In the midst of the pandemic, I wrote about the benefits of virtual gigs for disabled music fans and how it may help in making live music accessible to all. This was at a time when the arts and entertainment industry took to streaming their shows online during the lockdown, allowing everyone equal access to attend from the comfort and safety of their homes.
I hoped that online streaming of gigs would continue. Not to fully replace in-person gigs, but to at least be an accessible option for those who are unable to attend the venue due to lack of access or medical/health reasons.
Are disabled people being shut out of live music?
It was reported by The Guardian that “Performers and audiences who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) are being shut out of the arts due to a lack of ongoing safety provisions, according to a number of people within the sector who cite a “two-tier” cultural reopening.”
With no social distancing required in venues, I can’t help but feel concerned not just for myself and my family, but other disabled people who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) that going to a crowded live event would be deemed high risk.
And despite being double-vaccinated, many people are immunocompromised meaning it isn’t safe for them to be in the audience or return to performing while COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise.
The efficiency of the vaccine drops over time so it’s important people get their boosters. But with events reopening as normal and further restrictions eased or removed, it makes me question whether people who aren’t shielding in order to protect their health or that of someone they live with, recognise the importance of getting it.
According to the Returning to Live Events? Survey by the music and events charity Attitude is Everything, 42% of the 289 respondents of Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people said they couldn’t see how a live venue could be a safe environment for them at the time of completing the survey.
Disabled people are left to make difficult decisions
We had a few shows booked throughout 2020 but they were rescheduled for September 2021 and onwards. At the time, we didn’t second guess whether we would be going or not.
Our first rescheduled show was Dermot Kennedy at O2 Academy Glasgow. If you have been following me for a while you will know that we have seen him several times in Scotland and travelled to England to see him at Albert Hall Manchester. The second show was LANY also taking place at O2 Academy Glasgow.
It was all so exciting until we realised that the social distancing rules had been scrapped and full capacity venues were going ahead as normal. At that time all that was needed was a negative Rapid Lateral Flow Test 24hr before the show.
What concerned us was the fact that the results weren’t checked by anyone so technically people could click the ‘negative’ box when in fact their test was positive. They also advised that masks should be worn unless drinking. But who is actually going to monitor or enforce this during a noisy crowded show and the audience are constantly drinking.
Many of my disabled friends are also feeling the same way as us. I asked my friends Karine who is also clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) and her wife Sarah who, like Allan and I, were shielding and huge live music fans, to share their thoughts and this is what they said.
“Life seems to be going back to normal even though we are still in the midst of a pandemic and it isn’t safe to do so, as we can see from the climbing numbers. Part of this is the music acts, we have been waiting to see for two years, back on stage. We are not ready for this!
“We can’t get refunds on our tickets so we literally decide up until the last moment as to whether we are going or not. Now the indoor venues are opening, we have already skipped a gig due to the small size of the venue and have a few hard choices in the coming months.”
Lack of venue safety provisions for disabled and clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV)
O2 Academy in Glasgow has an audience capacity of around 2,000 people. And it’s one of the hottest and most crowded venues I’ve been in especially with a sold-out crowd inside.
There is no accessible viewing area as such in this venue. Disabled customers including wheelchair users are seated behind a railing, next to steps down to the main dancefloor. The sound desk and bar are also directly behind this area and lots of people gather to watch the show here.
Every time I’ve been to this venue I’ve had people all around me. This makes it extremely difficult to move once I’m in position. Not ideal if you want to go to the toilet or bar during the show.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know some people enjoy being in amongst the crowd rather than being in an ‘accessible viewing area’ separate from everyone else. Personally, I’m a fan of accessible platforms/areas and I know many disabled people who also prefer accessible viewing platforms.
Take the O2 Academy Glasgow for example, once I’m in my spot, I can’t easily move position. There is nothing stopping people standing directly at the back of my wheelchair, leaning/holding onto my wheelchair, shouting over me (we all know where those breath particles are going), spilling their drinks over me and constantly nudging my wheelchair.
This happens in ‘normal times’ and it can be incredibly annoying, but when we’re in a pandemic, I feel it’s unacceptable and quite frankly unsafe.
Despite speaking to the venue directly on the phone regarding the current situation inside the venue, we made the decision not to attend the two gigs we had booked. We went back and forth on this right up until an hour before we were due to leave the house on the night of the gig.
Unfortunately, at that time we just didn’t feel it was the right thing for us to be doing. I know that won’t always be the case and we need the right information to help make an informed decision about our own personal risk.
What can venues do to make disabled people feel safer?
More and more we are hearing the term that we must “learn to live with the virus” but this only makes sense if we’re all learning to live with it and putting in place tools and procedures to keep everyone safe, especially for those who the risks are greater. Not just the “fit and able”.
“Coming back from Covid, we have an opportunity here to rebuild a more inclusive events industry that allows everyone to enjoy the thrill of live events. But ending social isolation means ending it for everyone, and we have to work together to do so,” Sebastian Boppert, head of European communications at events management and ticketing website Eventbrite told The Drum.
Personally, we would have felt more comfortable and at ease going to those gigs if we were somehow able to sit in an area with enough space around us which meant we weren’t directly shoulder to shoulder with other people.
Karine and Sarah feel the same and added “For us, we would feel safer if the accessible area was sectioned off and kept away from the general admissions, also if venues would look at personal circumstances and offer refunds to those who are vulnerable so we aren’t losing money along with missing out on the things that make us happy.”
Sadly we are having to refrain from what we love the most, live music, and to let our tickets go to waste which hurts but in our minds we have no choice.
As I said, many of my disabled friends are feeling excluded from the things they love to do. My friend Hollie said “Before the pandemic, going to gigs was my favourite thing to do. I’m feeling quite disappointed by the current situation as I don’t feel concerts are a COVID-safe environment.
“I bought tickets as I believed live music would only resume if it was safe. I had tickets for a gig in September and a week before I received an email and discovered no negative test, vaccine or mask was required. I have tickets for concerts where a vaccine passport is required and although that’s going in the right direction, unfortunately, I don’t feel it’s enough.
“Gigs are constantly being cancelled because the bands have COVID, people working gigs are catching COVID at work. The vaccine passport isn’t enough; sadly vaccines don’t stop you from getting the virus and passing it on, it isn’t even required for many events. I would feel safer returning to live music if masks were mandatory, it’s a small thing that would make a big difference”
Attitude is Everything is urging all event organisers to check their latest COVID safety policies against a list of accessible reopening measures that has been backed by the survey respondents.
Event organisers will benefit financially from doing so. Suzanne Bull MBE, founder of Attitude is Everything said “In 2019, disabled people were big consumers of live events. In fact, in the years before the pandemic, the economic spend from disabled people attending live music grew from £3.4 million in 2013 to £9.3 million in 2019, so there was always going to be a huge demand from the disabled community to return to live events.
“So more than ever before, it’s time to recognise that the disabled community are part of the life-blood of culture in the UK.”
In our view, at this moment in time, the stakes are too high. Even with testing and mask-wearing (who will control this in a crowded venue of 2000 plus people anyway?), we are still having to squeeze in amongst excited and potentially intoxicated music revellers for two-three hours.
Ultimately I feel like those who are disabled and clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) are just wanting acknowledgement and equal access to live events. The best way to show this is by listening to our concerns and putting in reasonable safety measures.
What are your thoughts on the return of live events? Have you attended any shows post-lockdown? Do you have concerns about safety measures in venues? Let me know in the comments below.