Smile Politely

Searching for an all access pass

Disability is a touchy subject. Until recently, most media outlets have avoided the topic completely, with the exception of the odd “inspirational” story every now and again. You know the type — the “look at this poor girl whose missing a leg, but she’s still brave enough to take her hideous and disfigured body to the grocery store, and we’re so proud of her, and now you have no excuse to not want to go grocery shopping” type of bullshit. 

Barf. When a person with a disability writes about discrimination or accessibility, oftentimes, the message is accepted as a universal truth regardless of disability’s subjective nature. I’m sick of it. Accessibility needs to improve, the disability rights movement needs a voice, and the only way we’re going to affect change is to start a discussion.

A few weeks ago I stumbled across an opinion piece written for Pitchfork called “Going to Shows When You Have a Disability.” I thought it sucked. The piece was so narrowly framed by a single experience that it did not come close to approaching the wider issue of accessibility or inclusion. It is worded in a way that sounds more like a desperate cry for sympathy than a realistic look at what it’s like to go to a show with a disability. The author makes people with disabilities seem unapproachable, bitter, and stubborn.

I made the mistake of attempting to engage him in a conversation via Twitter, which quickly devolved into him insinuating that I was merely cheap inspiration porn. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, however, if you’re going to publish it on a website with (literally) millions of readers, you should be capable of not only defending your position, but also discussing it.

Accessibility and inclusion are issues of human rights and need to be discussed by everyone.

How can we expect to be a unified movement demanding change, when we can’t even talk about the real issues? If we won’t take each other seriously, no one else is going to either. The problem is, as a person with a disability, what you say and write reflects back upon EVERYONE with a disability, and people then form opinions. If you want to be a disability rights advocate, take it seriously. You now have a responsibility to work towards solutions, rather than cry oppression at every minor inconvenience.

Everyone comes to a show with a different set of expectations — some of which are met, some of which are not. There is no such thing as “normal.” People, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, all have an individualized experience. It’s impossible to feel confident at a show (or anywhere else) until you learn how to be comfortable with yourself. Even if every accommodation is made for universal design, a disability is still a disability. It will still draw attention. People will still stare.

Accessibility, like disability, exists on a spectrum. Nothing will ever be 100% accessible for everyone, however, venues should be expected to make a legitimate effort to be inclusive. That said, some degree of flexibility is, and always will be, necessary. It’s completely unreasonable to expect every house show to be accessible for someone who cannot walk up and down the stairs, but public venues should be held to a higher standard. It is their responsibility to make sure that every person who has bought a ticket can access to the show.

I’ve lived in Champaign for 10 years, and I’ve hit pretty much every venue we’ve got to offer, including a few basements and backyards. Sometimes I go with friends who have disabilities, sometimes I go with friends who don’t. As a community with a large population of individuals with disabilities, Champaign does a pretty solid job on the accessibility front. I sometimes forget how lucky I am to live somewhere so progressive, because I’m usually complaining about the cornfields.

Even in a town like Champaign, there are still inaccessible venues. Indoor shows at Mike and Molly’s are a pain in the ass. I have to find someone to carry me up the stairs, but using the bathroom or getting a drink also means finding someone to carry me back down the stairs. I have no problem asking for help, but for me, the planning that goes into this outweighs the experience of the show. I don’t like to make that sacrifice, so I choose not to go, but I have the option because I weigh 90 lbs. and can be easily carried. A 200-pound man or a person in a power chair requires different accommodations.

Seeing a band in a theater — like Krannert or the Virginia —  guarantees a better view and easy entry because of the assigned seating, but in exchange, a completely different atmosphere. Sitting in a lonely balcony seat or cordoned off in the back allows you to see the show, but limits your ability to create your own experience. It is accessible, but not equal, and can feel like a sacrifice of independence. As a person with a disability, you have to choose whether or not the experience outweighs the inconvenience.

My point here, is that there is no perfect solution. I’m just a girl who likes live music. Sometimes I can’t see the stage because I’m sitting down. Sometimes I have to watch what I drink because it’s inconvenient to fight through the crowd to find the bathroom. I’m not an inspiration because I like to go to shows, nor do I deserve (or desire) your pity because I can’t walk up the stairs. It would be great if every venue in every town had an elevator and accessible restrooms, but that’s just not the reality. As advocates for disability rights, we need to engage in meaningful dialogue with people in and out of the community; to promote accessibility and strive to make all public places as accessible as possible. We can’t expect change if we can’t even talk about it, and that, is a responsibility that falls on everyone.

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