Access For Us is a non-profit blog, raising access awareness on behalf of disabled music, theatre and events fans.

Since becoming disabled seven years ago, I have not shied away from getting out and trying to enjoy the events I used to take part in. Including gigs, stand up comedy and theatre shows. Admittedly it is harder to fit these events in now, but I always feel so elated after getting out socially and feeling that same rush of emotion I used to feel. It’s unique to live events.

Online ticketing platforms do not work for me

I tend to book over the phone when buying tickets, in order to get all the information I want. I like to speak to someone in the access department if possible so that I feel confident that the venue knows all my requirements in advance.

Annoyingly, online booking doesn’t really work for me as I have both a visual impairment and mobility problems. The systems just don’t seem to be designed to accommodate me.

The [online] systems just don’t seem to be designed to accommodate me as a visually impaired person.

Sarah Matthews

It’s frustrating when you are stuck in a telephone queue for ages, but I still find it less annoying than online. It’s even worse when I’m trying to navigate an online system using my screen reader only to find that I need to call the venue to notify them of my access needs anyway. Or the whole ticket booking process times out part way through.

Having to call special phone line to book access requirements

Every website is different. Some venues have an access membership scheme that you can join by sending copies of documents that prove your disability. While other venues do not require any proof at all. I don’t understand why this process can’t be standardised. I don’t mind giving proof of my disability, I just wish it was the same across the board.

For example, I bought tickets to see the band Foals at Olympia London a couple of months ago. But only recently I discovered an email buried in my inbox over the busy Christmas period requesting disability documents for the tickets.

The email said if I did not provide these documents in the next 10 days, the booking would be cancelled. I called their special access phone line, which charged 9p per minute annoyingly, and was relieved to find that the booking was still live. I sent a photo of my sight impairment certificate straight away, but the whole stress could have been avoided if disability access was not an add-on after the initial booking.

My disability hasn’t changed my love of live events

I am completely blind now and due to chronic pain in my feet I can only walk short distances. Often on a big night out I need to use my wheelchair. Before acquiring my disability, I was a big live music fan and went to gigs regularly with friends. When I was living in London, we were spoilt for choice for venues and had some memorable nights out. I was very independent and if there was a band or artist I wanted to see, I would persuade a friend to come along or go alone if no one was available.

It’s important for me to continue my love of music and live events because it’s always been such a part of my identity, even though I find it harder now.

Every website and venue is different

My experience of event venues in the past few years has been mixed. From experience, once you find a venue that works well for your particular needs, and has helpful and understanding staff, you are forever loyal to them.

One example of a venue which I’ve had positive experiences at is the Union Chapel in Islington. It’s a converted chapel which hosts all kinds of events. The first time I went, I rang up to order tickets and they even told me they would reserve front row seats for us. They also said that one ticket would be free, as the person accompanying me would be considered my assistant.

We saw Irish musician Camille O’Sullivan and she was excellent. Because we were at the front, it meant my sister could tell me what was going on. What she was wearing, how many musicians there were or any comments that I may not have understood without ‘seeing’ the performance.

Being completely involved in the performance is what I want from a gig

Probably the best concert experience I have had since losing my sight was the Arctic Monkeys at the O2 in Greenwich. We had been to the O2 once before to see New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. While I enjoyed the night, I felt quite removed from the action as we were high up in the stadium in the wheelchair accessible area.

I was so glad to be there that I did not really think much of it. After all, if I was not disabled, we probably would have had similar seats. So I was blown away when we arrived at the Arctic Monkeys gig and were shown to the wheelchair accessible area right at the front, to the side of the stage, just where crowd surfers were being pulled from the crowd.

I could hear the mosh pit rushing at the start of each new song and feel the beats vibrate through my wheelchair. It was incredible and reminded me of all those nights spent on the dance floor in my twenties.

I loved being caught up in the moment and felt completely involved in the performance, which is exactly what I want from a gig.

My experiences with theatre show accessibility

When we have taken our son to the Lyric Theatre to see live performances of favourite children’s books, like The Tiger Who Came to Tea, it’s been really enjoyable. We can book a box in the balcony just for us, with wheelchair access. And even without audio description I really enjoy the experience of being there as a family. The excitement of my son as he leans forward absorbed in the action. My husband has become pretty good at describing things for me and I am very lucky to have that support.

Audio-described performances and touch tours add to the enjoyment

I do wish there were more audio described performances at theatres. I had such a great experience last year at the musical Hamilton. I heard about it through the charity VocalEyes who work with venues, museums and national attractions to create audio description for their events and exhibitions.

On the day, we arrived early for a Touch Tour where we were allowed on stage, met some of the cast and even felt their costumes. I got to hold some of the props such as guns and a crown and could actually feel the set. It really helped to set the scene for later.

Sarah and Graham smiling on stage during the Hamilton touch tour
Sarah and husband Graham on stage during the Hamilton touch tour

During the performance, I had a headset with live audio description, which really added to my enjoyment of the show. My husband also enjoyed just being able to watch the show without describing it and I felt more independent as well. The descriptions made imagining the scenes so much easier, as the fast pace of the musical meant that there were always lots of characters entering and exiting the stage and many different voices singing. Also, as it takes less concentration, I felt less tired than I normally am after seeing a show.

Looking to the future of live events and accessibility

I would like to see more of these types of events on offer in future. I recently booked tickets to see the stage version of the TV series Upstart Crow starring David Mitchell. But when I rang to confirm my booking, there was no audio-described performance on offer, which was disappointing.

There’s definitely a long way to go before there is equality of access for disabled people who want to enjoy live events. It takes more thought and organisation for me than it used to, but it’s something I still love. I look forward to improvements in future as venues take on feedback from their disabled customers.

Access For Us is a non-profit blog, raising access awareness on behalf of disabled music, theatre and events fans.