Disabled Access in Theatres When You Just Aren’t Disabled Enough

Disabled Access in Theatres: At Chopsy Bristol, we go to the theatre a lot. Sometimes it’s in a professional capacity as theatre critics. Sometimes, it’s as paying customers.

For us, accessibility in theatre is something that is incredibly important. It’s something that affects us within the family on a personal level. And, even if it didn’t, theatre and entertainment venue accessibility for people with disabilities is not only a good thing, it’s a requirement under the Equality Act 2010.

Having worked in theatre venues many years ago within box office and front of house, I can see that theatres have come a tremendously long way in the last twenty years. They are often hampered by elderly buildings with poor access and of course, many steps – Frank Matcham clearly didn’t have the foresight to predict the need for lifts 100 years ago.

But what enables the success of people with disabilities being able to access and enjoy a show is attitude. The right attitude. And that attitude comes from the chief executive at the top and filters through every department.

When ATG restructured regional departments in 2016, some theatres lost wonderful teams of dedicated access staff. The familiar voice at the end of the phone who would reserve tickets and help identify seating to meet needs was gone. The local number was gone. Years of accessibility knowledge gone. Being able to buy seats in boxes on the phone was gone. Instead, it was a centralised number which has been impossible to get through on.

Whilst I  frequently have a moan on Facebook at not being able to book boxes online, something we need to meet access needs, ATG do actually have a reasonably good Access Booking Register. It usually works, though Matilda automatic seat allocations online sucked big time.

It’s incredibly annoying not being able to book theatres boxes without going into the box office – in our case it’s at The Bristol Hippodrome. And, something that’s really got my dander up in recent years is that touring companies are withdrawing side boxes from sale. This is either for technical reasons which is fair enough, or because of sight lines which is not fair enough. It’s not fair at all. By doing this, it is stopping people from accessing theatre.

In recent months, I have booked access tickets through ATG, Her Majesty’s Theatre London, The Palace Theatre London, Tobacco Factory Theatres, probably others I’ve forgotten.

We’re on the access register at the Colston Hall, the Bristol Hippodrome. We’ve benefited from access adjustments at Harry Potter Studio Tour, the former Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, Bristol Zoo Gardens, We The Curious, Brunel’s SS Great Britain, Legoland, Windsor Castle, bloody Buckingham Palace. A disabled bus pass is held and so is a CEA card.

Trying to access everyday opportunities when you have a person with a disability in the family is so much harder than people without one accessing the same opportunities. The planning is immense, the expense is more and ultimately, due to the nature of various disabilities, the disabled person may not even get to experience the show or performance.

I shudder whenever I see the words War Horse and remember having to drag an autistic person out of the auditorium mid meltdown. He had been overwhelmed by the noise and sheer horror of war. These are not fun experiences.

So it’s a bit crap to find that when booking tickets for Madness at Motorpoint Cardiff, that the venue does a splendid impression of Atos. For many with profound and debilitating conditions, they simply won’t be disabled enough to go on the access register. They do run a Live Access scheme which offers ‘complimentary tickets for the personal assistants/carers of disabled patrons’. Laughably, these are only available to those on the higher rate care of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Enhanced Personal Independent Payment (PIP).

In a helpful twist to the form that must be filled in, it cannot be emailed back. It has to be filled out and posted. Another nice little anti-access move. Because those on disabilities clearly have no issues with finance which might require the expense of printers, ink and then the difficulty of finding a Post Office that has not been closed to buy stamps and a post box that hasn’t been torched by arsonists. After that, the form will whizz its way to Cardiff whereupon receipt, someone will decide if the person who has jumped through all those hurdles is indeed disabled enough and spend a fortnight minimum processing it. Is this scheme run by the DWP and Atos?

The difference between medium rate and higher rate care could be by as little as one extra hour’s sleep at night. Gaining any kind of DLA or PIP is an extraordinarily difficult task. Stacks of evidence is required alongside a 40 plus page form and for PIP the indignity of a probable physiotherapist or nurse trying to log how a neurological condition can affect day to day life.

In addition to this, children do not count as being disabled. Cardiff Motorpoint Arena states that ‘all minors attending a show to be accompanied by an adult and therefore do not provide a free personal assistant ticket as our age policy (14) for lone minors takes priority: i.e. the child would need a paying adult with them to enter the venue, regardless of care need’. Well that’s fair enough you might think, but is it really?

Children with disabilities are still that – people with disabilities and needs that will require support and adjustment to access things above and beyond another person their age without one. Even the DWP base their decision making for DLA and PIP on that idea. DLA is awarded from birth due to need and not age.

Support and adjustment for a child with disabilities can take many forms. It can mean carer support above and beyond what a typical child may need and that is what the Equality Act covers with regards to adjustments made.

‘Complimentary tickets’ are not a perk or a freebie, they are a Reasonable Adjustment protected by law.  Treating the child unfavourably not just due to age, but age and disability is a disgrace.

Age means nothing with disability. When accessing theatre for example, the child may need special seating arrangements, special seat aids, additional help with care and mobility – possibly provided by a carer not necessarily a parent. They may need an interpreter – not just subtitles or audio description but Makaton and sign language. They may not be able to watch all of the performance due to their disability. They may not be able to sit still. They may need to take a break from the show. The show could become overwhelming. The incoming of the performance may be so overwhelming that they don’t even make it into the auditorium.

In theatre when we talk about complimentary tickets – comps – they are always as a perk. They may be given to make press night look busy, because a show has sold badly or just because the production company is feeling kind towards regional theatre staff.

To see the word ‘complimentary’ by an entertainment venue is not only insulting, it’s condescending and inappropriate within a disability access context.

Cardiff is an amazing city. It’s regeneration since I live there in the 90s has been incredible. But for a major entertainment venue in a brilliant city, it’s incredibly backwards in its thinking.

Medium rate care (MRC) when it comes to disability isn’t a bit disabled. It’s very, very disabled. The threshold to meet the criteria for MRC is very high. It is awarded to people with lifelong, debilitating disabilities which crush and invade every aspect of their life. To be a person and even a child on MRC DLA and not be disabled enough for support is an outrage.

It’s a real shame that Bristol has dithered over getting its arena up and going. We desperately need a major concert venue in the city. It’s probably the one thing we lack in terms of culture. Because with that attitude to disability ticket booking, Motorpoint Arena Cardiff can stick it.

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