Renée Yoxon remembers the hours wasted before the pandemic figuring out whether or not a concert venue would be accessible to them. “I never felt good going to a venue because of my physical disability,” said Yoxon, a Montreal-based musician and music teacher who suffers from chronic joint pain and uses a rollator walker as a mobility aid. “It's really hard to find information about whether or not a venue is accessible. You'll call 1000 places and ask what their accessibility requirements are because they're not listed on their website or on Facebook.” At one point, they recall, a venue said there wouldn't be an issue with accessibility at both the entrance of the venue and the bathroom, but when Yoxon arrived, the bathroom was out of order, and the only other one available was down a flight of stairs. “I couldn't get down there and I had to leave early,” said Yoxon. “I don't really enjoy going to new places, because that kind of garbage happens all the time.”
Ask most anyone who falls within the wide spectrum of disability, whether it's physical, visual, or hearing impairments, neurodivergence, chronic or episodic illnesses, and ailments, or basically any health condition that requires accommodation, and Yoxon's story is all too familiar. As live music plots its return from the COVID-19 pandemic with several shows planned for the late summer and fall, the industry runs the risk of ignoring disabled and high-risk people who have been shut out for years before the virus shuttered venues worldwide. VICE spoke to disabled activists, musicians, and concertgoers as well as people who are booking shows and managing bands about how the concert industry can return better and more accessible for everyone.
Growing up, Oregon native Cassie Wilson, who uses a wheelchair, had experiences navigating music venues and concerts almost exactly like Yoxon's. In 2016, she founded Half/Access, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting accessibility in live music. Its website boasts an expansive crowdsourced database featuring reviews and detailed descriptions on hundreds of venues' accommodations or lack thereof. “The name Half/Access came from the idea that most venues are half accessible,” said Wilson. “They think that just being able to get in is good enough but they don't think about if you can equally experience the show, access the merch table or the restroom. It's a mixed bag but there's almost no fully accessible venues.” Even though the Americans with Disabilities Act, which attempts to ensure disabled people access to public spaces, was passed in 1990, compliance is rarely perfect and often piecemeal from venue to venue.
The return of live music presents an opportunity for the industry to make its disabled and high-risk fans feel safe, included, and informed. But so far, disabled fans fear it'll become worse than the status quo. “The first thing I looked for with these recent tour announcements was information on safety guidelines, and there was none,” said Wilson. “It's not enough to just assume they're planning on limited capacity and masks. Even though a lot can change from now until the show, it should be transparent from the start.” Beyond that, potential concertgoers like Ashley Bedore, a Denver-based college student and community organizer, have concerns about reaching herd immunity in time or figuring how the different variants of COVID-19 interact with each vaccine. “Before this pandemic, I didn't realize exactly how my cerebral palsy affected my lungs and my diaphragm,” said Bedore. “I just worry about young people like me who may not know how they may be immunocompromised or at risk for COVID-19 and may not even be vaccinated by the time shows come back.”
There's reason for cautious optimism about the potential return of live music. The vaccines are undoubtedly and unequivocally effective in preventing you from getting a severe case of COVID-19. While there needs to be peer-reviewed research that the vaccines prevent the spread of the virus, even asymptomatic spread, early findings suggest promising results. More than that, health experts expect herd immunity, which is estimated around 70 to 80 percent of the population with vaccines or antibodies, as a realistic target. A recent poll from Pew Research Center also showed that 69 percent of U.S. adults had already gotten the vaccine or were planning to get one. Whether or not this happens before concerts come back in the fall is another question along with concerns that COVID-19 variants may weaken vaccine efficacy.
But as health experts advise caution and the CDC is still telling vaccinated people to avoid large crowds, livestreams have become a lifeline, not only for out-of-work musicians but also for disabled fans. “I hope that livestreamed concerts continue because I have benefited from that in a big way,” said Yoxon, who's used livestreams as a way to perform her own music for the past half-decade. “When COVID first hit, I suddenly felt not disabled when I saw all these other musicians start playing online shows. I was like, 'Oh, this is what it feels like to be on the level playing field with everybody else.' Ashley Bedore, a Denver-based college student and community organizer with cerebral palsy notes that livestreams have always been accessible “These virtual shows have been something that the disabled community has been asking for for years and years and years,” she said. In fact, every person interviewed for this piece stressed the importance of livestreams and online performances as an accessible option when in-person concerts return.
That livestreams haven't been announced as an option for the major in-person tours so far is a major concern for people across the disability spectrum. “It's just bizarre that we've had all this time to ruminate and now they're talking about bringing the shows back and there's no peep of even streaming the shows they're talking about booking,” said Ty Dykema, a Grand Rapids-based disability activist and visual artist who runs and organizes Skitchin Fest and Skitchin Music Zine, which promotes accessibility in punk. “We're still being left behind when this whole year has been the perfect opportunity for the concert industry to really take us into consideration,” said Dykema, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy and uses a wheelchair.
There are other ways venues, bands, and booking agents can build a more inclusive environment. Maja Liv Groves, the founder of Queers to the Front, a booking agency and music company “prioritizing all marginalized people, which very much includes people with all sorts of disabilities,” has historically asked venues who host her bands to go above and beyond the status quo for disabled accommodations. “I definitely experienced things where I would ask for a ramp to the entrance to the venue and they'd ask if I was disabled and I'd reply, “does it matter?,” said Groves. “If you want the show to be accessible, you should want everybody to have access to the show, not just your performer.” Other measures include asking to remove stroboscope lighting for people with photosensitivity or epilepsy, accessible unisex restrooms, and other easy solutions. “Everybody has different accessibility needs,” said Dykema. “What is accessible to me doesn't necessarily mean it's fully accessible to everybody.”
What's important is including these voices into the conversation with venues, booking agents, and agents when live music safely comes back. “Our primary goal is just to get venues being transparent about what accessibility and safety is like in their spaces,” said Wilson. “That's what gets us to even be at the point of buying a ticket. Once they're aware, I hope they talk with disabled people and improve more than just putting a chair at the back of a crowded GA room.”