Disabled punk band Heavy Load fights for service users’ rights

Heavy Load band members live two very different lifestyles: by day it’s work placements, day centres, and social work appointments by night it’s rock’n’roll, rehearsal studios and gigging. The band, formed of tenants and staff at the supported housing charity Southdown Housing, are more than your average three-chord punk outfit – as they use their music and gigs to promote service users’ rights.

They are currently busy promoting their Stay Up Late campaign, which encourages staff to support disabled people who want to stay out past 10pm. Michael White, Heavy Load’s drummer and spokesperson for the campaign, explains: “We’ve been playing for years, but we noticed that when it gets to about 9 o’clock a lot of the audience go home because their support workers’ shifts are finishing.

“It has even happened to me. We were in a pub drinking and chatting and I had to leave even though I wanted to stay. The support worker said: ‘Come on drink up – it’s time to go home’.” So the band wrote a song about their experiences and launched their campaign with a CD single called, naturally, Stay Up Late.

Heavy Load have established a reputation for raucous performances, playing songs about what matters to them. They started out when guitarist Jimmy Nichols told his support worker in a care planning session that he would like to be in a band. White recalls: “Jim put an advert out and we have been playing in the band for 12 years. It’s longer than the Beatles were together!”

It’s their punky attitude that is getting the band noticed. Heavy Load are pushing against the barriers to a decent social life and have ruffled the feathers of some support workers who like to have an early night. Paul Richards, service user involvement co-ordinator at Southdown Housing, who also plays bass in the band, concedes that supported housing services often have trouble communicating effectively with tenants. While there can be tensions from staff who like to finish their shifts early, Richards says it’s about finding a way to meet the needs of tenants: “It’s not about going out every night. It’s about making sure that enough notice is given and that staff rotas are flexible enough to allow disabled people to stay up late and have a social life.”

Like any rock band, things are not always harmonious between the musicians. Aside from the ever-present musical differences, vocalist Simon Barker is the archetypal outspoken rock singer, whose conversations are littered with expletives – much to the annoyance of fellow band members. White grumbles: “In rehearsals his swearing drives me round the bend.”

And Barker’s use of sign language is no less controversial – as could be seen when he demonstrated the band’s “Heavy Load salute” which features the British Sign Language sign for “bullshit” where his hands mimic a horned animal defecating.

There may be a lot of larking about but these guys are deadly serious when it comes to service users’ rights. They see themselves as pioneers and have become role models for other people with learning disabilities. But it’s not all about them and later this year they are releasing a 16-track CD ‘Wild Things’ showcasing songs by other musicians with learning disabilities.

“We’re showing that if you get up and make a noise – people will listen,” White says.

It’s a message that’s coming over loud and clear.

More information

Listen to Heavy Load’s music

Watch the trailer of a film about Heavy Load

Stay Up Late

Heavy Load website

Southdown Housing

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