"It's not enough"
A roundtable discussion
on music venue accessibility
Author: Sophie Weiner
Illustrator: AJ Dungo
Thoreau once said: "When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable." From hip-hop, which emerged from impoverished urban neighborhoods in the US, to punk, created in economically depressed English towns, music has been one of the few venues of resistance and comfort available to oppressed people. Concerts are a chance for people to come together and feel, for once, that they're in control, that they hold the power. But for people with disabilities, the possibility of experiencing the euphoria and connection of live music is often limited.
People with disabilities face innumerable difficulties accessing the music spaces which most of us take for granted, whether it's a festival that doesn't have accessible parking or free caretaker tickets, or a DIY venue which requires patrons to climb rickety stairs to enter. Many venues, show bookers and bands don't even consider accessibility, neglecting to provide the information which could make the difference between people with disabilities attending the show or not.
In an era when "social justice" has become a household phrase, and more young people than ever are interested in fighting oppression in all forms, people with disabilities wonder why their issues are still so often overlooked.
Hopes & Fears assembled four advocates for music venue accessibility to discuss the complex issues people with disabilities face in the realm of live music, and what we can do to create change.
Annie is a music journalist and critic. She was the Music Editor at Riverfront Times and the Managing Editor of Alternative Press.
Graham is the Business and Operations Manager at UK-based nonprofit Attitude is Everything
Sean runs the DIY record labels Fan Death Records and Accidental Guest, is the creator of the website "Is This Venue Accessible?"
Maria is the booking agent for SoFar Sounds Atlanta, a monthly secret concert series, and co-founder of JORTSFEST
Hopes & Fears: What are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed to make the music scene and venues more accessible?
Sean Gray: I think information is pretty powerful. It’s one thing to talk about representation, but if we don’t even have the information, the representation isn’t necessarily going to come. The purpose of my website really is to provide information.
Annie Zaleski: I totally agree with that. I’d also add education. A lot of times people at venues, either organizing shows or who work at venues, aren’t even thinking of a lot of the obstacles or issues someone with a disability is going to face. For example, if there’s a step up into a venue, most people wouldn’t even think twice about it. “Oh, I’ll just step up on it.” If there’s not a full parking lot, or if the parking lot isn’t well-lit, for most people it’s, “OK, that’s just the perils of going to a show.” For a lot of people with disabilities, that’s an obstacle that might prevent them from going.
Graham Griffiths: Attitude is Everything has been around for 15 years and very much started out campaigning for that physical accessibility: wheelchair access, level access, accessible toilets, viewing platforms, that kind of thing. Obviously, we’re still really pushing for those things, but a lot more of our work is about trying to educate people that we’re not just talking about wheelchair users when we’re talking about people with disabilities. I think, in the U.K., only 8 percent of disabled people are wheelchair users. I feel like if a venue isn’t wheelchair accessible, the venue owners tend to think that that means there’s nothing they can do for accessibility, when actually there’s a huge amount that they can do to improve the experience for so many people with disabilities.
Maria Sotnikova: One thing that people don’t think about is how people with disabilities actually get to venues. What are their transportation options? Are those transportation options limited by a public transit system, which may not run 24/7? It’s something that you have to take into account as far as not only making a place accessible but having options for people to actually get to that place.
SG: I’m seeing a show tonight and I use a thing called Metro Access here in D.C., which is sort of a paratransit service, a door-to-door service. You have to make the ride at least a day before you’re going. With this particular show, I wasn’t really quite sure if I was going to go or not. Now I have to take a taxi cab there. I actually have to pay extra money to go see this show that I want to see tonight, and that’s just an extra expense that I have to go through, just because of my disability.
AZ: I go to a lot of shows with my husband, and he’ll drive, but a lot of venues where we go don’t have close parking. He can either drop me off, which is the best case, or there might be really expensive valet parking, which adds to our expenses. I have a disabled placard, but a lot of places don’t have handicapped parking. That’s, I guess, just another example of a barrier, and just something that makes it a little bit more difficult even getting to the venue, and being able to enjoy the show.
H&F: What kinds of accommodations need to be made for people who aren’t necessarily in a wheelchair, but have visual or hearing impairments, or another sort of disability? What kinds of things are we overlooking for those people?
SG: I always say this when I do press: disability is a spectrum. What may be accessible for me or Maria, isn’t necessarily going to be accessible for somebody who’s visually impaired. Again, not everybody who has a disability is in a wheelchair. Not everybody who has a disability actually has sort of that signifier, that there’s a physical disability. There are such things as invisible disabilities, and we need to acknowledge that.
GG: I think it’s important to say that sign language is a minority language for people who are hard of hearing. Not many people actually speak it. Captioning, or kind of live subtitling something, could be done more in theaters in the U.K. Things like viewing platforms, they could be for people with vision impairments who might find it difficult in crowds. They could be for people with hearing impairments, that might become disoriented, and personal assistants as well can help people with sensory impairments, but also people with learning disabilities and mental health issues. It’s really important to try and educate event producers, the personal assistants, and viewing platforms are for people with a broad spectrum of disabilities, not just wheelchair users.
AZ: Half the battle, going off what both of you guys have said, is making it easy for people to figure out where they can go to ask questions about accessibility, or to reach out and discuss what they need. A lot of times, when people find a venue Web site, it’s not necessarily intuitive, and they don’t have information about where you can call. Festivals I think, at least in America, are a lot better at this in terms of being very detailed. Bonnaroo, in particular, has a really amazing and very detailed disability access FAQ page, that pretty much covers anything you would want to know, and they say, “Hey, if you have any other questions, reach out to us.” Something like that is extremely important.
GG: A really small, kind of grassroots venue, up in Manchester, has done something cool recently, which is to have a dictated lineup of what’s going on for people with visual impairments who were having trouble accessing their Web site. People can download it as a podcast and find out what’s coming up and information for the venue. That’s a really easy thing that takes five minutes to set up, and costs absolutely nothing, which shows how little some of the bigger venues are doing.
SG: If you go to a basement punk show, most of those kids don’t even have the money for rent, much less to actually change the physicality of a space. I think there are times when we just have to say, “This building is not going to be accessible ever, physically.” The 9:30 Club, which is the club I’m going to tonight, the last time I checked, which was like last week, they had no website section on accessibility. The 9:30 Club is one of the most prestigious clubs in the U.S. The Black Cat, which used to be owned by Dave Grohl, I can actually go to shows there. They have an elevator there, but if I had no idea about that venue, if I was just going in there and it was my first time, I would have no idea who to speak to. Like, how do I get upstairs? Is there an elevator? Where are the accessible restrooms?
H&F: As Sean mentioned, the people who run DIY venues often don’t have a lot of resources, and sometimes the venue itself isn’t even legal. Is there anything that you feel like the DIY community could be doing for accessibility, and to be more accommodating to different kinds of people?
SG: There’s a good drawing somebody made recently. It was this house that said, “Safe Space,” and had all of the different sides of oppression that they were against. But the steps leading up to the house were broken. You know what I mean? What DIY venues really could do is change the culture. If punk is all about community, which is why I got into punk, why don’t we change the dialogue? There’s room for people with disabilities in punk. There is, I know there is. Let’s start talking about it.
MS: I feel as though while there might not be a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of accessibility in DIY venues, or even in commercial music venues and performance spaces, an open line of communication and people talking about it allows for the cultural shift that Sean was mentioning. It allows for accessibility to be something that is a consideration, when you decide to host an event. If disability becomes something that is part of that culture, then it's something that you consider in making your decisions on venues.
SG: Let’s be real here; how do we get a lot of our information about going to shows? Social media, right? Particularly Facebook. With a Facebook invite, you can put as much text as you want. We can say it’s all ages. We can say it’s a safe space. We can say, “Ask a punk,” or “Here’s the address.” We can give all this contact information, but it’s still weird to put accessibility information. I don’t want to say it’s taboo, but nobody really does that. Even a lot of the bigger clubs, like 9:30 Club, they use Facebook, and they have invites for their shows, even if it’s a huge show. You would think that those clubs would be very aware that “We can provide any amount of information because there’s nothing stopping us,” but they don’t. If you could at least provide an e-mail address or something to where I can go, “I need to know more about this show before I can actually make a commitment,” that goes a long way.
GG: It’s the small venues, the DIY, punk venues, where small differences can make a big deal. Is it three steps up into the venue, or is it two flights of stairs? Is there a toilet on the same level once I get up there or am I going to have to go downstairs again? Those kinds of things are really important. I think the small venues tend to be worried that firstly, they could get in trouble. Their accessibility isn’t good enough, whether it’s the law or complaints that people are going to write them. They’re also potentially scared that disabled customers will actually come. They haven’t got time to think about how to make their venues more accessible, or what they need to do when disabled people do arrive.
SG: There’s a certain amount of guilt. If venue owners actually have to write on my Web site that yeah, we’re not accessible, or there are three flights of stairs. There’s a demographic to which you’re saying, “You’re not really welcome here.” I know that sounds brutal, but that’s the honest truth here. I don’t want to pull any punches. When I go to a venue that I can’t access, what that’s telling me is that I’m not allowed to be there, that I cannot be a part of that experience.
GG: We’ve worked with venues that, when we’ve gone in and we’ve said, “Why don’t you have any information?” there are people that have turned around and said, “We don’t have any disabled customers.” Obviously, part of providing that information is to make it clear that disabled customers are welcome there. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. You’re never going to have any disabled customers if you never do anything about accessibility.
AZ: There’s a venue that’s near us that we go to. Going there has become very arduous and onerous, and it’s just not a pleasant experience. It just makes you feel like they don’t really care. It makes you angry, and it makes you not enjoy the experience of a band you might be really excited to see. In 2015, it shouldn’t be that you’re going to a place and you feel unwelcome, or you’re basically being considered a second-class citizen, but that’s exactly what it feels like.
H&F: What kind of progress have you guys seen? Who is actually doing things right?
GG: I think it’s important to recognize there are really good small venues doing lots, not to be overly negative. We work with small venues with absolutely no money, limited time, but accessibility is a priority for them. Venues like Band on the Wall and the Boiler Room in Guildford, they go out of their way to make accessibility a part of their ethos. Everybody is welcome. The music is for everyone.
MS: In terms of festivals, I think Graham talked a little bit about this earlier, but many persons with disabilities have personal care assistants or caregivers, whatever terminology that you choose to use. At times, that caregiver might have to be with that individual for the duration of the performance. That, as a result, adds an undue cost burden to the individual. It means that instead of paying for one ticket, you have to pay for 2. The Fest in Gainesville, Florida, is a punk music festival that happens every October here in the U.S. When I inquired with them about getting a pass for a personal care assistant, they agreed to cover the pass of the caregiver, as long as the person actually needs that caregiver to be with them. Stuff like that, which makes it more affordable for people to attend, is a really great thing.
AZ: I had to reach out to a band manager earlier this year at one point, about some disabled seating. She took care of it, and she didn’t need to. There are people on that level, who are basically doing good things. The only problem is that because I’m a journalist, I have these contacts. I know who to reach out to, and I have a little bit of an extra "in" to be able to advocate for things, which is not how it’s supposed to be.
MS: Treating people equitably, and treating people with respect, shouldn’t be something that is out of the ordinary. It shouldn’t be something that people are going out of their way to do.
GG: I think things are improving. When we started working with Glastonbury, I think they had about 300 people with disabilities who used to go to a 120,000 capacity festival, whereas last year there were over 1,500 people in the accessible campsite. Maria mentioned the personal assistant tickets, and I think that again is something that has improved massively in the U.K. over the past few years. There was actually a legal case last year where somebody took a music venue to court for not providing personal assistant tickets, and won a settlement, and got the chain of venues to essentially change their policy across the board.
The last time we analyzed the people who went to Reading festivals, I think between 2012 and 2013, the number of disabled people attending increased by more than double, to around 360 tickets. It still doesn’t sound like huge numbers at an 80,000 capacity festival, but that equates to nearly £200,000 in revenue. You’re talking about £200,000 in revenue that they gained by improving their accessible facilities. I think there’s a really strong economic argument for improving accessibility.
H&F: What should both artists and fans should be doing to increase the visibility for these issues?
SG: I think it really also boils down to the bands themselves. For clubs and big venues, the bottom line is money, right? The bottom line isn’t about the band that’s playing. It’s not about you and your experience. It’s about "how much money am I going to make off of this show?" Let’s say one band says, “No, I don’t want to play.” Then a second big band says no, and they use the lack of accessibility as their rationale. The venue is going to start taking notice. “We’re losing money, and it’s because we’re inaccessible.” The venues aren’t going to change because we are here having this conversation, right? They’re going to change when they start losing money.
GG: We ran a campaign last year called Music Without Barriers, in which we got artists to engage with people, like alt-J, Stevie Wonder, Frank Turner, lots of artists came out in support of what we were doing.
AZ: Graham, I came across that event last year. I thought that was the coolest thing. People weren’t treating it like, “Look at this poor group of people we want to support.” It was like, “No, this is something important. We’re throwing our weight behind this because it’s important to us.”
MS: In the news, during a really huge time in the disability rights movement, there was this saying, “Nothing about us without us.” Now, this past year, I heard a different version of that saying arise from the same community. That was, “Nothing without us." Period. People who are disabled should be present, period. It takes an individual to first self-identify as a person with a disability, and that is something that is difficult, and can be difficult, but it’s easier the more people do it, and the more that people talk about disability, and the more that it becomes culturally acceptable to identify as such.
SG: Let’s put it on the table here. Disability is an oppression, it is. We need to be OK with that first. I feel like once we can actually acknowledge that, then we can talk about disability advocacy and how that can be done. I’d rather an able-bodied person fail at talking about disability than not talk about it at all. What I think the next step, and what I hope, is when we have another conversation like this, we can bring in somebody who’s able-bodied, because having allies in the able-bodied community is important.
A lot of bands may not have that privilege to just tell a promoter, “We’re not going to play this show.” I get that. That’s important to acknowledge. If you have the privilege, you should say no to playing that show, or you should at least acknowledge what’s going on in that venue.
AZ: There’s still the perception, at least in America, that because the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] exists, that the work is done, so we don’t need to do anything else, because we have this law that protects people. The unfortunate thing is, there are places everywhere that are still ignoring the rules and regulations. Because this was passed 25 years ago, a lot of people think, “Oh, they have all their rights now. Everything’s good.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
GG: I think I’ve been very negative, and it’s important to acknowledge the good things happening. In the U.K. with our work, we have a charter of best practices, and now we’ve signed up a lot of venues and festivals. It’s seen as bad now if you’re not doing something accessible. We’re finding it a lot easier to create a network of positive case studies of people that are overcoming barriers to access, and doing it really well. That’s a model I’d say really works. I’d like to see it replicated all over the place, but I think being positive and highlighting the best-case scenarios for accessibility is very important.
SG: My friend is a promoter and artist, called Unregistered Nurse. At most of her shows, she says something about accessibility. It’s such a statement on her Facebook invites for her shows, on flyers. It’ll say, “This venue is accessible,” or it’ll say, “Here’s the contact information to get more information about accessibility.” I didn’t ask her to do it. She just did it. That meant more to me than almost any record that I’d heard in the last 10 years. To me, it felt like she cares not necessarily about me, but about what people with disabilities go through.
I think the one thing that is really interesting, when you’re disabled and you’re angry, people don’t really know how to take that. You’re supposed to be very accepting of what you’ve got, and be happy that people are there to help you, or you have a community to help you. When you’re the angry disabled person, you kind of come off as like, “old man yells at cloud” sort of deal. [Visibility] is also a thing I think we need to work on, and hopefully by doing stuff like this, by doing panels, by doing websites, by doing interviews, blog posts, somebody is going to read that. Somebody that has that pull, that clout, is going to read this at one point and say, “You know what? I want more information. I want to be an advocate. What can I do?” I think that’s going to come, but I think right now, it’s OK to be angry and say, “You know what? There’s a lot of good happening, but it’s not enough.” That’s OK.