The arts are an escape from the monotony of daily life. We go to see our beloved bands, peruse art exhibits and spend hours consuming enriching pieces of media to feel closer to our own ideals and interests.
So what happens when arts venues are physically inaccessible, or make you feel out of place based on your disability, race, gender or sexual identity?
For many individuals in marginalized communities, this is unfortunately too often the case. The bands we go to see don’t commonly reflect our race, gender, or body status; many of the bands that venues book are members of the cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) community. This can be exclusionary to many who wish to see themselves reflected in the shows they attend.
It’s even worse when, despite wanting to go see one of your favorite artists, the venue itself presents physical challenges due to a lack of readily accessible entrances, ramps and other structural implementations that ease the process of seeing artists we love.
“There’s a demographic to which you’re saying, ‘you’re not really welcome here,’” said Sean Gray, the creator of the website “Is This Venue Accessible,” in a roundtable for the website Hopes & Fears. “I know that sounds brutal, but that’s the honest truth here. I don’t want to pull any punches.”
Disability by the numbers
This lack of accessibility is especially important when we look at the disability statistics for racial and ethnic minorities and members of the LGBT community.
According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, an estimated 1 in 5 adults in the United States is living with disabilities. But the rate is higher in minority communities: 21.1 percent of non-Hispanic “other,” which typically includes people of Asian/Pacific Islander descent, 25.9 percent of Hispanic and 29 percent of non-Hispanic black citizens are living with disabilities.
In the LGBT community, an estimated 3 million to 5 million people are living with disabilities, according to the Center for American Progress. In this regard, race, LGBT, and disability issues are one and the same.
How are venues able to keep up with the needs of such a diverse range of people who are potential audience members?
For people with disabilities, the most obvious way for venues to offer accessibility is through the buildings themselves.
Best practices would assume that owners, when opening a venue, would take into consideration the physical layout of the space and demographics of the surrounding community in the hopes of attracting all audiences, especially with regard to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility standards. Or at the very least, a niche audience that is thoroughly interested in the music that will be hosted there.
In Philadelphia, many of the music venues in or near downtown are at least partially ADA accessible, according to the 2010 ADA standards for accessible design. Some are more accessible than others, but all have at least one floor that is ADA accessible.
Some of the venues’ websites specifically list accommodations that are available upon request, ranging from listening devices to designated disability seating to multiple zones with disabled parking spaces. For others, gathering information about available accommodations requires a phone call to designated accessibility/disability phone extensions.
A handful of venues offer complimentary tickets for government-funded personal care attendants, and the Theatre of the Living Arts even offers signers who are able to converse in American Sign Language when available.
Even with certain accommodations being made available for those living with disabilities, the mental and emotional experience can be daunting to face when other intersections of identities are present in experiencing the world of art.
According to the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, from 2008 to 2012, minorities of various races and ethnicities across the U.S. experienced an overall increase in their attendance of performing arts events. However, in comparison with their white counterparts, minorities attended fewer events overall, especially when they had a less extensive educational background or lower income.
Breaking this information down by genre, African Americans were more likely to attend jazz, gospel, rap and blues concerts, while Hispanics were more likely to attend Latin, Spanish and salsa music events.
In Philadelphia, the city’s venues each have their own approach to the bands and acts they book. While some are more diverse than others, a commonality is the prevalence of white, cisgender and/or heterosexual bands being booked.
This is in sharp contrast to the demographics of Philadelphia, where 55.2 percent of the population is non-white, according to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau report.
A cursory glance at the website of Trocadero Theatre, a Philadelphia venue, reveals a majority of white faces across the bands booked. Upon further inspection, the bands are highly geographically diverse, but the white bands and artists far outnumber any minority group.
The same can be said for Milkboy, Theatre of the Living Arts and other venues across the city.
Some Philadelphia venues, though, host a variety of types of artists. There’s PhilaMOCA, the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, which is equally invested in the nostalgia of art and events that pertain to such topics as it is modern alternative bands.
Electric Factory, another venue in downtown Philadelphia, covers a slightly wider swath of music. The venue books bands and artists not only from the mainstream but also legacy acts, mid-size groups informally known as “mindie,” or mainstream independent bands.
The number of bands booked to these venues that include members living with apparent disabilities are nearly nonexistent.
What exactly can be done for people with marginalized identities in order for them to feel more comfortable in being able to take part in events across genres?
Representation, not reaction
According to Charlie Miller, the deputy director for Art Reach, a Philadelphia organization advocating for accessibility within arts events, there’s quite a bit.
“We’re always listening to their concerns, because a lot of members of the disability communities and their families have felt unwelcome in certain institutions,” Miller said. “A lot of times, it’s sort of like removing that monolithic sort of pedestal between the consumer and the institution.”
He also pointed to working reactively, or after a problem arises, as an issue. Working to design buildings and events for universal accessibility in the first place would alleviate challenges, he said.
“It’s actually cheaper and better for everyone if you’re making something accessible from the beginning and if it’s part of the planning,” Miller said.
Working to speak to people across the spectrum of disabilities, as well as races, sexualities and gender identities, are all a part of universal accessibility.
A simple solution for venues and booking agents would be to research who they book. If they’re finding that their calendars are looking decidedly homogeneous, they can reconsider their strategies. They might also partner with any of the many organizations across the nation, such as Art Reach or the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia, to help change their practices into something more inclusive of all people.
Disability Rights Pennsylvania, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, ADAPT and many others across the nation are working to make the arts and the world at large a more accessible and comfortable place.
“I don’t want to just be invited in,” Miller said. “I want to see myself represented in what you’re doing, and that’s really important.”
About the Author
Tre Simmons is a journalism major and music minor at Texas State University. Learn more about them here.