Disability – offstage and on

Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including 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.