Disabled artists survey: Our findings in Disability History Month

Posted on 16.12.2015

Disabled artists survey: Our findings in Disability History Month

From Beethoven to Blaine Harrison, disabled musicians have long had a lasting impact upon the musical landscape, but how easy is it for them to just to do their job? During Disability History Month, Musicians’ Union and Attitude is Everything decided to take a look, surveying a selection of disabled artists in order to find out how easy it is to pursue this career when you’ve access requirements.

Our findings highlight the range of issues facing disabled musicians currently performing in the UK:

Venues and festivals are rarely accessible for both audiences and artists

‘Events with good accessibility for disabled customers forget totally about performers’ needs.’

‘One venue is really accessible for audience members, but the stage itself is very difficult to get onto and the dressing rooms are up two flights of stairs.’

The majority of disabled musicians have lost work due to lack of access

‘It’s difficult to know how much work I lose because I have stopped approaching venues I don’t know due to having to explain my access needs.’

‘I have lost 5-10% of bookings in the past year because I use a wheelchair.'

‘I have to turn down gigs because of access limitations.’

Being able to get into the performance space is the minimum

Many respondents identified stages which are only accessible via climbing on to (either straight on or via stairs) the stage as a major issue, including those who do not require wheelchairs. One respondent further noted the problems accessing orchestra pits, which are similarly often only accessible via stairs.

‘Getting into the venue and onto the stage are the two most common barriers.’

‘So few stages have wheelchair access that I usually perform at floor level in front of the stage’

‘Access to the stage seems to be completely overlooked for performers.’

Disabled parking is often overlooked

As musicians often need to carry their instruments into a venue, being unable to park as close as possible to a venue can force disabled people to rule out playing there.

‘Parking nearby, even with a blue badge, is difficult. Organisers should acquaint themselves with where the nearby blue badge spaces are.’

Many toilets are used as store rooms

Accessible toilets backstage are rare, but when they are present they often ‘double up’ as store rooms, meaning disabled people are often caught short, especially wheelchair users whose power chairs cannot manoeuvre in a room already filled to the brim.

‘It’s very humiliating having to go outside for a pee.’

‘Don’t use your disabled toilet as a storeroom please.’

Access requirements are not always met

Respondent’s experiences were varied in this matter, with some reporting that their access needs are almost always met while others state that this happens rarely. This is likely due to the differing nature of respondent’s requirements, as well as their own knowledge. Many who reported few problems acknowledged that this was due to their own knowledge-base in terms of which requests were likely to be honoured.

‘I have tended to overcome these problems by using strategies such as allowing extra time’

Yet the biggest problem is often the buildings themselves

‘With the best will in the world, some venues are out of bounds.’

‘Most of the problems are with the design of the buildings so are difficult to overcome’

‘We are keen to play in accessible venues and struggle to find them!’

Well trained staff can make all the difference

In this case, being both nice and competent makes the difference, with venue/festival staff receiving almost universal praise. Even when things went wrong this was shown to be due to a lack of training as opposed to any malice on behalf of the staff.

‘Venue staff tend to be universally helpful on the whole.’

Uninformed staff cause many problems

Respondents who do not require a wheelchair implore venues to consider this, requesting access options such as seating on stage and handrails. However such accommodations, even when temporary, are not always easily available; something uninformed staff play a big role in.

‘I sometimes can’t get folk to take my limitations seriously after I’m approached about a potential gig.’

Musicians also flagged potential safety fears, ranging from falls from high, cramped stages to a lack of evacuating procedures, which are rarely put in place, leaving performers potentially vulnerable in the event of an emergency.

‘Even regular music venues are pretty ignorant about the importance of safety.’

If you don’t know what you’re entitled to, you can’t get it.

On the whole, it seems that the more experienced you are as a disabled performer, the easier you will find it to book gigs and perform, as you become aware both of adjustments which can be made for you and things you are able to do yourself to make the experience easier.

‘I have a lot more experience playing live than I used to, which means I am better practiced at overcoming accessibility issues and know what help to ask for.’

‘I’ve dealt with things myself when there’s a problem and rarely approach venues directly.’

Some disabled people don’t ‘look’ disabled.

It’s really important for venues, festivals and staff to be aware that not every disabled person requires a wheelchair, and so they should never attempt to guess a performer’s access needs, for example, visually impaired performers benefit greatly from brighter lighting. If a venue is down two flights of stairs, that doesn’t mean every artist booked is able-bodied.

‘I have been refused access to lifts and even disabled toilets.’

Next Steps

Attitude is Everything and Musicians’ Union are planning to follow up with some of the respondents to get further detail on what can be done to increase opportunities for disabled musicians. Specifically we want to look into artists’ rights when their access requirements aren’t met when offered performances. 

If you’re interested in taking part, contact graham@attitudeiseverythig.org.uk.