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Wheelchair, music shows often don't mix

Disabled people can feel unwelcome

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/7/2015 (1859 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Allen Mankewich long ago lost count of the number of concerts he's attended. He's travelled to gigs across Canada and the United States, attending everything from major American rock festivals -- Lollapalloza '06 and '09 -- to small, sweaty club shows.

"I think the thing I love about live music is the energy from the musicians and the other concertgoers," he says. "It's something that can't be replaced by listening to an album."

Allen Mankewich finds the frequent lack of information about accessibility at venues frustrating.


Allen Mankewich finds the frequent lack of information about accessibility at venues frustrating.

Still, it's an experience that isn't always easy to love. Mankewich, 35, has used a wheelchair his whole life. While many of the live-music venues and festival grounds he's been to have been "accessible," he can attest to the fact there are many insidious ways in which the culture of live music boxes out fans who have disabilities.

Many of the venues Mankewich frequents, such as the Pyramid Cabaret and the Garrick Centre, have general-admission floors, meaning there is no assigned seating -- and where there is no assigned seating, there is no designated area for wheelchairs. So while Mankewich is able to make it in the door, what happens after that is largely left up to the goodwill of his fellow concertgoers.

"Oftentimes I'm just there, amongst the crowd, staring at people's backs, which is frustrating," he says. "I pay just as much as everyone else to be there." Safety is also a concern. "If there's a fight, someone's going to fall on me," he says. "It impedes my ability to enjoy the show."

In the past, he's tried to (politely) push his way to the front in an effort to improve his sightline. He's been met with irritation from his fellow concertgoers. "I've been told off a few times. So now I tend to hang back, mind my own business and listen to what I can't see."

Getting tickets for assigned-seating shows through Ticketmaster's Canadian site is also an issue. While the MTS Centre, for example, does offer 11 sections with accessible seating in the lower and upper bowls available at all events, you can't indicate online whether you need an accessible seat. "Every time you call in, it's a half-hour of your time," Mankewich says. (He notes, too, at other seated venues, there aren't always accessible seats in every price range.)

Ticketmaster's U.S. site, meanwhile, allows users to indicate whether they need an accessible seat and a representative actually calls when tickets go on sale so fans don't miss out.

Going to a concert with a group of friends is also out for Mankewich. Accessible seating is often at a premium and, as such, he's only allowed to bring one companion.

He's been to shows at inaccessible local venues -- such as the Cavern and the Windsor. In those cases, he's relied on friends to carry him. "Being carried up and down stairs is a contentious issue," he says. "Some are dead set against it philosophically, which I totally understand, but the way I look at it is I can either deal with that occasionally or stay home. It's also kind of dangerous, not just for me, but also for my friends, who could hurt themselves carrying me."

"My friend's band is playing a show (at the Cavern) this weekend, and he invited me, but I probably won't go."

All of these things add up, and they send a damaging message. Writing for Salon, Ohio-based writer Annie Zaleski -- who has cerebral palsy, making walking long distances and standing for a long time difficult -- pointed out "when a music festival doesn't have information about disability access (or at least contact info where someone can inquire about accommodations) or ticketing sites don't have the option to purchase accessible tickets online, it sends a subtly non-inclusive message: you are not welcome here."

Mankewich, too, says the lack of information readily available about accommodations is frustrating. "It shouldn't always be on the person with the disability to seek out information about what's accessible and what's not. We spend enough of our time trying to arrange services and do what we have to do to function in the world. I think society has to take some responsibility for providing these services -- and then letting people know about the services they are providing."

When it comes to legislation for accessibility, there is no Canadian equivalent of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Legislation varies from province to province. The Accessibility for Manitobans Act was just enacted in 2013. We still have lots of work to do, but encouragingly, venues and festivals seem to be getting the message. Mankewich was impressed by both his experiences at Lollapalloza and the Winnipeg Folk Festival, speaking from the perspective of a wheelchair user, but there is always room for improvement.

Of course, it's important to note disabilities and the needs of those who live with them vary greatly -- and not all disabilities are physical. But, as Mankewich says, "it's not difficult to accommodate those needs if you put some thought into it. Disability-advocacy organizations are willing to work with promoters to make sure everyone has a good time."

But it's not just up to those putting on the shows to make sure they are inclusive and accessible. It's up to all of us to make everyone feel welcome. After all, a concert is nothing if not a temporary community.

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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Updated on Thursday, July 9, 2015 at 6:55 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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