When Elliott moved to Brighton a few years ago, he didn’t know many people. A musician and an avid jazz fan, he got involved with Carousel, a charity that supports artists with learning disabilities and autism. He also found Gig Buddies, which supports people with learning disabilities in a very different way: by pairing them with volunteers who help them enjoy an active nightlife.
In the case of Gig Buddies, that nightlife is mainly in the form of music (though in practice this can be any shared interest, from gallery openings to bowling). When Gareth, who works at Carousel, met Elliott, they struck up a friendship based on shared interest in jazz. “Elliott loves the jazz ‘greats’, like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis,” Gareth explains. “I was familiar with most of them and there was a lot we both liked, but I’ve learned much more from hanging out with Elliott. I never listened to Charlie Mingus before, for example, and that was a revelation. Elliott has a new suggestion every time.”
Gig Buddies has offered Gareth and Elliott opportunities to go out as friends, a much more equal relationship than in many support settings. Fostering genuine relationships like this is exactly what the charity Stay Up Late, which runs Gig Buddies as one of its programmes, was created to do. Founder Paul Richards credits the realisation that people with learning disabilities often have to leave events by 9pm “because their support workers finish at 10.” Gig Buddies runs with the motto: “We believe that people with learning disabilities have the right to stay up late and have fun.” It’s a simple idea, but a quietly revolutionary one; people of all ages, from all walks of life, have expressed interest in volunteering, suggesting that this simple idea fills a very human need for companionship — and nights out. Gareth agrees with this.
“When Elliott and I go out, we’re just friends meeting up, and all that matters is whether we enjoy it.”
Although Gareth admits he has a motive in letting Elliott choose most of the events: “I do this partly to go to things I wouldn’t otherwise think of seeing by myself. But also — he’s the expert. He’s the one who plays the music in the car... I’ve enjoyed all his choices so far.” He cites The Verdict, a small classic jazz venue in Brighton, as a mutual favourite. Asked about his favourite gig memory, Elliott agrees emphatically: “Beer at The Verdict!”
Socialising afterward is, of course, as important as the gig itself. “Every time we go out, I try to take a photo, for us to remember the event but also to show Gig Buddies, who check in on a monthly basis, what we’re up to,” says Gareth. “Every outing seems to have a photo of me and Elliott, and then one of Elliott with a beer in his hand!” By getting to know Elliott in a relaxed, informal setting, Gareth has been able to fine-tune the amount of support he needs. “It’s good to be able to go to the bar and know that Elliott’s perfectly capable of deciding what drink he wants, and ordering it. Maybe he’ll need my help to get through the queue. But the rest he can handle. It’s quite a soft-touch way to make an impact.”
This kind of soft-touch care also, he thinks, has the power to transform the way local communities, and society at large, views people with disabilities. “To see people with disabilities going out, having fun, taking control of their lives — that demystifies the disability,” he says. ”It changes people’s expectations. They see that they’re also part of the community, that they’re engaging.” Supported socialising helps break down barriers that too often keep people from fully accepting those with disabilities, even when they have the best intentions. “There’s a real fear of saying or doing the wrong thing,” Gareth says. “But generally, people are friendly and want to be inclusive. They’re just unsure.”
Volunteering for an initiative like Gig Buddies can transform people’s understanding of the challenges faced by disabled people, as well, he says. “It really makes you become aware of how accessible — or not — society is.” They chat in advance before each event to make sure it’s something Gareth will be able to attend. Looking out for Elliott has made Gareth more of an advocate for accessibility: “not everything can be accessible to everyone, but why not make something more people can enjoy, if you can?” In any case, he believes, greater empathy can only lead to more tolerant, helpful communities, whether that translates into installing an accessibility ramp, or just making room for someone at the bar.
The pair have an ever-expanding list of activities that they want to do when socialising freely is allowed again. In the meantime they’ve been keeping in touch with each other during lockdown, chatting most weeks via virtual calls. “Usually we’d meet about once a month. During lockdown, we’ve made the most of zoom. We chat and share clips that we’ve found on YouTube.” That isn’t as good as a live gig, of course, “but we’re still socialising and discovering music.”
“That’s helped Elliott to have some continuity through all of this. And it’s helped both of us feel less alone, Gareth says. “[The pandemic] has made that clear. People really do need each other.”