How Some Local Nightclubs Are Failing Disabled Patrons
Pallbearer is a prog-doom band from Little Rock whose melodies are as beautiful as their riffs are massive. I try to see them every time they come through the Bay Area, as I did one night last May at The New Parish. I’ve been going to rock and metal shows since I was a teen. But now that I’ve hit middle age, a combination of injuries and chronic pain has left me unable to stand for long periods of time — not for 20 minutes, and definitely not a marathon metal gig with three or four acts on the bill.
Many clubs offer disabled seats on request, but their follow-through can be spotty. A week before the Pallbearer gig, I emailed the New Parish to request a seat. At first, they didn’t respond. But after a couple of nudges, eventually someone assured me that yes, they’d take care of me. When I got there, the reality was very different.
“Hi, I requested a disabled seat for this show,” I told the woman just inside the door who was taking tickets.
“Sure, we’ll get you set up, just give me a minute,” she said, gesturing for me to stand off to the side.
A few minutes went by. And then a few more. The first band, Mountain Dweller, started playing, and although walls and passageways muffled the sound, I could hear that they were really good. My legs and feet started to hurt from the standing and waiting. But the woman by the door hadn’t looked my way once. I got up and asked her whether they’d set up my seat. She seemed to have forgotten I was there.
“Sorry, I’ll get someone for you,” she said. She spoke into her walkie-talkie, inaudibly over Mountain Dweller’s rumbling guitars and thunderous drums.
Many more minutes passed. I wanted to go inside, sit down, and bliss out to the band, but I was stuck waiting. I couldn’t help it; I started to cry.
Eventually, someone with a security vest came to find me. He led me through the crowd — too quickly for my aching legs to keep up. He pulled out a folding chair and set it down on the floor within a few feet of the stage, directly behind a tall pillar that would have blocked my view, and within feet of the massive mosh pit.
“I can’t sit here!” I yelled in his ear. Not only was the music deafening, but I was furious.
He looked at me like I’d demanded a seat on the moon.
“If you want to see, you need to sit upstairs,” he said.
“Are there seats upstairs?” I asked.
He nodded, but when I climbed the steps to the balcony, I found none. My heart pounding and my eyes stinging with tears, I returned to the woman at the door and asked if I could have a chair upstairs. She seemed to have forgotten me.
“We can’t let people stand on chairs in the balcony,” she said.
I reminded her that I required a disabled seat because I can’t stand for long periods. She called the security guy back. At the same rapid clip as before, he grabbed a chair, led me upstairs, and set it down roughly.
“There you go,” he said, and rushed off.
Ultimately, it was a perfectly good seat, with a killer view of the stage and the swirling pit below. I settled in just as Pallbearer got ready to play. But I was still so angry, I fired off a storm of tweets telling the story of what had happened.
A little while later, I felt a tap on the shoulder, from a man who introduced himself as a New Parish manager. He’d seen my tweets.
“I’m really sorry,” he said, his tone more shrewd than sincere. “Can I get you anything? A free drink? A ticket to another show?”
I shook my head, annoyed that he was interrupting me to ply me with bribes.
“All right. I’ll have the owner reach out to you on Monday,” he said. That call never came.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, entertainment venues must offer wheelchair-accessible spaces for folks who use them, and disabled patrons are allowed to purchase tickets specifically for those spaces. However, the ADA doesn’t require venues to provide other types of seating for, say, people who don’t use wheelchairs but who can’t stand for two-to-four hours at a stretch. Some do, largely out of courtesy, but it’s not something you can count on.
There is common assumption that people are either disabled enough to use a wheelchair, or they’re able to stand and walk — but there are vast swaths of us who fall somewhere in between. We are glared at for sitting in the disabled section on public transit, for sitting when we’re working at a checkout counter, for walking with canes when we look young, or for driving around with blue placards in our cars — and then walking from the parking lot to the shops.
Still, lots of clubs offer seats for those who need them. A few years ago, I sprained my ankle and spent about four months in a walking cast. I had tickets for a show at Slim’s, and it occurred to me to ask for a disabled seat. They responded quickly and kindly by email and, when I arrived, a staffer set me up on a stool in a protected area near the bar, with an excellent view of the stage. It was comfortable, and I could enjoy myself without being in pain. And, because of its location, I knew I could get a drink or use the bathroom without losing my spot.
My ankle never really recovered, and my hips and knees started to get in on the act, along with a prickly ache in my feet that gets worse the longer I’m standing. But I haven’t stopped going to shows — or requesting disabled seats. Many local clubs are great on this point; I’ve continued to have good luck at Slim’s, as well as excellent perches at the Great American Music Hall and The Chapel, in particular.
But others, such as the Regency Ballroom, seat disabled patrons way in the back of the main hall, where you have no hope in hell of seeing the stage. Many nights, I’ve been able to go up to their balcony, but at a Decibel magazine tour stop a couple of years ago, the balcony was closed. I was left in the far-flung disabled section, barely able to see Tribulation, Skeletonwitch, High on Fire and Abbath. It was so miserable, I went out into the lobby to chat with friends, where I could still hear the music but see something more pleasant than people’s backsides. Later, we learned that the balcony had been closed so that Metallica frontman James Hetfield and his family could sit there.
Aside from the fact that the law doesn’t require clubs to provide seating for customers who can’t stand, there are some cultural norms at work. Rock scenes — and metal in particular — tend to assume fans want to get on their feet and dance. If you’re sitting, you’re a faker, not a real fan.
But we don’t all have 20-year-old knees anymore. Even when I was attending metal shows in my teens, it was a multi-generational affair, with fans in their 20s and 30s moshing and mingling with adolescent fans (or making fun of us for being so young). Metal fans are among the most loyal music listeners of any genre, which means they don’t really outgrow the music or stop going to see live shows. Nowadays, these gatherings are even more multigenerational — teens and 20-somethings all the way up to folks in their 50s and early 60s, the old guard watching their progeny come up behind them.
And not all of us are in great physical shape. I’ve seen them sitting down between sets, or clustering in the balcony. One night at the Regency Ballroom, I sat next to a guy in his 50s who walked with a cane.
“I got hurt one night in the mosh pit after I’d had too much to drink,” he told me, fingering the curved handle of his cane. “I don’t do that anymore. I can’t.”
But in many local venues, there isn’t any place to sit. No chairs, barstools or even a bench. More than once, I’ve found myself sitting on the floor in places like the Oakland Metro because there was nowhere else to rest my bones.
A year after that New Parish show, I went to see Pallbearer again, this time at the DNA Lounge with Dust Bolt, Skeletonwitch, and Obituary. About a week ahead of time, I emailed the DNA to request a disabled seat. The first reply came quickly: “Our staff will happily assist you with your needs. Upon arrival, let any of our staff at the front know and they will make an arrangement for you.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. This is the response I typically get from venues that have their act together, and it’s usually followed by a good experience. But a day later, I got this: “To be clear, I’m assuming you will be coming in a wheelchair. In this case we will be sure to have a spot for you, We do not have ‘disabled seats.’ If you do need to sit, being in a wheelchair is your best bet.”
I responded that no, I don’t use a wheelchair, and don’t own one.
I didn’t get another response. On the advice of friends, I bought a small, fold-up camping chair, although I was worried that DNA security wouldn’t let me bring it inside.
But when I walked up to the line, I told one of the staffers about my situation, explained why I brought a chair, and asked who could help. “I guess that’s me!” he said cheerfully. He led me inside and asked if I wanted to be downstairs or upstairs. “Upstairs!” I said. He brought me to a great spot overlooking the stage, made sure I was comfortable, and disappeared into the throng. The whole process was easy — and made me feel like I belonged.
It wasn’t perfect. I went to the show alone, as I often do; I like soaking up the experience without being too distracted. Unfortunately, that meant if I got up to use the bathroom or get a drink, I didn’t have anyone to guard my spot. But I had a great view, the bands were incredible, and my legs weren’t killing me at the end of the night.
Providing seats to those who need them, even if it’s not strictly required under the ADA, seems like a simple and courteous thing to do. Maybe it’s a little uncool to imagine hard-rocking patrons sitting for an entire show, but it makes good business sense. It makes your disabled customers feel good — and makes them more likely to spend money with you again. As a friend of mine who produces events in the Bay Area said, “If someone wants to come to my show, I certainly don’t think mobility issues should be in the way of them enjoying what we have worked hard to produce.”
Music venues can do better — and some of them could do a lot better — by their disabled patrons. Mishandling our requests or treating us like you don’t have space for us tells us everything we need to know about how valuable we are to you. Live gigs are a chance for music fans to come together, to be part of a community, to cheer and scream and cry to all our favorite songs. Let us be part of that. Show us we belong.