Performance venues are vessels for any local music scene, and their design covertly determines who can comfortably show up and take part. “It’s so hard to see ‘All Are Welcome Here’ signs hanging at venues that are really inaccessible.” says Gaelynn Lea, a Duluth-based violinist, singer, and songwriter who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or Brittle Bones Disease, and has navigated venues with an electric wheelchair for decades.
In the U.S., one in every four people has a disability – whether it’s visible or invisible, physical or cognitive, according to the CDC. Access needs also vary throughout everyone’s life, but most live music venues – from coffee shop stages to stadium arenas – just focus on the bare minimum legal requirements.
“So little has been done for the disability community that every effort is going to add up to something positive,” says Lea, who also co-founded RAMPD (Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities) in 2021, aiming to increase access, visibility, and opportunities for disabled musicians and industry professionals.
No venue can meet every concert attendee’s needs every night, so flexibility and action matter more than waiting for “the perfect plan.” And when venues learn more about where they are falling short, they can start to improve.
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Efforts like making a website easier to read, expanding a photo pit to accommodate photographers in wheelchairs, or offering a live stream option all add up to improve concerts for people with disabilities.
The Current connected with musicians and disability advocates around Minnesota to discuss some of countless ways to make performance venues more inclusive.
Whether or not it’s true, a venue’s website can leave a first impression that it doesn’t prioritize accessibility. Two ways this can happen: incompatibility with screen readers used by people who are blind or low vision, and a navigation menu that nests accessibility information in a difficult to find spot.
Venues should place an obvious “Accessibility” menu item on their homepage that links to detailed information about accessibility features and current limitations — as well as multiple ways to get in touch with questions or requests.
It should explain available accommodations at every stage of an attendee’s concert experience, like where to find parking nearby and how to reach the spacious dropoff sites next to the venue’s entrances.
People should be able to enter a venue easily through a wide doorway, equipped with lever-style door handles instead of knobs, which follows the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990s standards for accessible design. Not all venues comply with the landmark civil rights law’s baseline requirements around providing wheelchair-accessible entrances and other types of accommodations.
“There’s a big misunderstanding that if venues weren't accessible before 1990, they have no obligation to become accessible now,” says Lea. After the law passed, the ADA gave venues two years to get up to code. “That was 1990 to 1992, and then after that, anything that you can feasibly do, you need to do. You should be making a plan, basically, and executing it over time.”
Inside, well-lit and easily legible signage should point guests to an accessibility desk, resembling a box office or coat check area. Here, attendees can check out an accessibility kit – like this one assembled by the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) for the Xcel Energy Center – which includes earplugs, sunglasses, and eight different fidgets, for people with sensory sensitivities.
This desk should also offer assisted listening devices for hard of hearing folks, as well as tactile maps and floor plans, which can help blind or low vision attendees with wayfinding.
Ideally, lit pathways and gradual ramps would wind throughout the venue, to the greenroom, the bathrooms and various sections where audience members sit or stand.
“When I go to First Ave shows I usually sit right behind the soundboard, which I prefer, because then I get better sound, but it’s also like ‘Here's your spot, grandpa.’” says Gabriel Roderick, the Minneapolis-based multidisciplinary artist and musician who uses a wheelchair due to a permanent spinal cord injury.
“Sometimes you wanna go party, so I can see having designated people who work at the venue to be like ‘Hey if you want to go up front, we’ll help you get there,’” says Roderick. “‘We will part the Red Sea for you.’”
Everyone on staff, from the ticket scanner to the bartender, should be trained on the venue's accessibility features, and prepared to help direct people as needed. Beyond that, venues can show further commitment by enlisting specialized access doulas wearing easily spottable attire to roam around a venue equipped with water and other helpful tools, ready to offer support when needed.
A culture of awareness and willingness should be at the center of any accessibility plan, explains Jillian Nelson, who is the community resource and policy advocate at AuSM and autistic herself, “Part of your accessibility plan needs to be, ‘Okay, we'll work with people to meet their needs because accessibility is not one size fits all’”
As a show starts, two interpreters should be positioned in well-lit spots next to the stage. With one hearing interpreter and one certified deaf interpreter (CDI), they can work together to provide more culturally relevant signing for the deaf community.
Many venues have ready access to CDIs, but don’t advertise it well, according to Stevie Middlebrook, one of the deaf interpreters who regularly works with St. Paul R&B musician Keny Grey.
Keenly aware of the gap between the Deaf and hearing music community after growing up with hard of hearing family members, Grey performs with a team of interpreters. “There's this misconception that deaf people don't enjoy music. They absolutely do. They go to concerts,” Grey says, noting that anyone on the spectrum of deafness can enjoy music.
His online fanbase blossomed a few years ago in part due to simple gestures like captioning, releasing lyric videos with new songs, and dueting with deaf performers on TikTok.
When Grey asked his online community what would make venues more welcoming, suggestions he got back included booking more deaf performers and integrating lyrics onto screens that sit on either side of a stage. Or, even better, installing a marquee for lyrics to run across above the stage.
There is no one-approach-welcomes-all solution for programming events. Dynamic patterned graphics and pulsing lights synced to the music are often appreciated by hard of hearing fans — but potentially too much for others.
When feeling overwhelmed and crowded at a recent show, Jillian Nelson slipped a stranger $20 to hang out in his VIP box for a few minutes. “How easy would it be to take a VIP spot, or a couple of VIP boxes, and turn them into a sensory-friendly space where you can go take a break, have noise-canceling headphones, have fidgets, or just not be in a crowd,” says Nelson, “I’d love to see a balcony-style sensory space with glass that’s slightly soundproof.”
Sensory-friendly stages at a music festival or hosting designated relaxed performances at a lower-volume also benefit very young music fans, whose smaller ear canals are extra sensitive to loud sounds.
“When we talk about autism and sensory-friendly access, we’re talking about universal design,” says Nelson. “There isn't a single person that ever went into a venue and said, ‘Well, crap, this place is accessible and accommodating and there's a sensory-friendly space. This has just ruined my experience.’ Nobody, ever. But there are people that are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know I needed this.’”
The Minnesota Orchestra and Northrop Auditorium already take advantage of their large blueprints to offer designated spaces for people to hang out and experience the performance in different ways.
Northrop’s sensory-friendly lounge includes fidgets, trained volunteers, and a monitor streaming the performance, while the Orchestra offers multiple different sensory-friendly areas during relaxed performances including the green room converted into a quiet space, as well as a carpeted area where guests can watch the performance on a monitor.
Many venues already have some infrastructure for live streams or can easily find a blueprint, in part due to the live stream boom during the early months of the pandemic. Regular ticket purchases could also include a livestream link to serve in-person attendees who need to get fresh air or pace around a hallway but could stay connected to the show by watching on their phone.
Lower-cost, livestream-only tickets also allow fans quarantining — or who may feel fatigued from any chronic condition — to tune in from the couch.
Tips for Venues to Take Next Steps
Funding accessibility upgrades often requires creativity, but procrastinating upgrades due to cost is no excuse, according to Lea.
“I played a show in North Carolina where they held a fundraising concert a few months before my show. They actually raised enough money to get a stage lift — because it's a pretty tall stage, and a ramp would have taken up too much room – and told me about it like a week before,” says Lea. “[The owner] understood the reason it was important so he just went and did it, but didn’t go into debt because he put it on his community to help.”
Lea believes it all comes down to priorities. “Inclusivity has to include disability,” she says. “Because if you say you're a safe space for women but are really inaccessible, you just left out a bunch of women.”
Grants or crowd-sourcing could fund the creation of sensory kits and, in the meantime, venues can cover free earplugs and plastic sunglasses to reduce sensory overwhelm. They can stow a temporary ramp on site while keeping in mind that a permanent ramp sends a more welcoming signal to other musicians who use wheelchairs.
One completely free way to improve venue accessibility overnight is posting a social narrative on the venue website’s accessibility page. This is a simple story explaining a typical evening at the venue and common social interactions one can expect while there, kind of like looking up a menu before you go to a restaurant.
AuSM has free guidance on writing social narratives, and can write one for a venue as part of their budget-flexible consulting services.
Lea also plugs RAMPD for walk-throughs and other consulting services. Aside from consulting, efforts under RAMPD’s umbrella include maintaining a multi-tier networking database for disabled music professionals, providing resources for non-disabled supporters, and legislative advocacy — with the big-picture goal of increasing visibility and opportunities for disabled people within the music industry.
“I have so many friends who are artists and musicians, specifically with spinal cord injuries, and I think some don't go down that road because of accessibility.” says Roderick, “If there were less obstacles, more people would just go make music and make art.”
Especially since he started booking more solo shows as Freaque, Roderick has taken opportunities to perform across the Twin Cities, from more structurally accommodating venues like the Cedar Cultural Center, well-equipped with ramps and resources, to basement house shows. “We just need to be seen, people need to know that we're here, at every level of venue in Minneapolis. So I’m just going to keep showing up until people start getting it.”
“My mindset has always been very community-based,” he explains, “And if it wasn’t, I either wouldn't be alive or I wouldn't be making good music.”
And ultimately, a community-based mindset should be the driving force for venues to start planning for and making upgrades, soon.
“Anytime you're talking about creating an inclusive space, disability has to be a part of it,” says Lea, “You gotta just do what you can do, feasibly in your budget, and that doesn't let anyone off the hook, because no matter how big or small you are, you can always be a little bit more inclusive.”
Below are a few tips and additional resources that venues can explore:
Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities: RAMPD
Autism Society of Minnesota: AuSM
Make your graphics and social media posts more accessible.
When working with interpretation agencies, request Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs) and interpreters who specialize in music interpretation.
Publicly invite dialogue, test-runs of your venue, and feedback from people with disabilities.