Imagine you had been waiting weeks to see your favourite band, attend a lavish gala dinner under the stars, or take a trip overseas to an important conference. Now imagine that when you arrived at the event, you perhaps couldn’t get into or around the venue or site. Perhaps you needed to ask for assistance simply to access the toilet facilities. Or perhaps you were actually refused entry to parts of the event that you had paid for. For many people, this is unimaginable. However, for some physically impaired people in our region and across the world the situation is sadly still a possible occurrence.
One of the main barriers that seems to present itself is the opinion that many people have when it comes to what ‘disability’ means. An organisation that is working to try and change this for the better, however, is UK-based charity Attitude is Everything. To find out more, Sound & Stage got in touch with the charity’s chief executive officer, Suzanne Bull MBE, who explained: “Attitude is Everything improves deaf and disabled people’s access to live music by working in partnership with audiences, artists and the music industry to implement a Charter of Best Practice across the UK.”
Bull continues: “An awful lot has changed since I set up Attitude is Everything in September 2000. When I began, alone in a little office with a desk, a computer and a phone, I had to knock on quite a few music industry doors and it took a lot of convincing that there was a new customer base out there. Within a couple of years there were some demonstrable successes, with a leap in numbers of disabled customers attending Glastonbury and Reading, and suddenly the music industry started contacting us. There was a notable difference in attitude — now the music industry expected Deaf and disabled people to be part of the audience, and they wanted our help in meeting their customers’ access requirements. With the expectations of Deaf and disabled customers rising over the years, I think the UK event industry has gone quite far beyond just thinking that providing a ramp and a couple of accessible toilets for wheelchair users will do.”
And it is changing this way of thinking that could be the first hurdle when it comes to educating more people in the live events industry on the matter. ‘Inclusion’ means more than just creating access solutions — it means providing solutions suitable for everyone in attendance, and considering disabled people automatically in the planning rather than treating them as a separate entity altogether. For example, a venue that has no access for wheelchair users via the main entrance, but which has a trade entrance at the back that can accommodate a wheelchair, is not an ‘inclusive’ entrance even though it is ‘accessible’. An inclusive entrance is one that everyone can use, not just those on foot or in wheelchairs, and easy accessibility to the venue will also benefit those who aren’t disabled; young children, people with prams, those carrying heavy bags or making deliveries. Clear signage for the visually impaired, parking close to the entrance, free tickets for personal assistants, a hearing loop at the box office – there is much more than just the ‘obvious’ physical disabilities to consider when making an event inclusive. In a place like the UAE, where a melting pot of nationalities also means a huge mix of native languages, clear signage with easy-to-understand symbols will also make navigating a venue or event site easier for everyone.
While progress in the UK has noticeably been made over the past couple of decades, a quick look round at any live music event in our region will tell you that physically impaired attendees are often hardly represented or even completely missing from the occasion. Considering that the Middle East is home to 50 million of the 750 million people with disabilities living worldwide, we can safely assume that there is a market out there — so what is holding them back? If the accessibility/inclusivity of events is the reason, then what examples set by the UK could the Middle East perhaps take its lead from?
According to Bull, there are four main points to consider. She explains: “On Monday June 23rd 2014, Attitude is Everything launched #MusicWithoutBarriers — an online campaign which was backed by a wide range of musicians. The initiative encouraged more UK venues and festivals to join the 100+ who had signed up to our Charter of Best Practice, while promoting four key messages around access and equality. [These are] ‘Improving access doesn’t have to be costly’ — Improving access does not necessarily mean alternating the shape or scope of a building. The majority of barriers faced by Deaf and disabled people at live music events can be overcome by better staff training and implementing accessible policies such as online ticketing, free access for personal assistants, and providing adequate information in advance of an event.”
The second key message in the charter is that there is a very strong business case for improving access. While it may seem as though providing the adequate equipment and facilities might be costly to an organiser or venue during the initial stages, the potential overall gains are clear to see from what has happened in the UK market. Bull reveals: “Promoters that work with Attitude is Everything invariably see a positive impact on ticket sales. In total, Charter venues and festivals sold 113,943 tickets to Deaf and disabled customers last year (up from 66,515 in 2013), this equates to £3.1m (Dhs16.6m) in ticket sales, up from £2.1m (Dhs11.3) in 2013. The total economic impact (tickets, food and drink, including PA spend) of Deaf and disabled people attending events at Charter venues and festivals is £5.4m (Dhs29m) up from £3.4m (Dhs18.2m) in 2013.”
The next key point within the Charter is that: “It is crucial to have access information in advance of an event.” This means that, prior to tickets going on sale, disabled people need to be informed whether or not their access requirements will be met by the venue and the event. Bull elaborates: “According to the findings of our State of Access Report 2014, nearly half of the events attended by our mystery shoppers were offering inadequate information. Venues with poor physical access have as much of an obligation to provide detailed access information as the best.”
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Finally, the fourth key message within the #MusicWithoutBarriers initiative is almost so obvious that it shouldn’t really need to be said. However, even in 2016, it is still necessary to inform many people that, as Bull puts it: “Not all disabled people are wheelchair users.”
Explaining this further, she tells us: “Of the 11m disabled people in the UK, only eight per cent are wheelchair users. There are 10 million people with some form of hearing loss, two million people living with sight loss (of which 360,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted) and more than one million people with a learning disability. Meanwhile, according to the Mental Health Foundation, one in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year.”
While the initiative has so far proved to be beneficial to enabling access within the UK live music industry, as it stands the Charter of Best Practice has not yet made its way out of the British Isles. While many European countries offer clear laws and regulations surrounding disability awareness and equality, are we perhaps lagging behind here in the Middle East? In late 2013, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of the Dubai Executive Council, launched the ‘My Community: A City for Everyone’ initiative. The campaign is intended to support current efforts being made in Dubai to empower people with disabilities, help the integration of disabled persons into the community, and — according to the Government of Dubai Media Office - to “create new opportunities through which to overcome all the obstacles that may stand in the way of positively engaging and integrating this segment in their social environment”.
Within the framework of the initiative, Sheikh Hamdan also instructed the immediate drafting of a law to protect disabled individuals and the launch of a hotline to report any sign of discrimination, abuse, negligence or exploitation against any person with a disability. The campaign also set the foundations for other subsequent decrees, such as making all Dubai parks completely ‘disabled-friendly’ by 2020.
It is thanks to initiatives such as this that precious steps are finally being made in the right direction, however it is probably fair to say that there is still some way to go. But this is an opportunity where the events industry can itself be the change that there needs to be. As Bull says: “It is up to the event industry itself to implement changes and make a public commitment to improving access. Many event organisers and venues, especially those who are signed up to our Charter, are exchanging expertise, knowledge and best practice of what has worked well in improving access for them. All of this activity really helps to influence and shape the future of inclusive live events.”
So perhaps it’s time a similar scheme was introduced within the Middle East? Or perhaps it’s simply time that we stood up and made changes within the industry from the forefront by ensuring that events in this region are automatically inclusive for everyone, regardless of their needs or how able-bodied they may or may not be. In doing so, the Middle East events industry not only stands to reap the benefits of a more accessible — and, let’s face it, potentially profitable — future, but it could help to set an example for all kinds of other sectors and pave the way for a future where the accessibility doesn’t need to be planned, it’s just the way things are done.