If you’ve ever browsed through any of my social media accounts, you know that the local live music scene here in Orlando is my social life blood. I started playing the piano when I was seven years old, and tearfully, I had to give it up when I became unable to play with my right hand and use the foot pedals. However, I’ve been singing since I was 19, and I continue to do that today. I’ve been an ardent fan of live music in almost every genre for most of my life. I’m so lucky to have friends in so many local bands here, and that they regularly invite me to sing a few songs with them at numerous venues.
The problem? Let’s just say that dive bars and many local live music venues across the country aren’t exactly known for their wheelchair accessibility. I go out at least two or three nights a week to see my friends play, check out new bands, and just enjoy music ranging from 70s classic rock to 80s pop to 90s alternative. I also regularly sing at local jam nights at three different bars in town. However, each one requires a fair amount of planning, preparation, and considerable bladder control. We’ll get into that later.
For example, this past weekend was so much fun for me. I went to two different bars for live music performances by two amazing local bands (Bandemic and Rockit Fly). I had a great time with friends, and rocked so hard in my chair that I needed ibuprofen both mornings for my neck! However, all that fun comes at a cost. The three biggest problems for me when attending a local live music event are: finding a decent place to situate myself where I can actually get a view of the band; unpredictable behavior towards me by drunk patrons as the night goes on; and my inability to use the bathroom at most places I go.
Let’s start with the first issue. If there’s a popular band playing at a local venue, I have to get there at least half an hour before the band starts just to get a space where I can see anything. If I want to sit at a lower table (some of these venues serve food), I get there at least an hour before. Some of the bars I go to don’t even have low top tables near where the band is playing. As such, I have a removable cupholder that I can attach to my chair so I have a spot to place my beer or soda.
If and when I do find a place to park myself, I’m pretty much stuck there the whole night because there’s no way I can navigate through the (drunk) crowds to go see friends or just move to a different place. I’m usually not able to use a bathroom because they’re not accessible (more on that later), but even if I could, I usually don’t because navigating through people in my power chair and getting back to a spot that may not be there when I get back is almost impossible. Even if I do find a good spot, most people are completely unaware when they stand in front of me that I’m low and can’t see past them. Everyone is always really nice if I just tap them on the back and ask them to move aside, but when alcohol gets involved, people are completely oblivious that they’re blocking my view. I’ve just learned to live with it.
As for the crowd, again, as the night progresses and alcohol gets involved, really bad behavior starts to happen. People often treat me like I’m a pet or a child. On Saturday night, numerous people saw me singing along with the music and rocking out and kept pressuring me to roll out onto the dance floor. I was perfectly happy “dancing” in my chair and having fun with my friends. But no matter how many times I said “No, I’m fine,” these strangers just kept yelling, “It’s okay, come on! Dance! Come to the floor!” They’re not doing this to other people, so to me, that comes across as condescending. Let’s help the girl in the wheelchair live her best life!
What they don’t understand is that navigating through drunk people to get to a crowded dance floor where people are bobbing around and likely to bump into me or bump into my chair controller or fall on me is uncomfortable, and to an extent, dangerous for me. I’m perfectly happy in my (somewhat) safe little bubble, and I’m already having a hard time keeping people from bumping into me. And the insistence is the worst. When I say “No, thank you, I’m fine,” I shouldn’t have to say it three or four times.
That’s a good segue into the second issue, drunk patrons. Everybody’s having fun, which is great. But 9 times out of 10, someone always gets close to falling on top of me because they want to somehow interact with me, ask me what happened to me, want to hug me or touch me, get me to dance, you name it. Friday night I was at a different bar, and there was some guy sitting behind me who was both high and drunk. He kept leaning over wanting to talk to me, ask me what happened to me, mumbling about God knows what because it was so loud, and he almost fell on top of me twice.
On another occasion, an acquaintance of mine got up on the chair right behind me to start dancing. Immediately I thought, Oh, hell no. I let the people around me know I wasn’t comfortable, and her boyfriend, whom I also know, was kind enough to pick her up and bring her down. On a previous occasion at the same bar last year, a drunk man tried to “dance” with me, grabbed my joystick controller, and started to move me around in the chair, running over a woman’s ankles in the process with my 250 pounds of chair and body. I was pissed off, to say the least.
The third issue is my inability to use the bathroom because there are no wheelchair accessible bathrooms at most of these places. As such, I have to limit myself to one beer, partly because I always have to drive home, but mostly because anything more than that and I’m at risk of having an accident. Trust me, getting the pee smell out of a wheelchair seat cushion is not a good time. Is this a huge ADA violation? Yes. To be clear, there is no such thing as a grandfather clause in the ADA; all public accommodations are supposed to have an accessible bathroom, unless they can prove that the cost to renovate and create an accessible bathroom would put them out of business. Sadly, most of the places I go locally are dive bars and have a slim to no profit margin.
That being said, one local bar is in the middle of a big renovation plan for their outdoor patio, and they relatively recently covered part of their patio and installed a couple of cabana bathrooms outside. Are either one of those new bathrooms accessible? Nope. Could they be using part of that renovation money to install an accessible bathroom inside or outside? Yep. Can I file an ADA lawsuit against any of these places? Absolutely. But I don’t because I have to weigh the benefit (which is very little because they could probably prove they can’t afford to make the renovation) versus the cost of being ostracized from places I regularly go to with my friends.
One of the main social issues I contend with is that I’m the only wheelchair user I’ve ever seen at many of these local venues for live music. People aren’t used to it, and despite their best intentions for me to have a good time, they don’t really know how to treat me, and they try do what they think I would view as fun. That’s not a knock on them, as they’re just trying to be nice. This comes mostly out of ignorance and not any malice. But I also think I’m often viewed as a novelty, and treated as such.
Now, to be fair, everyone around me has always been exceedingly kind and accommodating. I have many friends who know me, who see me regularly, and who treat me like gold and know how to take care of me. But good intentions by strangers don’t always translate to good behavior. Wheelchair users are disproportionately underrepresented in public, and particularly at local bars and live music venues, because the accessibility is often terrible.
Even when the accessibility is good, the environment isn’t the most conducive to comfort and safety for people who sit a couple of feet below eye level. These days, I gravitate towards Orlando-area venues like The Alley, Fredster’s, and local restaurants like CJ’s Italian Kitchen, Dexter’s, Café Murano, and Spill that host acoustic gigs for my friends because I could actually sit at a low table or use the bathroom if I have to. I’m currently a new Travel and Tourism Ambassador for Seminole County, and I know from experience which places I’m going to recommend for wheelchair users.
We have an incredible amount of musical talent here in Orlando, and everyone deserves equal access to their gigs and company. They also deserve the support from as many fans as possible, regardless of physical ability. I know that financially it can be challenging for some of these venues to become more wheelchair friendly. I also know that there’s no way to educate a huge room filled with drunk rock fans on how not to harass or bother a wheelchair user who’s trying to safely enjoy themselves. Just know that a little bit of effort to make us feel welcome and safe at these venues and in these communities goes a long way, for both local wheelchair users and visitors alike.
So if you see me out and about with my head bobbing and my rock fingers in the air, please come say hi! Also, please refrain from patting me on the head, pulling me onto the dance floor, or falling on top of me after a couple of beers.