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club culture

What It's Really Like Clubbing In A Wheelchair

When venues have ramps for kegs, and not people, there's a problem with how clubs treat disability.

by Isabelle Hellyer
16 October 2015, 3:24pm

Photo credit: Aaron Hockley

Daniel Savage is a Canberra-based self-proclaimed club rat and former hobbyist DJ. He's also in a wheelchair. Since an accident when he was 21 left him quadriplegic he's had to adjust his nightlife style, but he never considered giving it up. It's not surprising that most clubs aren't designed with any consideration for people with disabilities. In fact, considering all the too-steep stairs and low lighting, pretty much everyone finds them hard to navigate after a couple of drinks. But add a wheelchair to the mix and they become largely impenetrable – which is pretty ridiculous. After all, having a disability doesn't mean you don't want to party, it just makes it harder than it should be.

THUMP: Hey Dan, talk us through your pre-game routine.
Daniel Savage: Before my mates and I head out I find out if we're going to check out a new club, if we are I'll Google the venue and use street view to see if it's accessible. Sometimes I use Facebook photos to see what the inside of the venue is like. I'll also ring the club to ask few questions. When I first ask if their venue's accessible, they'll usually say yes. But if I follow up with, "if you had a full shopping trolley and you were trying to push it around, could you get it in and out?" they realise how difficult it actually is. Then they remember all the bumps and stairs that mean, in reality, it's not actually an accessible venue. It really frustrates me when a club will have a ramp to get kegs in, but they won't install one for people with wheelchairs.

Are you a big drinker on a night out?
I have to decide if I'm going to drink and how much before I even go out, because that affects how good I am at wheeling around and how necessary an accessible bathroom is [laughs].

I didn't think of that, you see clubs with ramps, but rarely a disabled bathroom.
If there is a disabled bathroom, chances are it'll be for staff or used for storage. Other times, able-bodied couples will use the disabled bathroom to have sex in, or people will take their mates in there when they're throwing up. Either way, the disabled bathroom gets trashed. That's a problem since a lot of people with disabilities need a very sanitary environment, because they can be prone to bladder infections.

What's your strategy in those cases, where the disabled bathroom is occupied, or there isn't one?
I've gotten into the habit of checking whether clubs have an alley with a drain out back. I've been caught out doing that, cops have confronted me, like "what the hell are you doing?" I've just had to say "sorry, there's no accessible bathroom." That always gets an "alright mate" and they leave me alone.

Are people usually pretty cool around you?
People in general are really good. Once you actually get into a venue, people want to do everything they can to help you out as much as possible. People can get overly excited that someone with a disability is out at night. If I'm wheeling around the city, especially when I was DJing, people would high five me as I was wheeling past, or even chase me down to high-five me. It shows how we perceive disability in Australia: we have such a low baseline expectation that anything above that is considered amazing.

What's the end of your night like?
At the end of the night, there's a little perk: I get discounted cab fares. But it's really completely necessary. It's difficult for me to catch taxis, because I can only get specific kinds. When I'm out I always have an escape plan: knowing where the taxi rank is, when the last train's coming, sticking with a mate, making sure my phone's got enough battery, and if need be, the route to push home.

Photo: Daniel Savage

So there's a whole lot of planning that goes into a night out.
Accessibility, can you get around, and is there an accessible bathroom are the three main things to think about. Venues will fail at least one most of the time. Lots of passive ableism.

Passive ableism?
That's the term I use for the lack of action around accessibility. People aren't necessarily trying to actively exclude us, but they're making no effort to remove barriers that have the same effect. People don't realise there are huge economic benefits to making things accessible. In the disability community we share our experiences, so when we find a good club we tend to tell people about it and bring our friends back with us.

What needs to change to make things easier on your end?
At the moment people are basically doing nothing. Venues will accommodate you on the night but they won't make any changes in the future. Smaller venues can't afford to do it themselves, so you can't get mad at them for that. It'd be great if there was funding from government to help assist with those changes in clubs. If we had legislation that meant venues had to have accessibility information available online, that would be a huge step. Not only would that help people with disabilities, it would make the people who ran those venues consider the small changes they could make.

How about on a larger scale?
We need a sweeping change in the way we see disability, as a society. Australia's actually really bad when it comes to disability. Of all the OECD countries, Australia has one of the highest unemployment rates for people with disability. Same with disabled people living below the poverty line. Really, I wish there was more vision around people with disabilities just taking part in society. It'd be a huge step to have the way we talk about it and frame it in public discourse become more positive, and more normalised.

I feel like we're really focusing on the downsides, are there any perks that come will having a wheel chair in the club?
I can shut down fights immediately, if I get in the middle of things nobody wants to go through me. And once, when I was still staying in hospital, I went down to Melbourne to see Diplo with my friend – she's obsessed with him. After the gig we went to the backstage door, I wheeled up to the bouncer and went "Hey, I'm really sorry to disturb you, but I've just got out of hospital and this is my sister. This is the first gig she's taken me to and she really loves Diplo." So the bouncer went in and grabbed Diplo, and he came out and took photos with us all, and signed autographs for "my sister." You can get away with things like that, but I think people are catching on. More people with wheelchairs are starting to go out, so we can't get away with as much.

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