Inspirational Lemonade Maker: Suzanne Bull
Suzanne Bull is CEO of one of my favourite charities, Attitude is Everything. At the risk of sounding like a ‘brown noser’ they are also one of my favourite clients! I have been their freelance disability equality trainer for many years. I know of the beginnings of Attitude is Everything, but I haven’t heard the story from her perspective so I asked her to tell me her story of turning negative experiences into positive change.
Attitude is Everything improves the access to live music for disabled people by working in partnership with artists, audiences and the music industry.
In a sunny beer garden I began by asking her what she was doing before Attitude is Everything. ’I was the Publications & Promotions Officer at Artsline’ she tells me. She worked providing information on access to the arts. ‘Before that I was working at Shape Arts in administration. I worked on the accessible ticket scheme which aimed to enable greater access to the arts’. This post was part-time so this allowed her to pursue other interests such as, event management and marketing. She also volunteered at events to gain experience. In addition, she also worked freelance as a play right and journalist, writing for disability publications and also in Time Out. ‘I wrote about how exciting and vibrant disability arts is’ she tells me with a note of excitement and vibrancy in her voice.
It is pretty evident that Suzanne is not one to sit and wait for something to happen. She laughs as she recalls her school mates rolling their eyes as she suggests another new thing to do or an event to organise. ‘They still remind me of this’ she says, ‘I’d be saying let’s do this and they’d be saying let’s just chill!’
I am keen to find out if there was a defining moment when she decided to do something.
Suzanne takes me back to when she was eighteen and went to Glastonbury festival for the first time. She was particularly excited to see her favourite band, The Cure. So much so, she stood for hours to be at the front for the performance. Frighteningly, due to her short stature she got her neck trapped when the crowd surged forward. Luckily someone noticed her and lifted her to safety; otherwise she would have been crushed. She says, ‘I thought then ….If I get out of here alive, there’s a better way of doing things’.
On another occasions she fell under the stage at a venue in Kentish Town and could easily have been burned. Another time she left a venue in Brixton with the imprint of wire meshing deep in her skin as she was crushed against a metal barrier. She said she thought, ‘I’m paying my money, I can’t see anything and I’m getting bashed about!’ When she became a wheelchair user she knew she had ‘no hope’.
These accounts go back twenty years and things have changed massively since then and Suzanne has been behind many of the improvements. In particular, Attitude is Everything have been working with Glastonbury since 2005 to improve the access and in 2011, over 700 disabled people were booked into the accessible campsite.
Suzanne wrote an article about her experiences in the disability media. Remarkably, someone from Arts Council England’s music department read the article, somehow got her home phone number and rang her at home to ask if she wanted money to do a project! She laughs looking back at this turn of events as she considers how very different and difficult things are today in comparison.
At the time she was working for Artsline but she wanted to go part-time so she began project managing Attitude Is Everything, which was initially a 1 year pilot project. She felt at the time the music industry was not responding to what was then, the Disability Discrimination Act. Upon doing research and analysis, it turned out there was a will to do something but they just didn’t know what the way was.
Attitude is Everything created the Charter of Best Practice to offer practical advice to the industry. It became so successful that the commercial sector was soon over-riding their public sector equivalents. Suzanne recalls a time in 2005 when she was involved with seminars run by the Greater London Authority on best festival practice. Three different sized commercial festivals showcased the creative access solutions they had implemented. It turned out to be an ‘eye-opener’ for the rather embarrassed audience members representing public funded events. Since then there has been a big change and the Greater London Authority ran Disability Equality Training for all their, ’Summer Like No Other’ events in 2012 and access plays a major part in their Event Sustainability Plan. Other Local Authorities including Essex County Council, Tower Hamlets and Southwark Revealed also have access firmly in their events planning.
I ask Suzanne how she would describe the music industry today compared to when she began. ‘There’s not the question of why are we doing this anymore. Now they get it and want to do it’ she says.
I ask her what have been her high points and she replies with a tone of pride in her voice that it was becoming a stand-alone charity. ‘The fun started from then’ she laughs. In exceptionally tough times Attitude is Everything have seen their funding increased by Arts Council England when others have had their funding cut.
I ask Suzanne what motivates her and she replies that she is ‘really into music and loves going to gigs’. She wants disabled artists and audiences to have the widest access to live music. She is motivated by the team she has around her, citing their commitment as being motivating. She says she has always been good at knowing who the right people are and using networks and creating strong teams.
Not at all bad for a girl from Essex whose parents were told, ‘your baby will have massive learning and physical disabilities but don’t worry she will be dead in three days’! ‘My parents had loads of crap to deal with’ she recalls. She recounts a very happy and inclusive upbringing, ’my parents were always on my side’ she tells me.
Suzanne and her family had their fair share of barriers to overcome as she grew up but she says this has only served to strengthen her resolve to do the things she has done in her life. ‘Don’t let others shut down your dreams’ she tells me, ’if it is a good idea and you are passionate about it, people will gravitate towards you’.
We end with her telling me that, if it all fell through tomorrow she would ‘feel like she has had a good innings with what she has done over the last 13 years’. I get the sense that she is not going anywhere in a hurry though.