There is a lyric in Gaelynn Lea’s “I Wait” that truly captures the marginalized experience of people with disabilities in this country: “You may not realize / all of the small ways / I am not welcome / but just take a look around.” The line resonates in my mind as I navigate a world where accessibility is frequently an afterthought and where the discrimination I experience is so subtle it often goes unnoticed. If the discrimination was more obvious, it would be easier to address. Instead, disabled people reside in a nebulous space where we are lauded for our courage in coping with our nontraditional bodies, neurodivergent minds or physical limitations while at the same time the access and services on which we depend are constantly chipped away or simply ignored. Though our movement’s brightest success, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is nearly 30, many businesses and public accommodations still struggle to understand its requirements, and many more people with disabilities still trudge through the inaccessibility it sought to eradicate.
Over the course of a single week this past September, I experienced the following forms of inaccessibility:
- I attended a small concert where the show organizers did not have an accessible path to the performance space or seating area designated for patrons in wheelchairs. The ticketing website provided no information about accessibility, and the theatre’s website simply said its space was fully accessible. Luckily the musicians improvised a side entrance that I could roll through backwards to a tiny space sandwiched between the instruments and the stairs leading to the other seats.
- I was excited to see a new favorite artist, then learned the venue she had chosen was not wheelchair accessible. The venue’s website cited the age of the building.
- I planned to begin private lessons with a voice coach but learned her studio was not accessible. She declined to meet me in an alternative space. She did not apologize.
- I tried to get tickets to another concert for my fiancée and I. The show was listed as General Admission. Since my fiancée has an invisible condition that makes standing for 2-3 hours extremely difficult, I searched the downtown venue’s website for information about an accessible seating area. Not finding any, I called and waited on hold for an hour without a response. I gave up, thinking I would try again the next day, but the show was sold out by then.
- I followed up with the host of an open mic I tried to attend six months earlier but couldn’t because the bar had two steps at the entrance. The host had promised to speak with the bar owner about adding a ramp. He now told me he had mentioned his concerns several times and been ignored.
I share these experiences not to complain but to provide context. Even with the ADA behind us, disabled people still face access issues with regularity; and despite a common opinion that our inclination is to file a lawsuit, many of us simply compose an email, write a letter, or make a phone call asking for the issue to be resolved. Often our requests go unanswered. Often we decide to drop the issue and spend our money elsewhere.
For me, this week was different. I began the week discouraged, but having been hammered repeatedly with inaccessibility and apathy, I reached the limits of what I could passively accept. It was time to act:
- I emailed the musicians and the theatre of the first concert. The band apologized, offering free tickets to their next performance, and vowed to make accessibility a priority at future gigs. The theatre agreed to add an accessibility clause to their contract and require a walk-through for future groups booking the space.
- I contacted the artist and the venue of the second instance. I did not hear back from the artist. The venue’s response was lukewarm at best, but I put accessibility on their radar.
- I found another voice coach who offered to meet in my home and waive his typical transportation fee in consideration of his inaccessible studio.
- I spoke with a friend who works security at the downtown venue; he got us tickets and improvised a seating area by setting a padded barstool to the right of the stage.
- As for the bar, I finally connected with the owner after several attempts. I have a meeting with her next week.
I learned that you cannot stem the tide of progress, however slow it may be. I learned that taking action – time-consuming and uncertain as it is – is ultimately worthwhile. I also realized that disabled people are likely the only minority group expected to enforce our own civil rights, which are guaranteed by law. And even then, it requires a concerted and constant effort to break through the indifference and fear that prevent full inclusion. Still I remain hopeful because I believe in everyone’s heart the tendency to exclude pales when compared to the desire to show compassion and connect with others. As a progressive city with a passion for live music, we should want that too.
Resources for Venue Accessibility:
Tips for accessible (ADA)/companion seating from Eventbrite. This resource offers a brief overview of the ADA’s accessibility requirements for event spaces.
Attitude is Everything DIY Access Guide for Bands, Artists, and Promoters. This guide was developed in the UK, but it provides a great start for understanding the various accessibility features and accommodations that people with disabilities need to attend and enjoy live music performances.
ATXgo! This is Art Spark Texas’ online guide for festivals and live music venues in Austin. If you have updated accessibility information for your venue or if you need assistance/consultation in making your venue accessible, please contact us. We are happy to help!
Eric Clow, Media and Communications Specialist, Art Spark Texas