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    Inclusion is not a favour: why it is time for disabled musicians to stop apologising and start to expect better

    November 13, 2019

November 13, 2019

Inclusion is not a favour: why it is time for disabled musicians to stop apologising and start to expect better

Ruth Patterson is the frontwoman of Holy Moly and the Crackers. She a wheelchair user with arthritis and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

As a touring musician, I travel all over the UK and Europe with my band. I love what I do, but I often feel under pressure to apologise for myself and my impairments, and to show excessive gratitude when even minimum effort is made to make a venue more accessible. This is somehow what society seems to expect of disabled people, and causes a lot of anxiety and imposter syndrome among the disabled community.

I’m the frontwoman of my band, and as a feisty person with a thick skin forged from many years of performing and simply existing as a wheelchair user, I had always thought that this wasn’t so much of a problem for me. But it was only when I was sat backstage in one of the only fully accessible venues in the country, tears streaming down my face, overcome with emotion at how accessible the space was, that I realised I had a much bigger problem than I thought.

Time and time again I face barriers. Indeed the music industry is one of the worst when it comes to accessibility – it seems that some venues simply don’t expect artists to have disabilities. Just think how many more disabled artists there would be if we felt welcome and our needs were catered for. And the issue extends to disabled gig-goers as well of course. How many venues are missing out on ticket sales among disabled music lovers because they don’t think disability?

It’s not just physical access barriers, like steps rather than ramps up on to stage or to the backstage area, but attitudinal barriers too. These range from claims that my concerns about downright dangerous access are overblown, to venue staff making a show of taking me to the accessible toilet: “The special toilet is over there! Make way! Wheelchair coming through!” Although possibly well intended, these unnecessary theatrics are embarrassing for me, make me feel small and single me out as different. It may sound obvious, but my advice to anyone coming into contact with a disabled person whilst at work is: if you wouldn’t reasonably say it to a non-disabled person, don’t say it to a disabled person.

I’ve also come across interesting excuses from music venues for poor or absent accessibility measures. Something I hear frequently is: “you must have faced worse than this though, eh?” The answer to this is often yes, but the fact other venues make even less effort doesn’t mean that low standards are acceptable. Another one, unbelievably, was: “We were going to get a disabled loo backstage but they’re harder to clean, so we just thought you’d manage.”

But of course I am keen to acknowledge some of the amazing places I have been lucky to work in. Shambala Festival is one example where we were able to park the van right by the stage, meaning I could take a nap when I needed to and keep my medical equipment close at hand. There was a ramp leading onto the stage, an accessible backstage area with lowered tables so I could even make my own tea, and – cherry on the cake – the accessible toilet which could only be accessed with a radar key. So it wasn’t being used as a drug den, love shack or by drunken festivalgoers who didn’t want to wait in the queue for the urinals. I had told the venue in advance what I needed – and it was done. There was no fuss and no hassle. HEAVEN.

Sadly, these experiences are few and far between. And it can really ruin the vibe when I am dressed up in my finest stage attire, feeling confident and channelling my inner Rihanna and then have to resort to the piggy back to get me up the steps to the stage. Not exactly a glamourous entrance or exit. And for someone with dislocating joints, chronic pain and fatigue, being carried up or down stairs means being worn out before the show even begins.

In spite of all of these barriers, I have chosen to persevere because I am good at what I do. Should I be forced out of my job because accessibility isn’t up to scratch? No, of course not. And I will not apologise for my access requirements any more, or cry with joy and appreciation each time someone puts down a ramp. I will simply expect better.

Access does matter. This isn’t just so venues can say they’re “disability friendly” or consider themselves “woke”. It matters because it might just make the difference between a disabled person giving up on a dream of being a musician, because it’s become too emotionally and physically draining, and choosing to persevere and follow their chosen path. Accessible venues will attract more disabled gig-goers – it’s a huge market that so many venues are currently missing out on.

And it’s not actually all that difficult to make positive changes for disabled people. Today is Purple Tuesday, a time for organisations of all shapes and sizes across all sectors to improve customer experience and accessibility for disabled people. It’s free to sign up – you just need to make a minimum of one improvement, and ensure it lasts all year round, not just on 12th November. It doesn’t have to be big or expensive; it can be something small to get started. There is loads of support and advice available to help organisations kick off their disability journey, and improve and grow year on year. Go to www.purpletuesday.org.uk to find out more.

Things need to change. Disabled people have struggled and have had to make do with inadequate facilities for too long. In order for us to have better quality of life, enjoy a gig, take an active role in society and feel able to work and contribute, we need to have the same access to everything that non-disabled people take as standard.

It also just makes good business sense. The disabled community share experiences of places which are safe and well equipped for our needs, and these places become more popular as a result. I see this everywhere I go. If you put the effort in to make your space accessible, it will help business grow.

Let’s make it the norm for every venue and every business to be inclusive for all people. Let’s go Purple!

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