Disability – offstage and on

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Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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The Paralympics this summer acted as an enormous celebration of both human diversity and overcoming the odds of whatever life throws at you that was truly inspirational. It also put on an amazing show in its own right.

I was in the stadium itself for Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings's astonishing Paralympics opening ceremony, as I wrote here at the time and if Daniel Craig apparently flying a stunt double of the Queen into the stadium at the main Olympics opening ceremony equivalent became the talk of the town, it was only defiantly and definitely eclipsed by the stunning sight of Marine Commando Joe Townsend – who lost both legs while serving in Afghanistan – flying the Paralympics torch into the stadium.

I was in pain at the time myself, and was being treated for what two specialists thought was recurrence of a former back problem that I'd already had a spinal fusion to solve. But what I couldn't have known then what was in store for me a few months later. As regular readers of this blog will know, I had a hip replacement exactly four weeks ago today after it was finally diagnosed as bone-on-bone osteoarthritis of my left hip, for which the surgeon who carried out the procedure told me that there was no cartilage at all.

No wonder I had been in such severe pain. But at least there was a solution, and I'm now recovering. But one thing it has done is absolutely raise my awareness of conditions for disabled people, whether temporarily (like myself, I hope) or on a longer-term basis, when attending theatres.

Of course many theatres bend over backwards to accommodate people, within their sometimes ancient and crumbling buildings. My own particular grumble at the moment is about ancient and crumbling seats; one of my surgeon's stipulations about returning to the theatre was to ensure that I didn't sit in seats that are very low to the ground that might force my knees above my hips. The hospital physiotherapist measured my leg length and determined that the seats I sit in need to be at least 19 inches from the ground.

That's proved difficult at many West End theatres, where seats seem to be virtually scraping the floor. I carry my own special cushion to add heigh and support, though sometimes this is insufficient. I tried to use a booster seat that theatres provide for kids to add more of the necessary height at a first night the other day, but then that threatened to disrupt the view of my colleague sitting behind me, whose seat was similarly low to the ground.

Then there's the joke of disabled toilets. At the Adelphi the other day for The Bodyguard, I discovered that the front-of-house staff use it to offer priority toilet provision to premium customers, not just disabled ones. And while theatres may provide specific seating in the theatre itself, there's no similar provision in the public front-of-house areas; bravely venturing to the National a week after my surgery, it was easy to get from the car park to my seat in the theatre without too much effort. But trying to find a seat in the foyer beforehand was impossible; all tables were occupied, and no one was minded to give their seat up.

A friend recently told me she's booked to see Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory with her wheelchair-bound mum. And shockingly, she has discovered that the designated wheelchair space is right behind a pillar -- so not only is her mum disabled, but to add insult to injury, her view of the stage will be disabled, too.

This should simply not happen. Restricted view seats are often sold at theatres, of course, but the customer is alerted to this when they buy the seats, usually at a substantially reduced price. The Menier website details its wheelchair access provision on its website, and describes it as providing "an excellent view of the stage". Perhaps that needs to be changed to an excellent view of a pillar. Or the position needs to be changed, urgently.

8 Comments

  1. One problem you’ve been remiss about pertains to the common notion that all disabled people are confined to a wheelchair; my disability primarily affects my knee, and so I require decent legroom. Despite making buildings aware of this I’ve often been provided with incorrect information and booked seats which I discover upon arrival are entirely unsuitable; I am forced to either stand (where possible) or merely suffer the evening in great pain, unable to fully focus upon the stage – not to mention that little legroom is made worse by needing to accommodate either crutches or a cane. There’s also the fact that, as I’m a student, I would obviously like to opt for the cheapest seats so I may attend more theatre; however I am often forced to pay double or triple that in order to cater for my disability, while wheelchair spaces are often heavily discounted.

    In regards to the foyer issue, you’ve merely stumbled upon the selfishness of people. I’ve had to get off buses when an able-bodied person refused to give me a seat, and my arm muscles are surprisingly developed from hanging off the ground from the handrails on tube as if I stood I would fall over; even in theatres were to implement something similar I can’t see it working.

    As for the Adelphi, I’m utterly disgusted; I wasn’t aware of that and will ensure to never give them my money, no matter how brilliant a production. An complete contrast to Shaftesbury; when I attended Hairspray back in 2008 they were horrified to find our seats unsuitable. Unable to move us due to a full house, the manager himself literally carried me up the stairs to the circle, as well as assisting me after the show and checking I was OK during the interval. A theatre has never treated me better.

  2. For me the lack of seating in foyers is a real problem I find standing difficult and despite having a stick no one does offer the Gold dust seats. Living in Lincoln visits to West End are monthly as its very much an essential part of my social life. I keep a note of each theatres must avoid areas. I do find the Stalls are usually more comfortable but leg room varies. Dress cicle of Old Vic had me in agony!No one should have a restricted view in a wheelchair its bad enough having to be in one ! In fact everyone should have to be in one for at least a month to understand how people feel being talked over like a toddler !

  3. Welcome to, well, most people’s world Mark.
    As a director who was trying to find out why audio-enhancement systems didn’t work, why there was no libretto or captioning said to me: you’re not disabled – theatres disable you.
    The venues that are making a difference don’t always find it easy, cheap or even get it completely right. But they win hands down because they want “the audience”, whoever or whatever they are. The venues & producers who don’t make that effort, or do it because they sense litigation looming, would really rather the likes of you and me would just go away.
    Anyway, out of Web contact for next few days but hope there’s some healthy debate on this!

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  5. I agree with most of the comments, but a lot is about how the London theaters are funded and their never ending supply of tourists willing to pay stupid cash for tickets.

    I live in Birmingham where the three main theaters are all very disabled friendly, go out of their way to ensure we have captioned, AD & signed performances, to the point where they run accesses forums, yet these theaters receive NO, cash from Gov or Arts Council etc, yet the thrive, maybe its time London asked why?

    please see the Birmingham Hippodrome site and view a fine range of accessible performances and very accessible prices.

    http://www.birminghamhippodrome.com/

    Mike

  6. A late comment on the subject to give credit it where it’s due: a friend with very poor mobility went to see ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ when it was playing at the Gielgud and was hugely impressed at the care taken at that theatre: having made sure he was shown safely to his seat, a staff member returned during the interval to make sure he was ok, whether there was anything he needed, and was he enjoying it? The Gielgud clearly considers the welfare of less able audience members a priority, and this was long before the Paralympics drew major attention to the issue.

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