SHOW TIME! How accessible is the theatre for disabled people?
My experiences - by Samantha Renke
London certainly has one of the world’s most vibrant theatre scenes, with an estimated 14.5 million theatregoers per annum. But what, in reality, does going to the theatre look like when you have a disability?
As someone who had ‘jazz hands’ in my mother’s womb, I couldn’t wait to move to London and have the West End literally on my doorstep. Going to the theatre is a magical experience and I assumed that I would make it a regular pastime. However, after six years of London living I can honestly say that I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve attended a show. So what is it really like being a disabled theatregoer?
Theatres and performance venues around the UK have, in recent years, recognised the demand from disabled consumers wanting to attend shows. And so they should; as the disabled community is estimated to have a collective spending power of over £249 billion (nicknamed the purple pound). There have been significant attempts to increase access across theatres, with many striving to enable access to those with physical disabilities, hard of hearing, deaf, visually impaired or those who have learning disabilities, by introducing signed performances, relaxed performances and audio scripted performances.
Although attitudes seem to be changing for the better and real efforts have been made across the country to ensure disabled theatregoers are included and more importantly welcomed, I do still see many pitfalls for disabled consumers that still are overlooked or not thought about in this access ‘revolution’.
Below, I share some of my most recent experiences when out and about in the West End.
If you have a disability, researching a venue beforehand is key so that you can scope out their access policy. Unfortunately, the word ‘access’ still seems to be a grey area, as I recently found out when I attended a small cabaret show situated at a private club for West End performers. After looking on their website they appeared to have access: stating they had a disabled parking bay nearby, advising on accessible tube stations close to the venue and even offering concessions for PA’s - as I scrolled down the page I was shocked and in disbelief to then read that they unfortunately did not have an accessible bathroom. Upon arriving at the venue I came face to face with three flights of stairs. The staff informed me that they had all been trained in lifting and handling and were happy to carry me in my chair down the stairs. As someone who has Brittle Bones condition this is a terrifying proposition. Although they had the proper training I can’t help but feel as though offering someone with a disability the option of being manhandled a very ‘ableist’ attitude towards accessibility. Although I have a very lightweight chair it occurred to me that no amount of lifting training could support an electric wheelchair, rendering this option void.
Being spontaneous when you have a disability can be near impossible at times but for those who do take a risk and decide to go see a show on a whim - they may well be disappointed as I found when going to see a matinee performance of The Bodyguard with a friend. As I hadn’t booked in advance I found myself unable to be offered a designated wheelchair space. Theatres often only have a handful of designated seats and it's a first come basis. Not wanting to disappoint my friend I ended up sitting on his lap for most of the show as the ‘normal’ seat I was allocated was far too low. We were however still offered concessions for my friend which softened the blow somewhat. I’m not sure if it was enough for my friend though, whose leg I crushed during the show!
Attitudinal barriers overlap with physical ones at times and I have repeatedly been split up from friends at events, theatre, concerts etc. I am aware that venues have limited spaces, but an assumption that a disabled person would not have more than one friend is often the case. At a concert at Kew Gardens recently, my party of four were not allowed to enter the raised viewing platform allocated at the front. As I wanted to share my memories and fun times with all my friends I declined the accessible platform so that we could sit together. Needless to say I couldn’t see a darn thing, but I knew I had made the right choice as being with my group meant more to me than the concert itself.
I don’t wish to deter anyone from going to the theatre as it’s such an amazing opportunity, I would however, urge disabled theatregoers to do your research and be prepared of these hidden access fails.
For London’s TOP TEN accessible theatres please visit: https://www.visitlondon.com/things-to-do/whats-on/theatre/theatre-accessibility
For more general access information please visit - http://solt.co.uk