Accessibility is not a bonus feature
Kara Douglas
14:45 14th September 2022

As festival season slowly winds down, tour announcements take its slot on the main stage of our anticipation. To prepare, last Friday my best friend and I met to plan out the next few months of live music and in a shared iPhone note we made a list of who we wanted to see and where we wanted to see them. During the car journey home as I scrolled back through the compiled list of cities and dates, I resisted the familiar urge to turn green. Although this list was a potential promise of sharing my favourite music with my favourite person, it was also a reminder that when my friend got home, his only job was to not sleep through his alarm when his tickets went on sale, whereas, when I got home, I had to gather information about venues and how to purchase my tickets before I could even consider my odds of getting them. Because, although like my friend I am a music fan, I am more specifically a disabled music fan.

Not so long ago, Noel Gallagher laughed on a podcast about how he demanded entry to the disabled viewing platform at Glastonbury to watch the main stage, stating “those disabled cats have a great view of everything”. The conversation painted the perception that a disabled viewing platform is an exclusive privilege akin to a VIP area and not a necessity for both the enjoyment and safety of the disabled audience. This made me wonder, is accessibility such a low priority requirement for some venues because it feels like a bonus feature and not a basic need? Or is accessibility simply a foreign concept to the people it does not affect directly?

Deciding to attempt to attend a gig for a disabled person means deciding to sift through a venue’s vague online accessibility statement, if they even have one, before you enter a chain of emails or phone calls in which the responses often return to your inbox with the urgency of a tortoise. All the while, the ticket release deadline looms over you and your chances of bagging one of very few accessible tickets – with most venues only having one small accessible balcony. Even when your tickets are secured, a good time isn’t always guaranteed. The disappointment doesn’t always come at the ticket vender’s checkout, it comes months later when you arrive at the venue and realise that their concept of accessibility is merely a step free entrance, which often is located, most desirably, around the back by the bins.

There have been countless times I have attended gigs and had to leave before the support band has won over the audience because of a lack of bathroom facilities, broken lifts or even the most crucial of all, a viewing platform, so that I can watch the band I paid to see instead of the ass of the guy stood in front of me. When I was nineteen, I attended my first ever outdoor music event. It was incredibly difficult to get in contact with the organisers but following a long email thread with the promoter, I got double confirmation that everything suited my needs, and I booked my tickets. However, when I arrived at the event I waited thirty-minutes by the entrance to meet the very intoxicated promoter. He spoke only to my companion, mumbling that there was no longer a disabled viewing platform because they ‘couldn’t fit it in’. Not to worry, there was a private space for me behind the sound techs, where I had a perfect view of every elbow that stuck out of the back of the crowd. The roadies offered to build a platform as the gig kicked off to try and lift my spirits, but it was made from pallets and had no ramp. Basically, the only thing they would be lifting was my wheelchair, onto a questionably unstable pedestal so that the perimeter of the crowd, who were obviously bored not being able to see the show, could get a better view as they turned instead to watch me. The next morning, after repeatedly calling the promotor to ask for a refund, he answered and reassured me that I knew what I was getting into, and I let myself believe him. I was the one who had dared to try something new. I was the one who had only called fifteen, not sixteen times, on the days leading up the event to try and get one more final confirmation. I was the one who had somehow forgotten in the excitement that because I was born to sit, I should be content that I’m even able to leave the house. I continued to remind myself of this for the entire day, even when he dropped an extra £100 of guilt into my account alongside my refund.

That considered, with twelve years of gig experiences under my wheelchair lap belt it would be ill informed of me to say that accessibility in the world of live music hasn’t improved in bounds over the years, but that does not remove from the fact that it still isn’t where it needs to be, and a catalyst of this is simply lack of awareness. A member of the music industry that is at the forefront of raising awareness for better accessibility in live music venues is frontman of Mystery Jets and patron of disability led charity ‘Attitude is Everything’, Blaine Harrison. Recently, Blaine has begun to use his social media platform to raise further awareness by creating a video series on Instagram in which he reviews the accessibility of every venue Mystery Jets play. In conversation about what inspired him to begin this venture he expressed to me that as a disabled musician, the fight for better accessibility in music venues was a cause he felt compelled to be a part of and that his end goal was to “make people who didn’t think about accessibility take a minute out of their day to consider its importance, and to help inform people who live with disability so they're spared from having to ask awkward questions.”

Blaine shared with me that Mystery Jets have pledged to only play venues and festivals who have taken active steps towards being more inclusive. Of course, he recognises the difficulty of completely irradicating inaccessibility in live music, highlighting that “the irony is that the larger venues we play now have access to better funding, and generally speaking are far more accessible to the ones we played in when we were starting out. But to me that only reaffirms how important accessibility is from top to bottom. Because if disabled artists aren't accommodated in grassroots venues, how do they have a fair chance of building an audience and climbing up the ladder just like everyone else? And the same applies to deaf and disabled audiences. Who would want to spend money buying a ticket to see their favourite band in a space they feel inherently unwelcome in?”. Blaine also emphasised how accessibility is so much more than a step free entrance; there are so many accessible features that are overlooked like “the cleanliness of the toilets or showers at festivals, the visibility from accessible viewing platforms, highlighting measures which have been taken for people with sensory impairments like BSL interpreting and hearing loops. And then also things like lowered bars, fridges to store special medication, electric wheelchair charging points and welfare zones”.

Neglect of accessibility also stems from lack of visibility. How can we convince the world we belong somewhere, when in the media we are nowhere to be seen? Disability is so often only displayed as a vessel for inspiration or pity. As a community there is an absence of representation and in turn accessibility becomes dehumanised box-ticking as opposed to an empathetic consideration of actual humans and their impairments. In considering this Blaine notes “I wish TV coverage would focus more on people on viewing platforms having the time off their lives watching their favourite artist, and for young musicians with disabilities to see themselves reflected on screens and stages, so as to be able to say to themselves: ‘give me five years, that will be me up there.’”

Live music often bridges the divides of race, gender, and sexual orientation and yet the presence of inaccessibility means that bridge is yet to stretch across the chasm that separates disabled and able-bodied people. These days I strive for patience when interacting with ticket venders and venues, but lately, the wait for live music accessibility to become a priority is growing increasingly exhausting. It is only in recent years that I have finally accepted that accessibility is not my problem, it is yours. If I was given a pound for every time I mentioned checking accessibility, and an able-bodied person responded “of course it’ll be accessible, it has to be!” - I could buy and adapt every live music venue in the country. Accessibility is not a luxury; it is an indispensable provision therefore it should be available with the upmost ease. Chronic ignorance of the needs, or more honestly, existence of disabled live music fans needs to be expunged from society. If the world was accessible, sure, our perception of disability as an impairment or illness would remain, but the disadvantages that render us unequal to our able-bodied peers would be irradicated. Together we can transform accessibility from an occasional amenity into a necessity.

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Photo: Gigwise