Disabled Music Fans Are Failed by Concert Venues and Ticketing Systems
Jul 29, 2023
By Nicole Rosiak
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the 19th century’s most widely known American poets, once wrote, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Fast forward two centuries later and this phrase rings just as true. In 2019, Harvard researchers even found this statement to hold scientific accuracy. Their comprehensive study proved music to be a key to our shared humanity, transcending cultural boundaries, and for avid music fans, nothing makes us feel more alive than attending a live show.
For modern fans, tour announcement days are usually mixed with exhilaration and ticket-buying butterflies. Too often, those butterflies quickly turn to dread as fans find themselves stuck in lengthy “smart queues,” and are ultimately unable to purchase tickets.
We recently saw 14 million Swifties attempting to buy pre-sale tickets to Taylor Swift's Eras tour and there were several other ticketing catastrophes, making it clear just how difficult the ticket-buying experience has become. For disabled music fans, though, this process is far more complex.
Though more than 27% of American adults have some sort of disability, the Americans With Disability Act (ADA) legally requires that venues have a certain number of wheelchair-accessible seats depending on the size of the venue. That number amounts to less than 1% of seating for larger venues. Unfortunately, many venues stick to this bare minimum and make 1% or less of total seating available to physically disabled ticket buyers.
Many venues leave disabled music fans in the dust in other ways too. For example, some ticketing venues have been found liable for overcharging for wheelchair-accessible seats. In a 2021 Medium post, Kate Ringland, a professor at UC Santa Cruz and a BTS fan, wrote about able-bodied fans who could accidentally purchase seats that were set aside for disabled attendees on major ticketing platforms.
As Cassie Wilson, a live music fan who lives with a form of dwarfism and relies heavily on mobility devices, told Teen Vogue, “It’s frustrating when all of the accessible seating sells out, aside from the most expensive accessible seats, while there are still regular nosebleed seats available. I’d choose the cheap option if it were accessible to me.”
Buying a ticket is just the tip of the iceberg for disabled music fans. Concert venues are also at fault for failing fans with disabilities. After Wilson had back surgery at the end of 2016, she returned to shows thinking a lot more about her safety: “I didn’t want a crowd pushing up against me, and I could no longer easily twist around to see crowd surfers or what was going on behind me. I started asking venues if there was somewhere else I could watch the show from where I would be able to see without having to be in the crowd. Most of them had no idea what I was talking about because they hadn’t considered accessibility beyond getting inside.”
That’s when Wilson decided to create Half Access, a nonprofit organization offering a database that provides detailed accessibility information on more than 500 venues across the US and beyond. When Wilson first started the nonprofit, she says the biggest challenge was the lack of awareness about the general issue of concert venue accessibility. “A lot of people assume that because the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) exists, venues must legally be accessible. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, as many were built before the ADA and haven’t been renovated since. Some are historic buildings and aren’t required to be accessible and others say it would cause an undue financial burden to become accessible,” Wilson said via email.
Since creating Half Access in 2017, Wilson has worked with artists like The Wonder Years and Gouge Away to ensure every venue they play is in the Half Access database. She’s also been able to connect with disabled fans who’ve faced the same struggles with the live music industry. Wilson says that “There is no better feeling than someone saying, ‘I felt comfortable attending this show because I knew what to expect, thanks to the Half Access database.’ In an ideal world, venues would provide that information, but for now, I’m glad we can help fill those gaps.”
Wilson isn’t the only group that's filling those gaps for disabled music attendees. KultureCity, which bills itself as the nation’s leading nonprofit organization in sensory accessibility, offers sensory-inclusive tools and kits at various live events. According to KultureCity, one in six people has a sensory need or an invisible disability, and Uma Srivastava, the organization’s executive director, says that reshaping the landscape of accessibility within venues is a continuous work in progress. “In the world of sports and stadiums, arenas, and ballparks, sensory rooms used to be unheard of,” Srivastava told Teen Vogue. “Venues were maximizing their square footage on seats, concessions, retail, and offices.”
Fortunately, with KultureCity expanding to more than 1,800 venues and events around the world, they’ve seen the industry pivot toward a more engaged future. “Many new stadiums and arenas reach out as soon as they’ve broken ground,” Srivastava said. “KultureCity is a part of the conversation from the beginning, not an afterthought.”
Since starting her journey with KultureCity in 2016, Srivastava has met fans from all walks of life through her advocacy and efforts. She recounted one of her earliest memories of meeting a young disabled music fan: “[The fan] was shaking, hands covering his ears, and he walked over to our activation. We immediately sent him inside our sensory room, provided a sensory bag, and in 15 minutes, he came out as a new man! Seeing his experience go from, ‘We’re leaving now’ to ‘We can stay for a few more hours,’ was something that has stuck around with me.”
Fans of all abilities can naturally become overwhelmed, overstimulated, or sensitive to loud noise or bright lights during a concert experience. That’s when Accessible Festivals comes into the picture. According to executive director Amy Pinder, the nonprofit organization offers various initiatives open to all, like inclusion zones, listening lounges, partnering with bands like Portugal The Man for inclusive VIP experiences, and partnering with other nonprofits for Musikfest, the nation’s largest free music festival.
“My personal belief," Pinder says, "is that I don't think any concert promoter is ever trying to exclude a particular demographic. I think that they just aren't thinking about a wide variety of needs and demographics. Sometimes, that's really difficult for us to do, to look outside ourselves and try to consider the range of human experience when they're vastly different from our own.”
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Through Accessible Festivals, Pinder works to offer tools and resources such as headsets, sensory backpacks, and inclusion zones. After attending her first music festival in 2006 and feeling overwhelmed by the crowd and flashing lights, Pinder also partnered with her colleague Leah Barron to cofound their very own annual accessible festival called Inclusion Festival. "It was really, really challenging, but once I settled into the experience, I realized how beautiful it was," Pinder recalls. "I felt like [Inclusion Festival] could be a really transformative and positive learning experience for people of all abilities, so I set out to create my own accessible music festival.” Through ticket-granting programs, Inclusion Festival takes place on the East Coast every July.
Pinder says the impact of the festival has been very eye-opening. “People seem to expand their own sense of understanding and increase their empathy by attending Inclusion Festival because they share this recreational, unifying experience with people who have different abilities and different life experiences,” she says. “It seems to create these ‘aha’ moments for people, the vastness of humanity, and the little things we can do to make a difference and to be more inclusive in our attitude.”
While these nonprofits are working tirelessly to make a much-needed change in the industry and community as a whole, they still call for concert venues, promoters, ticketing providers, and other fans to work together with them toward these goals. Because music shouldn’t just be universal, it needs to be accessible, too.
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