It’s hard to measure the worth of music in your life. You can use every cliche and hyperbole on earth to try and express how you feel but nothing can quantify the importance of a song that gets you through a difficult time, an album that can put time on hold or a gig that makes your skin vibrate and your larynx curse your very existence.
When it comes to live music, you can often measure your love or enjoyment of the gig by your position in the crowd. If you’re upfront and dead centre, you are the dedicated music fan who will fight tooth and nail for the best view in the house; if you religiously go to the left or the right of the stage, it’s this routine that makes it easy for your friends to find you because you know that mates equals craic; if it’s day three of a festival, you know that the back of the crowd is the only place for you, with enough room to lie down and take it handy. If you have a disability, these options aren’t always available to you and no matter how much you love the act, that’s just the way it is.
Viewing platforms at most gigs and festivals across the world have the rule that often forces people to evaluate how much music means to them; only the disabled guest and one friend can use them. Viewing platforms, placed either at the sidelines, the very back, or, if the organisers give a damn, halfway through the crowd with an easy-to-get-to entrance, are rarely the prime destination for a music lover. Choosing your position at a gig is a luxury if you have a disability. Some venues have a strict policy where you can only use the viewing platform if you are disabled, eliminating your personal choice altogether.
I rarely use viewing platforms simply because I don’t want to be separated from my friends but if the crowd is too dense or it’s a particularly visual-heavy set, I will use the platform. This was the case at Primavera this year with Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem headlining.
Primavera has all of the elements to make it the perfect wheelchair accessible festival; concrete ground, smooth surfaces, a city centre location with an accessible Metro stop close by and a crowd that respects the accessible Portaloo, but a lack of organisation with the accessible facilities and almost clueless staff meant that disabled people were left in a lurch. When we arrived on day two (our first day), I was sent to three different areas to pick up my accessible wristband, with each area saying I was in the wrong place and had to go elsewhere. Finally, we returned to our first location and I met a man who had been told to come back every few hours to get his wristband. He had been told this over the course of 24 hours so he spent the first two days of a music festival waiting for a wristband that allowed him to use the disabled facilities. Luckily, I didn’t have a long wait – just a mere 40 or 50 minutes – but I was told that I didn’t need a wristband because my disability is visible.
Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem are two of my favourite bands of all time. I saw Radiohead in Marley Park in 2004 and again in 2008 at Malahide Castle for their In Rainbows tour, where a rainbow actually appeared over the stage. Both times, as a crutches user, I was up front and dead centre, surrounded by friends and the waves of emotions were steady and crushing. I had only seen LCD Soundsystem once before and that was at Electric Picnic 2007. Again, as a crutches user, we were in the middle of the crowd with enough room to dance and hug and proclaim eternal love for your friends. That’s how you are meant to experience music. With love and happiness and a slightly sweaty face.
At Primavera, the two main stages goal marked a large concrete space, so when one act ended, you turned around and walked to the other side of the space just in time for the other act to begin. For Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem, the space was at full capacity, naturally, and because they are acts that I wanted to see, my choice was to use the viewing platform so I could soak it all up again and remind myself of golden times and create new memories with two of my lifelong loves.
Arriving at the venue for Radiohead, the place was mobbed so it was hard to see where the viewing platform actually was. So we looked for security and staff members to ask. Nobody knew where it was. The VIP section is clearly marked and easy to access at the sides and it took three members of staff there to point us in the direction of the viewing platform. In the middle of the crowd, swamped by bodies, the viewing platform was not accessible to disabled people. And so began the discussion of what to do with me. Naturally, a number of our friends wanted to go up front and others were ok to hang back but I felt like a liability.
How often has your presence at a gig been a stumbling block for your friends?
It’s not a nice feeling but when it comes to the +1 system of the viewing platform and its unfortunate placement, you have to hear your friends chime “I don’t mind staying here”. Although not intentional, in my head, that translates as “I don’t mind staying with her” and it weighs in on my heart. I spent the first six songs of Radiohead’s set silently fuming, a view consisting of people’s arses and the odd flicker of colour coming from the stage lights. As soon as I heard the strands of ‘Talk Show Host’, my mood melted and I could let go and enjoy myself but for those first six songs, all I could think was “this would not be an issue if I wasn’t in a wheelchair”. The poor placement of a viewing platform made me criticise my own disability, made me question society’s exclusion of disabled people and, worst of all, I felt like a dickhead for feeling this way at one of my favourite band’s shows.
There are many ways in which music venues and festivals are improving access facilities but if you are out with your friends, the viewing platform and its +1 rule makes it feel like you have to be looked after and you have to anoint one friend as your “minder”. Of course, the rule is there so people don’t take advantage but with the nature of live music, and especially at festivals, who you’re with at a show can make or break the night. To some organisers, the job is done when they tick viewing platform and accessible bathroom off the list but for those who need it, if the job is done badly, it can send your head into whirlwind of doubt. It puts a dampener on your enjoyment of a show and no matter how much you love the band, your view will always be restricted, no matter how close you are to the stage.