Live Music Exchange Blog

Access All Areas: The Trailblazers and disability access to concerts – Laura Merry


In today’s post, we return to the matter of access to live music events for audience members with disabilities. In January, we featured an extract from Howard Thorpe’s speech at the UK Festival Awards, in which he drew upon the work of his website – Able2UK – to outline five key ways in which promoters can improve access at festivals.

With the festival season now in full swing once again, we’re pleased to provide a first-hand account from avid concert-goer and campaigner Laura Merry. Her account is evidence of the steadily growing awareness of this issue although her piece is illustrative of the fact that there is still a long way to go.

Campaigns specific to live music are starting to bear fruit, however, and make inroads into helping the industry develop better policies on implementing disabled access. 2012 saw a concert at the Roundhouse organised by Able2UK – featuring the likes of Friendly Fires, Miles Kane, Billy Bragg and Steve Craddock – and the afore-mentioned discussion of access issues at the Festival Awards.

In June 2013, Suzanne Bull was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for her work as Chief Executive Officer of Attitude is Everything, which was set up in 2000 with funding from Arts Council England and (what was at that time) the Department for Education and Employment.

Attitude is Everything has worked since then to improve access to live music for deaf and disabled people with a steering group of live music industry and disability arts professionals. Attitude is Everything works with venues to provide access auditing, and with gig goers as parts of ‘mystery shopper’ programme. A central plank of its work has been its Charter of Best Practice, with bronze, silver and gold awards detailing necessary improvements and how to achieve them. 

A key point in all of this is that, as well as being a requirement of the Equality Act, it is in the commercial interests of venues and promoters to provide disabled access: the combined spending power of disabled people in the UK is estimated at £80 billion a year. Providing appropriate access, then, should not be looked on as a sort of ‘punitive’ extra duty, but as way of growing a business.

Attitude is Everything and Able2UK are, of course, part of a wider network of groups which  campaign to improve access and promote equality for disabled people, and other parts of this network are also turning their spotlight onto live entertainment. The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, for instance, has been involved in wide-ranging activities to advance the cause for social justice and equality for disabled people, notably through its network of young Trailblazers. Its recent report on live music makes for salutary reading, not least in terms of highlighting how even ‘adequate’ access can diminish the live experience, for instance by separating concert-goers from the friends. A key recommendation is that venues strive for the maximum standards of the Attitude is Everything Charter. 

Trailblazer Laura Merry’s post here provides good examples of why this is necessary for audiences, venues, promoters and artists alike.

Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s Trailblazers is a young campaigner’s network. There are over 500 young disabled people involved and we run several campaigns a year on issues that matter to us. Campaigns have ranged across subject from higher education, to cinema and sport. Our latest campaign and report Access All Areas? focuses on the experiences of 100 young disabled people when attempting to access live music.

On 26th June 2013 Trailablazers from across the UK met with music industry representatives in Parliament. We highlighted some of our findings which included:

  • seventy-seven percent of young disabled people believe that booking tickets for a live music event puts them at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled friends
  • half of young disabled people have either missed out on tickets or had a stressful experience booking them
  • half of young disabled people say that facilities provided at venues, like toilets, bars and food stalls, are not suitable for their needs.

This campaign is a personal favourite of mine, since I am a massive music lover and a concert aficionado.  People who know me can attest to that fact!  I go to concerts at least eight times a year.  So far this year I’ve seen Pink, Girls Aloud, The Killers, Rihanna, Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce.  My upcoming gigs are The Rolling Stones, Elton John [1], the V Festival, Fleetwood Mac and Crosby, Stills and Nash.  That’s just this year, which has been an extremely good one for concerts.  As you can I have quite an eclectic taste.

RobbieWilliamsConcertNov12 02Arena JudithMerry in Red on the L   LauraMerry in Blue on the R with friends 2

(Laura Merry, right, with her sister Judith, left, and friends at the Robbie Williams concert, 02 Arena, November 2012)

Listening to music at home poses no barriers to me as a wheelchair user. Nor would it be an issue for someone who finds it difficult getting about.

But there is nothing better than going to see you favourite artists live.  It is a very difficult experience and atmosphere to replicate on CD or MP3.

Sometimes going to concerts can be problematic for a disabled music goer and I have had good and bad experiences at both extremes and problems can start early. For instance, although I have been fortunate to be mostly successful when applying for tickets I always have to call a dedicated booking line, which doesn’t always open at the same time as the main lines, or the advertised opening times are sometimes inaccurate.  Then the waiting time has occasionally been lengthy, sometimes ranging over a five-hour period.  This means my phone bill can be quite high especially since some ticket lines are premium rate numbers.

There have been improvements – some vendors are now selling disabled tickets online as well as with the option to call. This is much easier and fairer as it provides the same choices that most people have. Others should take note of this!

With regard to outdoor music festivals, sometimes the viewing platforms can be poorly organised, positioned or they sometimes haven’t been fully geared up for the capacity of people coming onto them.  Viewing platforms at present are limited in terms of size and choice. One thing that could perhaps help would be for people to think creatively about the design, or to have more than one platform for each stage (at outdoor venues.)  Walkways for anyone with mobility problems, not just wheelchairs users, would also greatly improve the experience.  I’ve only been to one outdoor festival where this has happened and can attest to the fact that it just makes getting around less frustrating and stressful.

My most eventful moment at a concert was at a festival where, with typical British weather, we had on and off rain which meant that the ground began to get churned up as the mud got wet and then dry again consistently. When leaving the platform I immediately sunk straight down, as if in quick sand, knee deep into the mud!  It took about an hour to find assistance and then there was another wait of two hours to have my wheelchair fork-lifted out. People were really helpful, but this isn’t ideal!

Obviously weather is unpredictable and I choose to go to outdoor festivals knowing that getting around may be problematic, but if details like this could be improved slightly and given a bit more thought then it would just makes things a bit easier. Perhaps a protocol needs to be established.

Facilities aren’t always geared up for differing needs.  That is not to say there haven’t been improvements in all areas concerned; some venues/music vendors have started enabling online booking, allowing proof for applying for a companion ticket to be sent by email as an alternative method, and the organisation of disabled platform and positions are getting better.  Still, there is more that could be improved to make the experience equal for all.

I have had many positives experiences where I have been lucky to get through to popular concerts, sometimes had good views and have been impressed with facilities.  There are several music promoters and venues which I have been pleased with. In the future I hope that venues can celebrate what works by sharing good practice so that disabled music lovers can enjoy a consistently great experience.

Laura Merry

You can find out more about the Trailblazers’ campaigns here.

You can read the Trailblazers live music report here.

For more information about Attitude is Everything and their charter, click here.


[1]  This post was written before the cancellation of Elton John’s concerts due to appendicitis.

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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