semble, and the kind donations from the public.

The DigiFest 2020 full programme is available here, and audience members can let organisers know which events they will be tuning into via eventbrite. On the day log on to www.manchesterhistories.co.uk/DigiFest2020 to take part.

By Emily Oldfield

Image credits 

Image 2: Lee Baxter, Image 3: Family of Lord Alf Morris, Image 4: Debbie Ellis

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