On Whose Shoulders We Build: Spotlight on – Karen Sheader

Disability Arts in the North East – A Living Archive

A tribute to all the disabled artists and groups who have made up the Disability Arts Movement past and present


About Karen

I have been composing and performing disability-related songs, sketches, and film scripts for almost 30 years. Profoundly influenced by ‘The Ghetto’ cabaret in 1993, particularly Ian Stanton, I found my tribe, eventually working for Tyneside Disability Arts and taking over from Geof Armstrong to direct Get Off Our Backs theatre company. I also formed disability punk band The Fugertivs.

When both ventures ended, I formed The Karen Sheader Band, with musicians Derek Mathews and Mark Scott, which performed all over the region and produced acclaimed CD Planet of the Blind. For the past 15 years I’ve been working for Shoot Your Mouth Off, co-created with my film-maker friends Steve Carolan and Derek Mathews, we have built a unique and far-reaching body of video productions with learning disabled actors and crew, with 48,000 subscribers to our YouTube channel! I’ve continued to write and record songs with the Karen Sheader Band and am currently working on my fourth album.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have found collaborators in the film and music fields who, despite being non-disabled, have helped me to create and produce a body of work to be proud of.


Karen’s statement on the exhibition

This is my changing perception of the social model of disability, summed up in these words from Recycling Days from my third album, Pieces of My Skeleton. When I first heard about the social model I felt like this….

“So simple and so beautiful

A world that all made sense,

Taking all the blame away,

the ultimate defence…”


Then, I began to realise its limitations. Geof Armstrong laid it out in a conversation we had in 2010, which I nicked and put into the song.


“But it disregarded loneliness, took no account of pain.

Paid no heed to love or loss, or what it can’t explain”

Which leads me to where I am now.


“My face, my voice,

My life, my choice.

My body under this assault

Feels bludgeoned

And it’s no-one’s fault”


Learn more about some of Karen’s recent projects

View the On Whose Shoulders We Build online exhibition