Music venues need true accessibility

By September 17, 2019 No Comments

By Sue Kerr
Pittsburgh Current Columnist

I have a confession. I once fell asleep at a Bruce Springsteen concert. 

I wasn’t drinking alcohol or particularly tired. But, I nodded off to the utter horror of my partner who is a diehard live music fan. 

Anxiety is the culprit. Sometimes I have this drowsy sensation in the middle of a Giant Eagle on a Sunday. It isn’t that I’m tired or weary. I’m just sleepy because my senses are overloaded with anxiety stimuli. It is almost like playing possum or hibernating. I must close my eyes. 

Anxiety is a bitch at a large music venue. There are so many anxiety triggers parking, lines, bag checks, finding an aisle seat, plus potentially falling asleep for starters leaving me a literal nervous wreck before I arrive. Throw in inebriated people and it’s a recipe for disaster. 

Accessibility supports can be a big help. Stage AE has a straightforward process to accommodate. Club Cafe does, too. Other venues tend to focus on physical disabilities and force me into a box that doesn’t fit AND potentially limits access for another customer. I don’t need a folding chair in the designated wheelchair seating. I need an aisle seat somewhere, anywhere in the facility. 

Access to water is another issue. I’ve learned that under Pennsylvania law, venues must provide access to water but they are not required to provide a cup. They can forbid outside cups, ban outside water, and charge me for a cup, as long as there is running water that can be freely accessed. Staying hydrated is important when anxious. 

Any venue could proactively offer reusable branded water bottles to all guests requesting an accommodation. It’s an investment that sets the tone for brand loyalty. It saves us all time and precious energy to not have to go looking for a cup. Not everyone needs a cup alternative, but everyone appreciates a thoughtful gesture that does not stigmatize or label the recipient. 

Venue websites should have detailed information on how to reach a live person to discuss accommodations. Staff should be aware of and ready to address hidden disability requests. Performers and promoters should also request this information. 

It truly is exhausting to get myself to the event. Having to argue with staff over issues like elevator access or aisle seats consumes precious energy reserves from my diminishing supply. 

Now, I’m privileged because I know my rights, and I’m often accompanied by in-house counsel (my partner is a licensed attorney.)

But sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes the anxiety, dread, and apprehension take hold of me and I can’t imagine leaving the house to go to a space I perceive as hostile or exhausting. I beat myself up mercilessly for being a failure and missing out on life experiences that I want to embrace. 

I miss a lot of things. I missed Heart touring with Joan Jett this August. Reaching a live person with  Live Nation was impossible, so my Facebook friends helped me patch an accessibility plan together. This cobbled together plan wasn’t enough to overcome my symptoms. 

I’ve missed countless other shows that were important to me. Elton John’s farewell tour? I can’t risk spending the money in a venue that’s unwelcoming to people like me. 

Often, I just don’t even try. Laura usually covers live shows for our blog. I handle the Q&As with the artists and advance PR. Sometimes I’m the +1, sometimes she takes a friend. Missing Ann Wilson from Heart was crushing. And it could have been avoided if the venue cared about disabled patrons. 

The Bruce Springsteen story is amusing as far as anecdotes go, but it is heartbreaking for me. 

I will never go to music festivals. I will never go to standing-room-only shows. I will judiciously attend live music events that have accommodations, especially when the tradeoff is having to relinquish the cell phone I rely on to help me manage the experience. I understand the reasons for banning cell phones, I just wish you understood how a cell phone section could make any show more accessible. I also wish you would stop berating people on Facebook because we don’t turn out in droves for live music. 

We all lose when the arts are inaccessible to members of our community. My world is smaller, for sure, and I lose access to all the ways music heals, soothes, and lifts up wounded spirits. 

The arts themselves lose because a community not visible will not be part of the artistic narrative, rendering it less true and less authentic. 

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