Photo: Daniel Ali, Unsplash

The issues with accessibility at live music venues

Although for a while it felt like we’d never step foot into a concert again, the recent Boris-approved abandonment of most Covid measures marks the return of live music. This also means the return of the well-established accessibility issues that have always plagued concert-goers with disabilities. From painfully understaffed disabled booking lines to inaccessible seating, people with disabilities have to jump through many metaphorical hoops in order to be able to enjoy live music. As we take these first steps back to live shows, I want to reflect on my experiences of concerts, and how gigs can be made accessible to more people. 

Accessibility is different from person to person, and I am speaking only from my own experiences as someone born partially sighted; every person with a disability has faced different challenges, and it is important that everyone feels comfortable to speak up about these in order to create active social change. 

I should preface my thoughts by saying that I have only ever been to two concerts – unless you count the Girlguiding Big Gig circa early 2010s, in which case that number rises to three. I saw Panic! At the Disco in 2016 and 2019, in Alexandra Palace and the London O2 Arena respectively, both of which were brilliant gigs that were loads of fun. They were, however, not without their troubles. 

Most people with disabilities know you must often weigh up your own dignity and want to ‘fit in’ against your ability to properly access something

Alexandra Palace was altogether not bad on the accessibility front from my visually impaired perspective. The set-up for this concert was such that accessible seating was on a raised platform on the left side of the 10,000-person audience – this was also the only seated section of the crowd. Any concerns about this are mostly from the perspective of my incredibly insecure 16-year-old self, but even today I would feel somewhat uncomfortable with being separated and emphasised as the disabled section of the crowd. But, as most people with disabilities know, you must often weigh up your own dignity and want to ‘fit in’ against your ability to properly access something. In this case, being separated from the crowd brought more benefits than drawbacks: actually being able to see the stage (with the aid of binoculars) was nice, even if sitting down at a rock concert was a bit strange. My friend didn’t have to pay for a ticket as the disabled ticketholder could have a free ‘carer’ – problematic wording, but good financially, if a strange compensation of the impaired experience. The separate, much shorter queue to get into the venue was also a bonus. Ally Pally have also added a visual guide on their website since my visit, to walk their guests with disabilities through the full concert journey, advising on access points and other useful information. 

Realistically, I’m not sure what other options there could’ve been for disabled audience members other than this raised platform, due to the nature of the venue – it is mostly a non-issue. It is interesting to note, though, that this disabled seating area could seat about 20 people at the most, making up 0.2% of the whole crowd. In comparison, 18% of the UK population is disabled – though often to qualify as disabled for these venues, you must be in receipt of PIP or DLA, or otherwise have some kind of specific paper proof of disability, which lowers the population percentage to about 6%. Still, it appears that Alexandra Palace had massively under catered for the potential number of disabled concert-goers they could have wanting to buy tickets. 

It is rare that you find a venue from which you can book accessible tickets online, instead opting for understaffed phonelines

Ally Pally was fun, and was made better by the fact that I didn’t have to tackle the booking process – the O2 was a different story. It is rare that you find a venue from which you can book accessible tickets online, instead opting for understaffed phonelines. To buy tickets for this second Panic! concert, I called five minutes before the disabled booking line (which was lumped in with O2 priority booking) opened, and was left on hold for forty minutes – in a Specsavers waiting area, but that is unrelated. They had very limited tickets left that they recommended for my accessibility needs by the time they got to me; again, one can only come to the conclusion that they had allocated very few tickets for people with disabilities. Also, it does not feel very accommodating when you have to fit a list of criteria to qualify as disabled enough to buy an accessible ticket. I imagine that various medical records and legal documents that ‘prove’ you cannot see are not on most people’s ‘what to bring to a concert’ lists. But, much like the 2016 gig, the O2 concert itself was loads of fun, and you quickly forget about the previous issues when you’re in there. They do put a bit of a damper on your excitement, though, particularly when you worry about things as much as I do. 

Before life was paused in March 2020, I was supposed to see My Chemical Romance in June last year. I was particularly excited, as this gig, one of their first reunion shows after nearly a decade, was happening in my hometown of Milton Keynes – of all the random places they could’ve chosen, they chose the random place I grew up in. Whilst I’m yet to see how Stadium MK does for accessibility for this concert, their booking process doesn’t fill me with confidence. After hours on hold on the listed accessible phoneline with no success, one of our party went to the box office in person. They found about three people manning the phones, inundated with calls from emos with disabilities coming from across the continent with hopes of seeing MCR. Yet again, we are led to the conclusion that the venue was not anticipating so many disabled customers for this concert, which takes us to the inaccurate and condescending opinion that disabled people aren’t interested in these kinds of events. What does society deem appropriate for disabled audiences, and what are venues willing to make accessible? 

I do not wish to come across as whiny or overly complaining. These are small issues – my concert-going experiences have never been greatly hindered by the hiccups presented by inaccessibility. That is, however, quite the privilege amongst people with disabilities. I am lucky that the nature of my disability is such that I can sometimes adapt and compromise in order to enjoy live music, when another person with a disability would not be able to. But therein lies the problem with solving the issues faced by disabled people simply wanting to attend a concert: disability is such a case by case occurrence, and where one person is able to compromise, another is not, even if they both have the same accessibility requirements on paper. Such is life for people with disabilities, where one must adapt to the existing structures that only accommodate you if you fit a certain mould of ‘disabled’. I cannot offer a solution to these problems, but perhaps the small matter of a change in societal perspective on disability would be a good place to start.   

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