“I think it’s because of laziness and I think it’s because of ignorance. And I think it’s embarrassing. And I decided that I didn’t want to live in a world where this happens anymore.”
Jameela Jamil is frustrated. We should all be frustrated too. There are 11.9 million people living with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability in the UK – that’s 19 per cent of people in our society. Our response? Help them to live, but rarely help them to feel alive in the same small ways that the physically able are routinely free to.
Enter Why Not People?, the crowd-funded brainchild of Jamil that has garnered support from a plentiful host of like-minded individuals. The company is only in its infancy, but already has the backing of some of the most influential names in the music industry. Its intended function is simple: bring big acts, customised venues and physically impaired music fans and their friends together for normal, incredible nights of live music.
It is a members’ club, not a one-off event. It’s also a business and not a charity. “For the first time, attendees aren’t going to be put at the side on a platform away from the stage.” Jameela is the lifeblood of Why Not People?, taking time out of her trip to LA to chat to Nouse. “They’re going to be right in the middle of the action at the very front, and they’re going to be able to enjoy the gig with their friends and families. This extends to people with hearing and visual diasabilities – they’ll be able to enjoy the gig their own way as well.”
Since the launch at the end of January, she has worked relentlessly to promote and publicise the fledgling business. It is through her efforts and industry influence that Mark Ronson, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Tinie Tempah and James Blake will soon be writing history by making their music truly, universally accessible. “We’re using SubPac technology for people with hearing and sight impairment – the music vibrates through you so you physically feel it,” she tells me. “It was originally designed for big name global DJs to be able to physically feel the beat, but we’ve realised that this would be an amazing concept for people with disabilities. We’re going to install the technology on some of the chairs so those with impairments can really enjoy the concert. There’ll also be sign language on stage. We’re going to do everything we can to ensure that it’s the best fun, normal night out possible.”
I don’t want to be remembered as someone who wore ankle boots, I want to do something important with my platform.
At 28, Jameela has already hosted what is arguably the most high profile radio show in the world, launched her own fashion collection and interviewed half of the entertainment industry for Channel 4 and the BBC. She’s part of the generation of cool, off-beat Londoners with Instagram accounts as edgy as their haircuts. Yet she has inexorably aimed to use her platform for good. She blogs regularly to her young, predominantly female fan base on issues ranging from body image to consent, with a voice of enlightened perspective much lacking for such a demographic. She’s also no stranger to dealing with disability – she was hit by a car in her teens and suffered acute, though not lasting, damage to her spine.
“The reason I wanted to focus on this company is that my best friend has cerebral palsy, and about two years ago he and I started to realise that there was a stark difference in our personal lives,” she says in response to my question of how she believes her experiences of disability have shaped the conception of Why Not People? “We were trying to find places where he could go out and socialise and be safe, and we couldn’t find anywhere. We literally couldn’t find anywhere in the UK where he’d just be able to be normal on a night out; to be a normal 27 year old lad who wants to go out and shake the week off. So I thought, ‘if there isn’t anything there, I’m going to make somewhere myself’. So I did.”
She is a measured yet uninhibited speaker. She says what she feels with equal force to what she thinks, and doesn’t shy away from conflict between the two. Perhaps this is why it is she who has taken this essential, groundbreaking step.
I put this to her. “I’m doing this because no one else is. And I wanted to do something that meant something. I don’t want to be remembered as someone who wore ankle boots, I want to do something important with my platform. Going to gigs has been such a huge part of my life and going to festivals has been such a wonderful rite of passage for me, and it’s sad to think about how many millions of people are missing out on that because other people can’t be arsed and can’t be bothered to spend the money.
“It’s a huge proportion of society, and it’s not entirely different to black and white discrimination. Looking out on a crowd of people who are all completely physically able is like looking out on a crowd of people who are all Caucasian. It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t reflect society.”
Restriction to accessibility for gigs and concerts is, as Jameela highlights, part of a wider societal blindness that is developing in place of much needed clarity and diligence on behalf of equality of opportunity. Much has been said and written of the legacy of the London 2012 Paralympics, yet a third of people with a disability still experience difficulties in accessing commercial and leisure goods and services. More shockingly, disabled people are still roughly twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled adults. Why, in times of such technological dexterity, are we still seeing such indifferent, passive discrimination?
“We’re not really confronted with disability on a day-to-day basis because there is so little access, so we don’t see disabled people around as much as we should,” Jameela cleanly identifies. “It’s a Catch 22, and I think that it’s generally a fear and a taboo. That’s what we came up against here. It made finding a venue virtually impossible. Wembley Arena has 90 thousand seats, and out of those seats 0.35 per cent of them are disabled access. And that’s one of the best stadiums for access in the country.”
What has the response been from large venues accustomed to piling in fans for maximum revenue? “Some have simply said ‘Sorry, we don’t have the capacity’”, she tells me frankly. “They’ve said a point blank ‘No’. They think they haven’t got enough disabled clientele to justify the reparations it takes to make their venues accessible, which is so stupid, because the reason they don’t have enough disabled clientele to justify it is because they can’t get in. People don’t realise that there’s 80 billion pounds to be spent on these things – that’s how much the annual spending power of disabled people is.”
Looking out on a crowd of people who are all completely physically able is like looking out on a crowd of people who are all Caucasian
Fortunately, a number of venues have proved tractable. It will be at the Indigo2 (the O2’s sister arena) that the first landmark event will be held. Membership application is now open to anyone with an impairment that makes gig going difficult or unfeasible – members pay an annual subscription of £15, which provides Why Not People? ticket access for them and their friends. This is perhaps the company’s most astutely composed concept: the gigs will be inclusive rather than exclusive. Those with and without disabilities will be brought together in a proper representation of all who love live music. It’s an everyday, extraordinary idea.
“I think this is the beginning of something really special,” Jameela says with knife-sharp conviction. As long as she helms the company, this is surely a given – her passion for the project is of a fierceness rarely encountered in the contemporary cult of celebrity.
Yet it is because of her excellent taste in ankle boots and proficiency for gabble that Chris Martin is now lined up to play to thousands of formally excluded fans. Is this a landmark moment for the transference of the popular platform, as well as for the perception of disability?
In all likelihood, probably not. Jameela’s selfless determination is all too rare an exception to a vacuous rule. Yet, in face of the apathy of the elevated, her work alone is already doing wonders for changing how we think and feel as a society towards disabled people.
By taking steps to prominently ask ‘why not?’, she has put in motion a process of realisation – she and her company are forcing our eyes open, and encouraging us to ask the same question.
“We want this to be the start of a social movement,” she tells me in agreement, perhaps not completely aware of the extent to which she has already begun the progression she seeks. “I want to change the way that people look at those with disabilities. I want this to be the start of people becoming accustomed to seeing people in wheelchairs, or people with deformities or impairments out and about on a night out, so we don’t treat them any differently to the way that we would expect to be treated ourselves.”
It’s an aim so achievable that asks for so little on behalf of those living ordinary, unhindered lives. Jameela Jamil and Why Not People? aren’t only providing opportunities for all to enter mutually into the spirit of live music without obstacle or obstruction. They’re setting an example for the kind of inclusive societal outlook to which each of us must contribute in any and every small way we can.
What lies ahead for Why Not People?, and just how far does Jameela think the reach of this historic project can extend? “We’d like to help venues become more accessible. Any venue who wants to be advised by us, we will happily travel to meet with them to show them what they need to do in order to have the Why Not? seal of approval, and then we will bring our business, and our amazing A List stars, to them. We’d also eventually like to make sure that every artist on every tour always has a Why Not? night, so that there’s always an opportunity for people with disabilities to have a night out with proper disabled access, even if it’s just in one city.
“We’d also love to host our own space at a big festival, and we’d like to eventually take it all over the world.” She collects herself, before offering a poignant insight: “It’s my hope that in 10 years time my company doesn’t need to exist because there’s so much competition.”
Jameela is an enchanting anomaly – as everyday as she is extraordinary. As we say our goodbyes and she gabbles an absent sigh of relief to be missing the circus of this year’s London Fashion Week, it becomes apparent that she is very much one of a kind.
Visit whynotpeople.com to find details on how to register for upcoming events, as well as details on the company’s ambassadors and affiliated partners.