Fans with disabilities face enormous difficulties navigating concert venues, but these women-led organizations are changing that.
For some, accessibility to go see our favorite artists is a privilege many don’t realize or take time to think about. But the music scene can be an unwelcoming environment for concertgoers with disabilities. Although shows can be a time to gather and bond with fellow fans around a beloved band, inaccessible venues prevent some disabled fans from being able to attend or from being safe.
The Americans with Disabilities Act should help these individuals, but that’s not always the case. The ADA became effective on July 26, 1990 and prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Not only does the ADA guarantee disabled individuals the same rights and opportunities to jobs, schools and government services as able-bodied individuals, but the Title III portion of the ADA also ensures that businesses, including concert venues, make accommodations and modifications to best serve those with disabilities. Accessible elements of a building include things like a wide entrance, handrails on stairs, and a larger restroom.
However, the act does not exactly require pre-existing buildings to be retrofitted for accessibility. Structures built before 1990 are only expected to be renovated to be as ADA compliant as possible. For example, if a critical part of the building cannot be modified due to the structural integrity, then the ADA dictates that it must be made as compliant as is feasible, which doesn’t always mean accessible. And, if added alterations must be made in conjunction to the main space and if the costs for these added alterations exceed 20 percent of the cost of the overall alteration, then the changes do not have to be made.
Amy Miller knows how inhospitable concerts can be. Her music-loving daughter, Manhattan, 12, has cerebral palsy and autism and uses a wheelchair.
“I started taking her to shows when she turned 11 and quickly realized that this was going to be more of a challenge than I ever imagined,” Amy says.
Before each show, Amy contacts the staff about her daughter’s condition and requests space so that her daughter can see without being blocked by others.
One of the worst experiences was when Amy and Manhattan saw Harry Styles at the Forum in Los Angeles. Since the venue did not place warning signs about the lights of the show, it caused Manhattan to have a seizure halfway through the performance.
Fortunately, there have been some worthwhile experiences, too. A month after the Harry Styles concert, Amy and Manhattan saw Niall Horan at the Greek Theatre. The staff escorted them to the front of the stage after everyone else had been seated and allowed Amy to bring in what she needed to make her daughter comfortable.
“My friend and I cried several times and couldn’t stop gushing to everyone how incredible they were being,” Amy says. “They responded, ‘Of course. It takes very little effort to do these things that make a world of difference to you and your daughter. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t.’ That gave me hope among all the other times where it’s gone to shit.”
Women across the United States aren’t tolerating this exclusion any longer. Through community organizing and outreach, some women are making the music scene more accessible and inclusive for everyone.
Priya Ray, 50, of Asheville, North Carolina, is starting at the grassroots level with her nonprofit DIYabled.
Ray became involved in the punk scene in the ’80s and eventually formed a band of her own, Kreamy ’Lectric Santa, in which she plays violin.
After her spinal injury about 20 years ago, Ray began using a wheelchair, yet she was always determined to remain active in the DIY community. Ray started to do whatever it took to attend concerts and to play her own shows, but then her perception shifted.
“I was going through that moment of, ‘What’s going on? Why aren’t people including me? Don’t they know I’m disabled?’ I was going through this realizing that people didn’t really understand disability. People don’t really talk about disability. They are afraid to ask you or ask you what they can do to make it easier for you to participate in an event or attend an event.”
A couple years ago, Ray started DIYabled. Initially, it started as a way to showcase her photography, which spotlighted what Ray was seeing from the vantage point of her wheelchair. Because Ray received positive feedback from others about her work, she soon realized that she should take on the role of an activist. DIYabled became a nonprofit with the goal to educate communities about disabilities and civil rights through benefit shows and zines.
“I’m very into the idea of community,” she says. “We have to turn to our communities because that’s where this change is going to start.”
One thing that Ray teaches to the DIY community is about advertising the accessibility of shows. She suggests that bands should include accessibility and contact information on fliers or Facebook events for house shows. Shows can be one of three things: ADA accessible, which means it’s completely compliant to the ADA code; ADA friendly, which means a person with a disability could get in and out, but they might not be able to access the bathroom or other parts of the space; or not accessible at all.
Cassie Wilson, 20, started a nonprofit called Half Access in Portland, Oregon, but its reach is worldwide. Half Access is currently building an extensive online database of detailed accessibility information on venues across the nation and globally. Entries include factors such as parking, the kind of accessible seating, and accommodations for deaf and hard-of-hearing fans.
Wilson uses a wheelchair because she cannot stand or walk for long periods after a series of back surgeries. She’s been going to shows since she was 14.
“At first, it didn’t really occur to me that there should be a spot for me to watch the shows from,” Wilson says. “I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m seeing my favorite band.’ I’d let myself be in the front row because I thought, ‘Well that’s where I have to be in order to be able to see.’”
But after an intense back surgery at the end of 2016 for scoliosis, Wilson had to rethink how she approached attending shows for the sake of her own safety, especially because she can’t easily twist around to look for crowd surfers.
So Wilson adopted a similar habit as Amy Miller: She started emailing venues ahead of time to secure accommodations – to no avail. Before the Mayday Parade’s 10th anniversary tour for A Lesson in Romantics, Wilson knew she would need accommodations because it was a sold-out show.
When Wilson arrived at the venue, she found tape on the floor in the shape of a square in the back of the room with a sign that said “ADA only.”
That was the tipping point for Wilson.
“That was the night that I just got so mad,” Wilson says. “I don’t get mad very easily, but it was to the point where I was just like, ‘If I want to spend my life surrounded by music, and it’s not even accessible to me, what’s the point?’”
Out of her anger came something productive: the idea for Half Access. Half Access plans to continue building its database of venues so that the team can figure out what the biggest issues are for disabled concertgoers. Next, the nonprofit plans to work directly with venues to help target these issues and to make their space more accessible to all their patrons. For the team’s hard work so far, the nonprofit won the Sub City Alternative Press Music Awards Grant, worth $10,000.
“I’m still experiencing problems when I go to shows, and it’s become really frustrating and really discouraging,” Wilson says. “Having people say, ‘Wow, this is really going to help me,’ or, ‘This is going to help someone I know,’ is so helpful.”
Emma Faye Rudkin
Emma Faye Rudkin, 22, has been deaf her entire life and decided when she was a teenager that she wanted to use her deafness as a way to help those like her.
“All of sudden, I just woke up and knew that my deafness was to help people,” Rudkin says. Rudkin is able to read lips and communicate verbally after years of speech therapy.
She started her nonprofit, Aid the Silent, when she was 18. Aid the Silent helps provide deaf and hard-of-hearing children and teenagers access to educational resources, such as sign language and speech therapy classes, and crucial devices such as hearing aids. For the past two years, Aid the Silent has hosted a music festival in San Antonio, Texas, called the Good Vibrations Music Festival, which is catered to and benefits the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. Past festivals have featured artists including Ben Rector, Parachute and Rudkin herself.
She decided to share her message through music because music has played a vital role in her life. Rudkin learned how to play piano and guitar and how to sing – she can do this mainly from the vibrations she feels while playing or singing.
“The festival grew out of my love of music and the misconception that deaf people can’t love music,” Rudkin says. “People think that deaf people can’t play, they can’t listen to music, which isn’t true. “
The Good Vibrations Music Festival recognizes that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to assist deaf people, so it uses a number of methods to help every concertgoer enjoy the performances. One of these methods is the SUBPAC, a backpack that converts sound into vibrations you can feel in your body. The festival also features a dance floor that lights up in sync to the music. Festival goers have access to T-coiling, which brings what’s happening on stage right to their hearing aids or implants. On stage, live captioning rolls across the screen, half of which features an interpreter and the other half features the performer.
“The whole point of that is for the first time in so many deaf people’s lives, they’re not trapped in the corner and can be a festival goer,” Rudkin says. “I think deaf people are truly just in awe because they live so much of their lives where it’s not about them.”