Accessibility for Whom?
I will start this blog by stating that I am privileged. I am white, educated, middle class and sound of mind and body. I am privileged in a society that rewards the color of my skin, the status of my economic state and the physical and mental acuity of my body and mind. I recognize that. I have recognized that privilege and intellectually understood the benefits it has offered for a while now. Yesterday was the first time I emotionally understood some of the obstacles and hostility faced by those who are not blessed with my privilege.
I took thirty high school students from Central New Jersey into New York to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Let me start by saying, the show is brilliant. Moving and electric, it offers a glimpse through the lens of what it must be like to be a person on the autism spectrum navigating our world – with its confusing kaleidoscope of sounds, sights and ever shifting rules. It also starkly highlights how intolerant and impatient we are of those who we perceive to be outside the “norm”. Watching Christopher try to navigate a society who doesn’t understand him or have the patience to try is devastating.
However, what happened with the staff at the Barrymore Theatre was in some ways, more devastating. One of my young people is in a wheelchair. When we ordered our group tickets (at a group discount rate of $79 a ticket – expensive for the young people in my community), I made multiple phone calls to Telecharge and to the Barrymore to insure there was wheelchair accessible seating. There is, in fact, wheelchair seating in the orchestra section. $79 seats provides seating in the Rear Mezzanine, two floors up. There is no elevator in the Barrymore. I called and made sure my student had a wheelchair accessible seat so she could come to the show as well. I was assured that there was a wheelchair accessible seat she could transfer to, and a seat for her aide, at no additional cost.
Great, right? We got to the Barrymore, to discover all seats were in the Rear Mezzanine. This is when things got ugly. I went to the box office to sort it out, while the students went to lunch with the chaperones. I pointed out that the “wheelchair accessible” seat was in the Rear Mezzanine. The Box Office staff asked could my student transfer from her chair to the theatre seat. I said yes. They said okay. I asked, “How does she get to her chair? It’s on the third floor!” They said, well if she needs to sit in her wheelchair, you should have asked for a wheelchair accessible seat. I said, “I did”. They asked, “can she transfer from her chair to the seat?” I said, “Yes” They said, “she’s fine then” and once again, I asked, becoming more frustrated, “How does she GET to the third floor?” This went round and round until the box office personal YELLED at me, “This isn’t our fault! If YOU wanted wheelchair seats, you should have called and asked for them. Now we have to take a seat OUT and allow for a wheelchair in the auditorium.” Big dramatic sighs... "we'll have to call Telecharge" (sigh) "Wait over there" (sigh). It was clear that having a student in a wheelchair was a burden to the Barrymore Theatre staff and they were going to make sure we understood how difficult we were making their lives.
Despite the fact I had requested wheelchair accessible seating, it was an attitude that the staff was granting me a “favor” I found embarrassing, humiliating and disconcerting. I found myself apologizing for “inconveniencing” them – when in fact, I shouldn’t apologize for anything.
This was a moment of emotional epiphany for me. I have always been intellectually aware of the obstacles our society places for those who are not physically, emotionally or mentally considered “mainstream”. However, this was an emotional moment, when I felt so embarrassed to be asking for something that the theatre felt was a exceptional privilege. A special gifting to me by the powers that be. My request for a seat for a person who had paid to see the show, now was a huge event that required me to grovel and placate and utter platitudes in order to get the same basic service that any other patron would demand and receive. I watched person after person walk in and receive more courteous service than I had. I watched person after person walk in, ask for a seat in the middle, a seat on the aisle, a seat on the left or the right, up or down, more or less expensive. Never once were they yelled at, or made to feel like giving them a seat was an inconvenience or a special event.
Why do we go so far out of our way to humiliate and inconvenience those who already face obstacles every single day? For my student, just navigating the sidewalks and hallways and buses is an obstacle – which she handles with grace and poise. Why then is it necessary to add humiliation to that?
At the end, they did provide her with wheelchair accessible seating in the orchestra section and the box office person apologized for yelling at me. I accepted his apology but found myself emotional for days afterwards.
For this to occur is outrageous. For this to occur at a Broadway show that encourages people to view the world through the lens of someone who doesn’t fit our societal “norms” is unacceptable. From the box office to the ushers; everyone we ran into that day – angry doormen when we unloaded our bus and took the extra five minutes for the ramp to go down; angry motorists when we crossed the street and the potholes were so bad, she got stuck and it took two of us to get the chair out; to the box office clerk (who thankfully my student never met) - made it clear that despite all our language about accessibility and opportunity, the American society is punishing to those who aren’t physically, mentally or emotionally mainstream.