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Chris Whiley on ten years of the Rocking Roadrunner

Frances and Jo Whiley
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Chris Whiley

December marks the end of the 10th Anniversary year of the ‘Rockin’ Roadrunner’ club nights, for people with disabilities and their carers. The NQ’s Andy Shaw talked to founder member Christine Whiley about setting up RR, inspired by daughter Frances who has a learning disability. Chris, her husband Martin, and daughter Jo, the BBC broadcaster, have experienced the changing face of service provision and created an event that just grows and grows in popularity.

Q. How many children do you have Chris?

A. Two, Jo and Frances. Jo is the oldest and Frances is 49. Frances has a rare syndrome that caused her learning disability.

Q. How did Frances’ disability impact on you as a family, both socially and emotionally, as your young family grew up?

A. Well… socially you tend only to mix with other families that had a member with disability. It’s strange how that works out; we moved to live in Spring Park in Northampton where there were five families, all with children with various disabilities. Our children all went to Whiston Road, where there was a sort of pre-school place: we all went together and met together, due to our common bond. We supported each other and fundraised together, such as being in the carnival.

Q. I guess there was an element of necessity then? Would I be right in thinking that, back then, there was a lot of ignorance in regard to people with disabilities on the part of people who considered themselves ‘normal’?

A. Yes! Very much so. We could feel comfortable in each other’s presence.You didn’t get invited to go out if you had a child that played up, you couldn’t get a baby sitter. This said, I don’t think that our situation hurt our older children; it gave them a much greater awareness of ‘human life’ and it’s problems.

Q. Would you say that the experience gave them a greater awareness of how people or onlookers reacted to people they saw as ‘different’?

A. Yes. There can be an amount of embarrassment regarding your child’s behaviour as opposed to someone who has a physical disability. On the whole, I don’t think I came across any dreadful reactions; people were always friendly and helpful, and that has now improved even more. Jo would say that there were times when she took Frances to town, on the bus, and people would stare when Frances made a noise – her sound was very guttural and loud – and the turning of heads used to embarrass her, but that’s as far as it went.

Q. Is this embarrassment something that one grows out of? I guess it’s hard for others to ignore…

A. Yes! (laughs) You can’t help but look, I mean, even now, Frances is extremely loud. Every head turns! She asks everyone their names and they can’t escape!

Q. What inspired you to start Rockin’ Roadrunner’?

A. Most people with a learning disability love music; as a family, we found it could soothe Frances when she was upset, and also give her a lot of pleasure. She loved ‘Top of the Pops’ and music just fulfilled so many needs in our family. She used to love to go to discos, and in those times, lots of little discos sprang up in village halls etc.

Q. Would Jo have been heavily involved in that?

A. Yes! She simply used to come along and join in. Jo was also a member of Northampton Swimming Club; they had social events, so Jo would take Frances along to those to enjoy the music. When Jo finished university, she started voluntary work at a radio station in Brighton, and suddenly thought “I like doing this!” When she finished her course, she went to London and did a post-graduate course in radio journalism. When she finished she said “ I’m not coming back home, I want work with the BBC”.

I think her first proper experience on air was ‘Woman’s Hour’, talking about Frances. I will always remember that the featured music was ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my Brother’ There was always a link, for Jo, with disability and music. Jo then got involved in TV – she worked on ‘The Word’, booking bands and then, of course was asked to do various things for Radio 1, up to the time she got her own show. That was amazing, especially as Jo is a quite shy, understated person!

It opened doors, though, for Jo to invite Frances to the ’Top of the Pops’ studio to meet The Spice Girls when they appeared for the first time. I used to go with her and we met Boy George and other big names; it was lovely for Frances and lovely for Jo to be able to do it for her. Things sort of evolved and there was a group – ‘The Wild Bunch’ – in Islington that invited Jo along. I went with her and was blown away by the nightclub they were running for people with learning disabilities. They were ‘doing it for themselves’ – their own DJs, and I just loved the atmosphere attached to it all.

My brain became ignited and I thought ‘Why haven’t we got this in Northampton?’ I came back and it kept buzzing around in my head. I talked to various people and they all said “What a great idea!”

One by one, they all said they’d help, if I could get it off the ground. I visited all the nightclubs in Northampton initially…(laughs)… but I couldn’t find anywhere that was suitable, except the one place that would be which was The Roadmender. However, right at that time, The Roadmender closed down, which was very frustrating. I had to sit on the project. When I heard it was reopening, I was down there like a shot.

Luckily, we ticked the Trustees’ box, because the Roadmender had to do a ‘community’ event. Finally, we went ahead. I had a member of Mencap on board, Ria, who is still with us, who is our production manager, and she was very keen to do all the artwork. In the end there were about eight of us involved, all volunteers, wanting to see the project get off the ground. We bumbled along…I came up with the name ‘Rockin Roadrunner’, because we were at The Roadmender and I’d heard about other nightclubs which all seemed to have bird or animal names and I thought it sounded good.

We opened ten years ago last January and the response was amazing. I had parents who brought their kids in (at the time they could go upstairs and watch) ; we didn’t say ‘you can’t come’. One letter, I received afterwards, said “My daughter’s so excited about coming. She’s bought herself a new dress, she’s had her hair done, she put makeup on and, on the night, we watched her go and buy her first drink at a bar.”
It was all just a wonderful experience. We had bouncers on the door. Everyone had to buy their own drinks which helped them to socialise and be more independent and we provided the music. They all loved to dance and knew their music very well. After a couple of sessions we introduced live bands, because I realised this was something most hadn’t experienced, and they loved it.

Q. Would you say that perhaps the most significant element of what you and the excellent people around you are doing is ‘inclusivity’? I know that parents of people with learning disabilities are very much aware of the vulnerabilities of their children and can be present, whilst not encroaching on the individual’s night out’?

A. That was the most important thing: that those attending were safe. There’s a lot nowadays, about being ‘inclusive’, but ours is actually ‘exclusive’, we allow parents and carers, but not the general public. One of the things about the night club is the bands that play. A surprising fact is the reaction of the band members, who probably start off rather nervously, then are blown away by the reaction they get; everyone is on the floor dancing instantly and keep going all night! Even the bar staff are full of praise at how polite and friendly our members are.
Getting back to ‘inclusivity’ – we started the ‘Rockin Roadrunner Festival’, five years ago, and that is inclusive and everyone comes together from the local community.

Q. So what do you see as the future, Chris? Obviously you have champions and Jo is a very prominent individual and massively supportive. You seem to have provided a really powerful and concrete example of what can and should be done?

A. Things have changed somewhat. We have services like The Cube and Olympus Care as well – we run a lot of art workshops there; then you have ‘Dance with a Difference’. Other groups are now setting up their own events. I can’t remember anything like this happening before we started, so I am proud to think we’re providing a springboard for other initiatives. There are prom balls now and all sorts!

Q. Plus these initiatives provide valuable respite?

A. Yes! It gives parents a night off in many cases!

Q. To maintain the momentum of ‘Rockin Roadrunner’ for ten years has involved a huge amount of heart and dedication – how can people help out?

A. We certainly need more permanent volunteers willing to work and adopt our ethos. It’s a lot of work to transform The Roadmender, picking up materials, preparing the venue etc. We would love to spread the load and have a dialogue with potential sponsors and those who may offer support in kind for the festival next year.

The tenth anniversary bash is at Roadmender on December 4. Doors open at 6.30pm with standard tickets £5. Find out more at the website, rockinroadrunner.com

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