Leadership / 05.26.21
In My Own Words: Live Events from a Disability Perspective
Leading image: Solo photo of Becky, a white woman with short blonde hair, sits in her wheelchair. Becky is wearing a light pink turtleneck sweater, a hot pink vest and blue patterned pants. Behind her are flowers and bushes.
Editor’s Note: This is part one of a new, 10-part INTIX content series to raise awareness and drive education for a variety of accessibility equity issues in ticketing and live events. In our inaugural story, we hear from a passionate patron of the arts about her experiences throughout the entire customer journey — from event purchase to participation plus everything in between.
Hi, my name is Becky, and I am a passionate supporter and ambassador of arts and culture in my local area and across the region. I am 55 years young and live in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, which is just outside Philadelphia. When we are not in a pandemic, I spend a lot of time going to the theater and concerts. During the pandemic, I have enjoyed attending online events to stay connected to the world of entertainment. I even starred in an original virtual event live from my own home. It was produced by a talented team from Theatre Horizon, and while it was really successful, I do prefer to be in the audience instead of on the stage, even when that stage is virtual. I also support the arts through philanthropy and as a member of the Board of Directors for Art-Reach, which creates, advocates for and expands accessible opportunities in the arts so the full spectrum of society is served.
As you read my story, it is also important to know that I live with a disability and use a wheelchair. I have had cerebral palsy since I was a baby, which impacts my speech as well as my ability to use my arms and legs. A team of dedicated and hard-working aides assist me with all my daily needs and accompany me when I am out and about.
To me, the live event experience begins with the first call to the ticket office or the click of a computer key. The next piece is how I am welcomed into the theater — the lobby experience, the friendliness of the people working at the venue and being escorted to my seats. These are all very integral pieces of my experience. It really is by no means just the show. It is the whole beginning-to-end journey.
Some venues and some people get it, and some do not.
While I live in the Philadelphia suburbs, I often attend performances in the city. When it comes to buying tickets, both Ticket Philadelphia and Theatre Horizon have both been very positive overall.
From time to time, however, I have had some difficult experiences with the big conglomerates when I cannot find a local ticket office number to call. As an example, a couple of years ago I called to buy tickets to see the Doobie Brothers at the amphitheater in Camden, New Jersey, which is just across the river from Philadelphia.
Before I make these calls, I know that I have to prepare myself and get ready for anything to happen on the other end of the phone. This is partly because of the varying phone technologies, accents, volume and speaking patterns, so we have that plus me. I called to buy tickets, and the charge showed up on my credit card, but something felt weird to me because I never got an email confirmation. So, I called again, and they had no awareness of my purchase.
I was going to the show with a friend who was driving and taking time from her life to do this with me. We both just said, “Well, we are going, and we will figure it out there.” When we got there, there were mobs of people, it was loud and we were almost late. I never go to the box office, so when my friend tried to pick up our tickets, they did not have them. She is a no-nonsense woman, and she just got it done. I recall I was on some sort of list, but there was plenty of space in the handicapped area. (I am not a fan of that whole concept of plopping us all in one spot; more on that later.) They told her that I should always call the venue directly, but there had been no visible number to call.
With friend Suzanne at a James Taylor concert in Philadelphia.
I have called many times for Cirque du Soleil tickets, and they are very good with issues relating to disabilities. They really think about that for their patrons.
When I buy tickets over the phone, there is also the rare time when someone will say that I need to have someone else call because I cannot be understood.
I think education like this INTIX series and exposure to those with disabilities are important. My bottom line for why people react to the disabled the way they do is two things: fear and power.
Me and my friend Janine at the Broadway musical ‘Fun Home’ in Philadelphia.
Recently, I went to a Patient First on the weekend. (For those outside the United States, this is a walk-in medical clinic.) I had an aide with me, and the only reason that person needed to be there was to move my mask. The medical practitioners could not help but talk to my aide instead of to me. Even if I responded to everything they asked, they still looked at her. This happens with staff working in live events, too. Sometimes I let it go unless I am feeling feisty and make a funny comment, but there is a side of me that does not appreciate it even though I understand it. It is a weird thing to say, “I know why you did this, but it has to stop.”
To me, an aide is my arms; they are my legs. That is a very basic way to express what this life is about. For people with other disabilities, the role of their interpreter is simply to interpret, so they may be their ears. Their job is to help information be exchanged between two people having a conversation, and not everybody knows that.
Speaking of conversations, there is one that I believe the live events industry needs to have, and it is regarding the current segregation of the disabled.
If you bring it up, most venue professionals would say, “Segregation? What do you mean? We do not segregate people.”
Yet at most shows, I do not have much choice about where my seat will be. It is an accessible seat, so it will be in the handicapped section, and it is not very discreet.
Yet I think everybody wants choice and options.
Waiting for Barry Manilow to hit the stage with friend Gina.
In some venues, like the big arenas, we are all clumped together, and it is like a math problem. You see who gets there first, and then if you want to leave your seat, you will not be able to get out unless five other wheelchairs leave too. I am also always hankering for front-row seats because my vision is not the best, so I always want to be up front even though I know there is a lot of perspective that you miss by being so close. Yet by being so far away from the stage, where most accessible seats are located, I have missed more details and more understanding of shows than I care to share.
At the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, which is a traditional concert hall and opera house, they have added new accessible seats at the front of the horseshoe-shaped balcony. It is not perfect, but it is a lot better because you are not all the way at the back of the horseshoe, which is approximately 500 feet from the stage. The upper level accessible seats are even further back, about 700 feet from the stage. These newer seats are approximately equivalent to the fourth row on the floor but to the side.
Conversely, I have been to venues that are tough for a disabled person to visit. There is a venue in Philadelphia that does not have an elevator. At this same venue, unrelated to the elevator, I also have to drive the front wheels of my wheelchair up on a wedge at my seat. It is tricky to explain, but it is an integral part of the experience, and not in a positive way. The accessible seats are literally just seats removed from the back row, and they are not level, so they stick a wedge under your wheelchair to make it more level. This same venue also has an usher outside the accessible washroom. This means that people who have invisible disabilities have to basically explain themselves and the usher decides if they are disabled enough to use it.
When it comes to admission, I am becoming very vocal that my aide should not need to buy a ticket. This is a new thing for me, and I feel a little bit funny about it because I am fortunate enough to be able to buy a second ticket, but not everybody can. Anyone in my physical position would not be able to go to the theater without a second person to help them, so I advocate to support the moral and ethical concept that having an aide is just an integral piece of my life. Without my aide, I literally would not have a life, and people with disabilities want an equitable experience by not paying twice the price for the same seat and the same experience.
If you are wondering how this can be done, the Kimmel Center offers a free ticket to an aide, but it does not work like a free ticket. It is like a killed (or broken) seat, so you can account for the body and know how many people are in the house, but it does not impact the presenter or the venue in terms of seat count. I am told that this is also used for interpreters, service animals or simply when a patron with a disability needs a little more space. If you want to learn more about this for your venue, I suggest reaching out to Dani Rose, Training Manager and ADA Coordinator for Ticket Philadelphia, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seeing a Panto with friend Janie and her daughters at local theater People’s Light in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
Another way that venues and ticketing professionals can improve the experience for people with disabilities is through exposure and information for staff. As an example, if a call center rep can picture someone like me in their mind and relate to me as someone who they care about when I am asking about accessible seating, then the interaction is not awkward or strange. These staff automatically start to think about different things that they can do to make my experience more equitable or enjoyable. For example, they may volunteer information about accessible parking or how to get to the theater along an accessible route, with no stairs, from a nearby restaurant. At the Kimmel Center, the phone staff have actually walked these routes. Their constant education and exposure ensure that they handle calls from people who need accessible seats the same way they would handle calls from someone sitting in the front-row center. This creates an accessible and equitable experience because there is equal knowledge and equal information.
It can be tough to get good people now and some of these traits are not teachable. You just need to have it in your core. You need a great deal of empathy, patience and generosity of spirit — that is a big one. You cannot be grumpy and thinking about what you are having for dinner. I always wonder what is going on in the person’s mind at the other end of the phone. You never know, so I always take that into account, but I respond extremely well to nice people. I think everyone does. When I encounter someone who is not nice, my speech becomes worse. It is a cycle because the more tense I become, the worse my speech gets, and then the person on the phone can get annoyed.
You are probably wondering if I ever purchase tickets online. Right before the pandemic, I was beginning to try, but it was not easy and I had fleeting success. The online ticket purchase experience for a person who needs an accessible seat with an aide accompanying them is not an easy process, and in many cases is not even possible. You get excited when you click, it looks like you can get your tickets, but it always ended up with me having to make a call, even when there is a place to enter notes during the purchase process. If I need to know where the bathroom is in relation to my seat, for example, it is not on the seat map.
As context, I need my aide with me to use the bathroom, so we have to ask an usher which bathroom can fit two people. We just expect to do that, so we have to prepare, but the venue does not. That really is the nut of it. We are in the 21st century, we are fully steeped in diversity and equity, we are learning and we are growing. I was never groomed to be a feisty person with a disability, and I do not really want to be a feisty person with a disability. This has all just been part of my life, but I am learning that this should not be my job.
With friend Rich attending ‘As You Like It’ at The Lantern Theatre in Philadelphia.
Theatre Horizon is a really wonderful example of a welcoming venue. As all theaters do, they have their challenges, but in terms of being a patron-centered venue, they are top-notch. Their Development Director reached out to me several years ago having gotten my name from another theater that I am involved with in my area. Although I knew what the goal was philanthropically, it was ultimately about creating a relationship. In the scheme of things, I am a significantly physically disabled woman, and they called me. My life is often spent not being called. I take help; I am often on the receiving end of much of life, so it was amazing. They are fully aware of my disability, and they bend over backwards to make it so that it is not a thing; thus, they treat me like everybody else with the caveat that, in some ways, I am not.
In closing, I attend shows at theaters more when I feel like I have a relationship with them. I am more likely to make a donation if I feel that relationship, too. If you are kind to me, I will be kind to you. I believe this strongly.
This is part one of a new, 10-part INTIX content series to raise awareness and drive education for a variety of accessibility equity issues in ticketing and live events.
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Tags: Accessibility , Leadership