How Accessible Is Live Music?

“Everything should be made equal; all toilets should be accessible so you can go in with your friends”
Victoria Evans
May 25, 2023

It’s to the point where I don’t bother asking to go to the toilet, and it shouldn’t be that way. I shouldn’t have to wait until I get back to my hotel room. I should have equal opportunity to go to the bathroom like everyone else. We shouldn’t be an afterthought.”

These are quotes from two separate music lovers with disabilities. Eli Carter, 23, who is a full-time wheelchair user with Spina bifida, and double below-knee amputee, and Jordann Clark, 26, who has Ehlers Danlos syndrome; a condition which causes her joints to dislocate daily and affects her internal organs. Jordann relies on the availability of disabled toilets when out, and her mobility changes between walking with a stick and using a wheelchair.

However, it isn’t just toileting that disabled people face issues with when attending concerts. Barriers are presented in every stage of the process, from buying tickets to accessible entrances. Both my interviewees have attended concerts frequently: Jordann goes weekly, and Eli says he goes often, but not so much anymore due to transport issues. Both mainly go to see shows around Leeds, however Jordann also visits Vortex in Wakefield, and Eli travels to York on occasion.

When purchasing tickets, the Ticketmaster platform appears to be inclusive by causing issues for all, regardless of ability. Accessing tickets is an area that Eli finds challenging. Some shows, mainly bigger events, will have an option to book a space in a dedicated area of the venue reserved for disabled visitors. Apparently, the usual process for anyone with a disability planning to attend a gig is they would have to book a regular ticket and then telephone the venue and let them know that you would need disabled access. Regrettably, Ticketmaster doesn’t provide a telephone number that allows customers to talk directly with their team, which is needed at times to book tickets. They do however provide an online ‘chat’ facility. It does appear that their ticketing process for shows should be reviewed to make them more accessible.

It isn’t just the tickets you would have to ring in advance for. Jordann talks in detail about how she would have to call and arrange with small venues to gain entry via an accessible door. “A lot of the time they are blocked off, so I have to call the venue ahead of time and hope they pickup”. Jordann must arrange a time to meet staff at the door for her to get into the venue. She praised The Key Club in Leeds for their facilities, however, did add that their accessible entrance involves entering via the Merrion Centre, and neighbouring carpark.

Disabled Parking Sign

Issues for gig-goers is discussed a lot online, often citing how small venues tend to have accessible entrances that are ‘out of the way’. Eli states he doesn’t care as long as he can get in [to the venue] – but Jordann feels disrespected. “All of my friends can go straight in, while I have to wait around” she advises.

Toilets in large venues are praised by both interviewees. However smaller venues – and understanding that they have limited space and resources – sometimes present problems for disabled people. However, the Equality Act of 2010 has enshrined in law that [no-one] must be discriminated against because they have a disability.

Eli highlighted a problem that had never even occurred to me – that in small venues, disabled toilets sometimes double up as storage spaces. He says 9/10 times when he asks to use the toilet, they say yes but let him know that it is a storage space as well, which is completely undignified. Eli is clear: “Just get a storage room! Our needs are just as important as everybody else!

“To the point where I don’t bother asking to go to the toilet, and it shouldn’t be that way. I shouldn’t have to wait until I get back to my hotel room. I should have equal opportunity to go to the bathroom like everyone else. We shouldn’t be an afterthought.”

These are the three main issues that were mentioned within the interviews. Though, both Jordann and Eli did also make positive points about certain venues. As previously mentioned, Jordann thinks The Key Club is the most accessible place that she had been to. Although, she did praise O2 Ritz, Manchester, and Acadamy in Leeds – for being open about where to go, how to access everything inside it. She praised Vortex too, for their accessibility,

Jordann: “The bar that I do go to weekly, I have an arrangement with the person who owns it for him to get me a chair, and for me to sit in an area where I won’t be by the pit, but still see the stage. But I’m not able to go down to the downstairs bar – luckily, there’s an upstairs bar but if I’m in my chair it’s too high.”

Eli spoke highly of the First Direct Arena, Leeds. He says he doesn’t think he’s ever had a bad experience while attending a show there. The toilets are nice, there’s a whole row of disabled seating and staff are friendly, and constantly check in on you. They also ask if you would like them to go to the bar for you.

Stairs in a Shopping Centre

It’s a completely different experience to his time at Brudenell Social Club, which is also Leeds-based. Eli attended a show there 9 years ago in 2014, where he was advised there was no disabled accessibility at all. (That subsequently proved not to be correct.) Eli reports that in 2014, the access and support arrangements for disabled visitors was extremely limited. He could get to the main bar, and there were some stairs within the venue. Staff offered to carry Eli down in his chair, which is completely undignified. This experience has led Eli to never return, although the venue’s website does state that disabled people have access to both venue rooms and a disabled toilet that’s accessed with a RADAR key. RADAR is a locking system used within the UK, most (if not all) disabled toilets should use RADAR, so a person with disabilities can own a key and have access to all toilets.

I also asked Jordann what her worst experience was, and her reply was Parish, Huddersfield. Parish is a dive bar, which doubles as a live music venue. It’s in a beautiful, old building... but unfortunately, it’s all stairs. There are stairs up to the building, then more stairs up to the venue. According to their website, there is a step-free entrance to the main floor which you can contact the venue for access to, and they do offer PA tickets to shows (free tickets that allow someone to accompany you for assistance). It states there is limited seating for shows, however it doesn’t explain how someone with disabilities would access the venue room.

Ramped Underpass

When asked how venues can be made more accessible, Eli asked again for toilets and ticketing to be revised and Jordann wasn’t sure what to say, as buildings used as venues are often listed buildings and can’t do much other than hire ramps, which also poses issues with fire regulations within the buildings with the space that gets taken up when not in use. However, she did mention that she never sees adult changing stations in toilets or changing stations at all.

Perhaps the solution is not to try to make venues more accessible but instead create new purpose-built venues that are already accessible for everyone? Given the current economic climate – and the struggle that the hospitality and entertainment sectors are experiencing – that doesn’t seem likely. I would also urge venues to revise their accessibility policies. Disabled people should not be a ‘second thought’ and should be allowed equal opportunity to enjoy live music as anyone else should.

Their experience should not just be equal, but enjoyable and dignified – which would involve ramps, accessible entrances and toilets. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, the accessible spaces should not be reused as storage.