Music was the catalyst for so many of my interactions growing up, and it’s still important to me today. But music changed, as did everything else, in 2008, during the fall semester of my senior year in high school.
Heading to my school’s talent show to play the drums in “That’s What You Get” by Paramore, I lost control of my motorcycle. My speed was around 50 miles per hour when I fell to the side in a blackout, slid several yards into a ditch and slammed my back against a tree.
Now, as a T5-6 para, I can’t use my left foot to hold the high hat closed, or my right to press the pedal that strikes the bass drum. While I haven’t given up on playing the drums, my priorities have shifted, and I’ve invested more time exploring music venues as a listener, rather than a player.
Inaccessible Music Venues
I listen to eclectic genres — math rock and ska punk varietals — and the venues these ne’er-do-wells haunt are generally cramped and standing room only, often inaccessible.
I call ahead and ask if there’s an elevator to a balcony so I can get an acceptable viewing angle. I ask if the bathroom is accessible, or if there might be help to make it to the bathroom during the show if I need it. Despite existing in an age where extensive information on most things — such as the price of the peach Bellini served during happy hour — can be found with a single Google search, elbowing myself into the purview of those who manage music venues is unnecessarily exhausting.
Not too long after my injury I chose to forfeit attending a show due to its basement location in a pizza joint. There would have been no way for me to attend, other than strangers hooking their elbows under my armpits and knees, hoisting me down the stairs, as someone trailed behind them carrying my chair. I had already bought my ticket. The venue managers were aware of my disability. No one informed me, nor did the information appear on a website anywhere, about the basement sans elevator issue. On that night I couldn’t make myself be OK with the situation, so I gave my ticket up for someone else.
Strangers enjoy offering help, and I appreciate their effort. But I am constantly expected to graciously rely on them to help me, a fully grown man, whenever an establishment discovers its own shortcomings. This involves a possible safety risk to not only me, but also to those so willing to help. Carrying a 165-pound floppy dead weight is harder than it looks.
Now, almost nine years out from that basement concert, an inaccessible venue wouldn’t stop me from going to a concert. An Asbury Park music festival promised wheelchair accessible pathways to and from wheelchair accessible viewing areas that would be present at every stage. But when I arrived, it turned out I was expected to push my manual wheelchair through sand and over rocks to even make it to the beginning of the “accessible pathway” that was broken up every few feet by patches of sand. I figured it out, found an alternate route, and got over the annoyance relatively painlessly. But this incorrect information, again, is a constant occurrence.
Black Cab Model for Venues
The accessibility of music is an important and expansive issue, but we can take small steps to get there. In London, I can hail any black cab and get inside via a small ramp that takes seconds to unfold on the curb. The speed at which I can get inside the cab is worth the extra cost in fare for me, and I would choose a black cab over the bus or underground every time. I don’t have to research the likelihood of a wheelchair lift breaking, or try to identify which cabs are accessible. Every single one is, and wheelchair users know what to expect when they decide to go somewhere. They know their perspective has been at least considered before they pay extra to ride in a black cab.
Which brings us to my dream: small music venues that facilitate the enjoyment of the music they host for all people, regardless of physical ability, much like black cabs do for wheelchair users in London. We need consistent communication standards that establish realistic expectations: if I pay $50 for a ticket to see a show, should I expect to see sweaty backs and be trampled over? Or is there a place to the side where I can see and hear without being in the way? We don’t need to try and make every single music venue perfect for all people. That’s impossible. But what we can do is help people like me navigate live music choices in an informed manner without hours of work.
Some online ticket purchasing platforms provide the option to purchase ADA tickets, but detail about what ADA means for that specific venue or show is usually completely lacking.
I’ve been left to figure out how to fit physically back into the live music scene: its raw nature, the energy of the fans, the collective experience of both artist and audience in one place at one time, the messiness, the potential for chaos. These attributes that enthrall me now terrify me as well. To reduce the grittiness would be to reduce the enjoyment of the experience for anyone else, but all I ask is that artists and venues pay attention to the accessibility of the physical space where music is played — and then to care about how the information is portrayed and transmitted.
People without disabilities have venue preferences of course: They want strong drinks, or a dance floor that doesn’t get too hot. Or they want the crowd to be as close to the stage as possible. I don’t have preferences; I have requirements. If it’s standing-room only, I can’t see. If the bathroom is between me and a sea of people, I can’t use the bathroom. And due to my disability, I’ll probably end up pissing myself as a result. It’s hard to admit, but it’s happened before: seeing my favorite band in a shitty venue with no regard to accessibility, and I have to listen to this amazing music knowing I’m sitting in my own urine. Thankfully the beer I got drenched in was more pungent and covered the smell.
Regardless, though, there’s something to it that keeps me going to concert after concert. I think it’s the way the bass grabs my ankles and shakes every bone in my body. Hyperactive amps screeching, inside jokes between songs, the extended and drawn-out buildup crescendo to a climax that makes your head spin. The crowd surges and favorite-song-sing-alongs. The temporary tinnitus. Synchronized lights and the shredded set-lists you linger for when the music stops. I keep going to concerts for the thrill. For the love and sake of music that lives. For everyone.
United Spinal’s Accessibility Services Program
United Spinal Association runs an Accessibility Services program with the exclusive goal of making the built environment — including music venues — more accessible to people with disabilities. This team of professionals includes certified accessibility specialists, plan examiners, attorneys, architects and code enforcement officials who help property owners and designers to meet state and federal accessibility requirements.
If you know of a venue or development that is being planned in your community and want to make sure you can enjoy it along with everyone else, feel free to let the planners know that United Spinal’s Accessibility Services can help make complying with access guidelines a whole lot easier. Accessibility Services is about helping ensure accessibility compliance right from the start, as well as bringing existing spaces up to code so that everyone has equal access.
For more information, visit the Accessibility Services website at: www.accessibility-services.com