In The Middle with Dman

Considering he is one of the friendliest and most well-known faces in the Leeds DIY Dance music scene, it’s not hard to see where Dman gets his reputation as a lovely local legend. Lifting up the sleeves of his T-shirt, he beams as he shows me his new tattoos: on one arm the digits 0113 (the Leeds area code) above a white Yorkshire rose; on the other a pair of cowboy pistols as a tribute to his love of country music. “My grandad raised me on those tunes. I just really love stuff like Johnny Cash and outlaw country, there’s definitely a place for that nowadays,” he says.

And it certainly seems like he has adopted this contrarian outlaw spirit for himself. Dissatisfied with the lack of accessibility in nightlife, he founded the eponymous Dman and Friends, an event that raises money for local charity Sunshine and Smiles and aims to increase inclusivity in club spaces for those with disabilities. “There is a beautiful DIY scene in Leeds and it thrives but unfortunately the venues are typically not accessible and that’s a consequence of putting events on in smaller spaces when they cant afford to change that. I wouldn’t want those people to stop doing what they are doing but obviously with mainstream nights it’s in their grasp to become more accessible because they have the resources and the big venues but it’s not something that I see.” So, what does it take to run an accessible club night?

“We always make sure that our events are wheelchair accessible. There is also a separate space for people to use if the main room becomes too overwhelming with a couple of people in hi-vis vests – I’m usually one of them – for if someone feels overwhelmed. We put floorplans of the venue into the event page beforehand so people can feel familiar with the space. If we are doing a longer, family- friendly event in the daytime, there will be a lack of visuals and flashing lights and quieter sounds. One my mates is partially-sighted and he has always had a lot of input with how very intense visuals and lights can make it difficult for him to concentrate and focus on a night. We usually go for a simple animation rather than overwhelming visuals so as not to take away from anyone’s experience. Making a night accessible is a process and we can’t do everything because disability is a spectrum but we try and do as much as we can.”

Dman. Credit: Dman.

As impressive as this insight into what makes a nightlife space exclusive to those who are disabled is, it does not come without first-hand experience as Dman’s autism has often made visiting venues a challenge. “I was undiagnosed until I was 19 but I was already working in a club by that point which was the only reason that I became comfortable going into those environments was because I had to work there. If I hadn’t worked there, I doubt I would have ever enjoyed clubbing.”

“I’m not comfortable if there isn’t someone there who I can ask for help. If the lights are really intense and the music is really loud, I get really over-sensualised as I have hyperacuity to noise and get really bad tinnitus. I was actually deaf until I was about 5.”

The frankness and candour Dman employs when talking about his condition is refreshing in a society that links disability and shame by default. But it is clear that his diagnosis hasn’t come without having to fight against the preconceptions of others. “9/10 responses to telling people I am autistic is that I am too sociable or chatty to be autistic and this is just lots of people projecting their stereotypes onto me. Just because I have gone through a process and chosen to identify a certain way doesn’t mean that anyone has the right to dictate that to me,” he asserts.

“It’s quite difficult to explain the way it affects me because it’s so integral to who I am. One of the biggest misconceptions is that people with autism always struggle with a lack of empathy but, if anything, we are hyperempathetic because we pick up on emotions so strongly. That’s why I can’t use the bus because I get too involved with people’s conversations and end up in tears about someone’s life who I have never met. At the same time, it gives me a unique perspective and an ability to be me. I look at it as a superpower and use it to make my corner of the world a little bit nicer.”

Dman. Credit: Dman.

When I mention representation on event line-ups, he is proud to tell me about his upbringing. “I was raised by lesbians and the first night in Leeds I felt comfortable going to was Slut Drop because of the big feminine energy as that’s what I was used to growing up around. I was raised in a very queer environment, that was just what it was.” Yet, he does admit that outcomes to those with disability seem to be arriving slower than other minority groups. “There is not that many disabled DJs because in the same way there are for women, POC and queer people getting into DJing, there are just as many barriers for disabled people, if not more because of the physical aspect of it.”

While we touch on the topic of family, Dman explains the decision to fundraise for Sunshine and Smiles, a Leeds charity that provides a support network for children and young people with Down’s syndrome and their families. His younger brother uses the service and after spending the first 4 years of his life on a ventilator, has survived intensive care, multiple open-heart surgeries and reconstructive surgery on most of his organs. “We told got told he was going to die so many times. There was no support through the NHS for parents who just had a kid with Down Syndrome. How do know how to deal with that? Where are the resources to help you realise that the childhood of a kid with Down’s will be different form every other kid you have raised? Sunshin and Smiles kind of fill in those gaps for the people who fall through the cracks.”

However, with the pandemic pulling the rug from under thousands of once-stable lives, not least of those working in the Arts industry, the aforementioned cracks seem to be growing and Dman is no stranger to this. “This year has been very rocky. All the defence mechanisms that I had built up over years and years of living on my own as an adult kind of fell to pieces,” he sighs. “Just before lockdown I had gone full-time DJing and I didn’t have to work bar shifts for the first time since I was 17 – but obviously that disappeared. I got very little furlough and I kind of fell through the cracks a little bit. Luckily, I get disability living allowance which if I’d never had I wouldn’t have been able to leave home.” For the first time in our conversation, he seems more wistful than joyous.

“I miss making people dance. It makes me feel connected. There is definitely a reason that me as an autistic person enjoys DJing because I have control over the volume, I can physically feel the records I am playing, it’s a very sensory experience.”

You would think that such a year of turbulence would take the spring out of anyone’s step, but Dman remains resolute. “I feel like all we can do at the moment is plan for when we can do things again. The North has always had to be on its own and to fend for itself, but our culture will always survive. No matter what, if Thatcher couldn’t finish us off, no one can.” Evidently, this Northern pride and steadfast determination has propelled him through the draining uncertainty of 2020. Amidst the many things he has in the pipeline are an upcoming country mix (the tattoo comes out again when he tells me this) for Threads Radio in London, a new show on recently-established Leeds-based station Alto Radio and a desert-island-discs-esque one-off based around accessibility and nightlife for Sable Radio. What’s more, he has already planning to launch a new event for the blessed day that clubs reopen: ‘Nothing but a D Thang’, a monthly celebration of hip-hop, RnB and Soul. However, as our conversation draws to a close, Dman is keen to bring the focus back to Disability History Month.

“All I can say is that all anyone needs to do to make anyone’s life a bit easier is to think. I know personally I really struggle with changing my perspective but if could even just for a little bit change your perspective to that of someone who is disabled and think what would make that person’s life a little bit easier.

I know I can’t change the whole world, but I know I can change a little bit of it and make it nicer. And that’s all I can hope for from other people too, that they also want that.”

Header image: Dman. Photos via Dman.