I had another embarrassing Theatre experience last night. Not on stage fluffing my lines or the steps to a routine, those days are long gone. And not as embarrassing as the time I delayed the start of Act 2 of Billy Elliott at the Birmingham Hippodrome by tipping myself out of chair in the interval, foolishly attempting to demonstrate how the anti-tippers worked, without checking that my friends knew they had to be folded out when they assembled the chair for me when we got out of the car. I spectacularly sent the chair flying out from underneath me in a packed theatre of 2000 people, bruising my posterior and my pride simultaneously.
This time, however, it wasn’t my fault, or any of my companions’. This occurred because of what we call the social model of disability, a descriptor that defines disability as being caused by society and how it’s set up, not necessarily by the body of the disabled person. The theory goes that if I had 100% access to everything, and my entire life and environment were set up for me as a wheelchair user, I would no longer be disabled as I would have the same access and opportunities as my able-bodied counterparts.
So, the problem this time? I went to the theatre to see Footloose with 9 other friends, most of whom I know through my long Scouting career, and who also share my love of theatre and musicals. The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry does have pretty good disabled access, and like most theatres will offer a discount rate for a companion ticket. However, you can only use the accessible areas if you’re in a party of 2/3, or there’s more than one disabled person in your group. The disabled access box, or ‘cripple pen’ only has room for 6 people, and it’s a very tight squeeze if there’s more than 2 wheelchairs trying to park up!
The solution that was arranged when the tickets were booked, was that we had a row in the circle that was down one step, and I could be bumped down that step and then use my banana board to transfer. In theory it sounded do-able, in practise it didn’t work.
When my friends tried to bump me down the steps, they were too shallow to get my chair parallel to the seat on the end of the row, so I ended up being hoisted out of my chair by two strong men, and plonked in my seat. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful to my friends for the support they give me and for not batting an eyelid at having to lift a chubster like me up steps or into seats, this particular group go to extreme lengths to include me in all social activities, including carrying me up to a 4th floor flat!
What I’m addressing here is the oversight/failure to consider that a disabled person might have more than one friend they want to see a show with, so in order to participate, they have to be carried to their seat in a pretty undignified and embarrassing way that draws attention for all the wrong reasons.
This theatre isn’t alone in not considering this situation (or rather they do the minimum they need to provide access), the Billy Elliott blunder was only witnessed by one friend as there was only space for one companion next to the wheelchair space, the rest of the party were 2 rows up and came down to find me on the floor and my chair 4 ft away with a very concerned steward peering over me. When we went to see an amateur production of Avenue Q at a local theatre in Nuneaton, I had the front row to myself whilst my friends sat several rows behind me, a repeat of the same 2 weeks earlier when seeing my friends perform in their fabulous Gang Show. I had an excellent view from the front row, but the experience on both occasions was marred by not being able to sit with my friends as you can’t book a wheelchair space and group together.
I’m sure to some that I’m going to come across like I’m complaining unnecessarily, and I suppose I am in a way. On the one hand I/we should be grateful that we do have the option of disabled access in almost all theatres in the UK, there will be many in other countries that don’t. But on the other hand, we must continue to address the shortfalls in disabled access and services. As someone who is new to this disability lark, it’s just another barrier that I have to add to the long list of things that I keep coming across. When I was able-bodied, I took for granted being able to go everywhere with my friends and not have to plan ahead for access, or pester them to make sure they’ve checked I can actually go where they’re going. Now I have to worry about whether I will be well enough to go, and whether I can get in.
What I won’t do, is stop going. I love the theatre, having danced from a young age and spent many of my childhood weekends watching Judy Garland and Doris Day musicals with my Grandma, I even took to the stage again in my 20’s, embarrassing myself voluntarily 3 years running with WAGS Gang Show, a brilliant amateur Scout performance somewhat debased by yours truly thumping around the stage in costumes made especially for my plus size frame. I’d have loved to have carried on, but when my legs started giving way, and I was having more birthdays than I wanted to, I had to suffice with being a member of the audience.
So I shall continue to patronise the theatre, even if it means being lifted into a seat, or having to sit on my own, or away from the party, because to do anything else is giving in. In the theatre darling, the show must go on…