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Changemakers: Hitting the right notes

Stephen Hetherington wanted his disabled daughter to be able to join in with music lessons – so he made sure the right equipment became available

It started with Dr Stephen Hetherington’s teenage daughter Amy. Hemiplegic as a result of cerebral palsy, Amy came home from school one day disappointed that she wasn’t able to join in with music lessons. Hetherington sprang into action. The school had no instruments she could play, she said. Nearly nine years later his Birmingham-based charity has gone around the world in search of the most innovative adapted instruments, made them available as part of an affordable national rental scheme and trained teachers to give disabled children as good an education as anyone else. Taking just hemiplegia (a lack of control in one side of the body) as an example, around one in 1,000 UK children are affected.

Hetherington’s life has been music. After studying at what is now known as the Royal Northern College of Music and playing in a number of symphony orchestras in London, he went on to produce theatre, opera and ballet around the world. In 2006, he co-founded HQ Theatres & Hospitality, the second biggest operator of theatres in the UK. Hetherington even headed up the development of one of Britain’s largest National Lottery-funded projects, arts centre The Lowry, which transformed the Salford community. “My first reaction when she said that was the same as the first reaction of many people I meet, which is: no, surely there is something for you,” he tells The Big Issue.

Hetherington’s first act was to look into adaptations, but he realised that the few already out there were very particular to individual disabilities.

“In whole-class teaching, everyone plays the same instrument with one teacher. If you are disabled and you can’t play it, either you’re sent to do something else or you’re sent to the back and you draw or something. It’s very distressing.”

Sitting at home in his armchair, Hetherington explains, he became acutely aware of how limited his own knowledge was. He wondered if he could attract the interest of the best instrument-makers in the world to see what they could come up with.


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And in 2011, the OHMI Trust was born – alongside a new competition to design adapted instruments which could be played by someone without one arm and one leg. The first winner, dubbed the toggle-key saxophone, came from the University of Nebraska’s Professor David Nabb, a keen saxophonist who had recently suffered a stroke. The unique key system allows one index, middle or ring finger to play what would usually be played by both hands.

But Hetherington soon realised there was more to do; introducing the instruments to the disabled community, teaching them and training teachers in a bid to fight the institutional discrimination disabled people feel. Adapted instruments are not cheap (a toggle saxophone goes for around £6,000), so OHMI started by creating a national rental scheme that is making them accessible and affordable to thousands of families across the UK.

OHMI works with some incredible teachers who really do give you hope

Working with teachers and inspired by what they learned – and realised they didn’t know – earlier this year the team launched the OHMI Research Partnership in collaboration with Birmingham City University and Queen Mary University of London. Experts are studying everything from barriers to inclusion to the sociological impacts of technology in music teaching.

The competition has now moved to once every two years, but remains fantastically popular, says Hetherington, adding that the judging panel is usually left with a shortlist of 20 imaginative submissions.

Despite OHMI’s success, funding remains a consistent issue, with the Trust forced to rely on Arts Council cash plus donations from private sponsors. But the biggest challenge, according to Hetherington, is “constantly fighting against the absence of a keen receptive government,” and an institutional
lack of understanding of disabled lives.

“When the school doesn’t have instruments for you or fully understand your disability – which is extremely common, even when they’ve been told – it reaffirms that separation you might feel,” says Hetherington.

“But OHMI works with some incredible teachers who really do give you hope. There is a growing number of lives which have been transformed by their work.”

Sounds Inspiring

The Trust’s biennial competition opens for entries in April. There are three categories:

• Playable: instruments which are already playable by someone who is disabled.

• Concept: ideas which with research and development may produce a playable instrument.

• Enabling equipment: simple, practical things that makes a standard instrument playable, like a cello stand (above) for someone who plays with their feet.

Illustration: Matthew Brazier