The Highs and Lows of Clubbing With a Physical Disability

People with disabilities want to have just as fun of a night out as everyone else, but 40 percent of venues in the UK don't even have handicap bathrooms.

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Aug 14 2017, 6:30pm

Disability Protest in Soho. All photos by Holly Buckle 

The decision to go out or stay in is one entwined with fear of regret or inadequacy. Will the hangover be worth it? Does staying in mean you've become boring, or are all the available options just shitty? Will you wake up in the morning feeling smug or filled with FOMO?

Inga, a 26-year-old living in Leeds, England, has another factor to consider when she's deciding whether to rave or behave: She has congenital cerebral palsy. Inga says the condition makes it even harder to figure out what she wants to do on a weekend. "I guess I'm not much of a party person, but I'm not sure whether that comes down to the experiences I have as a disabled person or just a personal preference. Maybe it's both."

Inga's disability means that she's not very firm on her feet and needs to use a wheelchair to travel long distances. In a club, she can get up and dance if she wants to, but that comes with its own challenges: Crowds and dark spaces tend to mean she gets knocked over, and although she says she doesn't mind falling—"I've been falling longer than I've been walking," she jokes—falling over means drunk strangers helping her up and touching her body without permission, something that understandably makes her uncomfortable. "I have nothing against drugs or alcohol—it just makes people worse at perceiving others' needs," she explains. "I'll stick to my chair because people know how to handle it better, but that makes me sad. I like having the freedom to dance without it."

Inga has had a string of negative experiences on nights out: There are the strangers who spin her wheelchair around in a club because they think it's funny, the time people hung their coats on it at a house party, and the man outside the bar who said, "You silly girl, what have you done to yourself?" assuming she was in a chair because she'd had an accident. "Even if I had, would I really want to recount the details of my potentially traumatic accident to a stranger?" she quips.

Then there are all the issues she's had with accessibility; clubs don't always have a handicapped stall, or there are floors without wheelchair access, or the music is so loud that it's difficult to ask for assistance. That's if you even get into the club: "I've got disabled friends who tell me they weren't let into nightclubs because they were leaning on friends and the bouncers thought they were too drunk. Or because staff says people in wheelchairs are a health and safety violation, like their chairs are going to create an issue if there's a fire."

"When a club has no access you feel hugely rejected, all the while knowing your friends are having fun without you."

She sighs: "I'm pretty sure people who are wasted are going to be more of a hazard in that situation—come on, you have to be pretty intoxicated yourself to mistake cerebral palsy for drunkenness."

For people living with disabilities across Britain, going to bars and clubs is a minefield that takes a lot of preparation and can feel threatening once you're in or utterly disappointing if you're sent home. There's a common misconception that people with disabilities don't want to go to clubs, but as the charity SCOPE points out, "Young disabled adults are just as keen as everyone else to go out and enjoy themselves. It's the unwelcoming attitudes and lack of knowledge among staff and organizers of events that can lead to disabled people feeling isolated and excluded from community life."

SCOPE hear from these people every single day, and according to its research, 77 percent of disabled people say they've seen zero improvements in the accessibility of bars, restaurants, clubs, and shops since 2012—the year that London held the Paralympics and Britain's attitudes toward people with disabilities was supposedly transformed. Headlines occasionally recount horror stories of how Britain is failing on this front, like how the Paralympian Anne Wafula-Strike had to wet herself on a train in 2015 because the disabled bathroom was out of order, or how disabled people report crawling along the floors of bathrooms that do not have a disabled facility.

The Equality Act 2010 dictates that, under British law, venues are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, but statistics show that 40 percent of venues in the UK don't have disabled bathrooms. SCOPE agree that it's an area of discrimination that remains under-discussed, and venues urgently need to do more to make disabled people feel welcome.

Kevin Wilson leading the protesters. Photo courtesy of Holly Buckle

A group of activists in London recently decided to take this issue into their own hands, staging a guerrilla protest for better accessibility in the Soho area of London. Made up mostly of LGBTQ disabled people, the group went to the area's gay bars, asking to speak to managers about how their venue is meeting disabled people's needs, and rating the venues out of ten. "We met in Soho Square and went to 11 places," explains one of the organizers, Dan Glass. "We wanted to find out how we could support them to do better, and what promises they could make to improve in the next few weeks. We made posters, too," he smiles, "Like: 'I'd love to have sex in your bathroom if only I could get into them.'"

Kevin Wilson was one of the men on the protest. Black, gay, disabled, and HIV positive, Wilson jokes that his identity's got more intersections than most, but he also somberly points out that these marginalized aspects of his identity are why he vitally needs to socialize with like-minded people. "When I think about myself in all those ways, it's hard to find which corner of the world I belong to." Going to clubs and bars is a way of doing that. "Why shouldn't I be able to go out and meet Mr. Right or even Mr. Right There and Then," he says, telling me a story about how the other day he picked up two guys on the way to a London gay club. He explained to them that his wheelchair lets him skip the line. "They came up to the front with me and I said, 'These are my security guards.' I don't tend to use my wheelchair to pull men, but sometimes, if the mood strikes…"

The effect of venues not providing adequate access is a deeply personal sense of disappointment, Wilson explains. It's like a never-ending feeling of FOMO. "You know, I just want to be present there and then." Josh Hepple, a 26-year-old gay disabled man and educator who also helped to organize the protest, shares Wilson's feelings: "For me, it's about knowing that I was part of a good night, to be part of an experience that you know your friends will reminisce about for a while," he says. "But when a club has no access, you feel hugely rejected, all the while knowing your friends are having fun without you." It makes Wilson angry: "I'm 41—not even my mother tells me, 'You can't do that.' It's like these places won't even rationalize with you, or ask: 'How can we do it together?' I've got the ability and the drive to go out, but often, as Hepple would say, it's society that disables us."

Perhaps the most frustrating part of it all is that it doesn't take the world for bars and clubs to make accessibility improvements. Sometimes, all that is required are small, simple, and inexpensive changes. Howel, from Haverfordwest in Wales, is blind in his right eye and wears a brace on his leg because cancer left him unable to control his ankle muscles. He says something as basic as installing a handrail on a staircase and painting a fluorescent stripe on steps would make going out a much safer and a more enjoyable experience for him. Mari, 27, and from London, who has interstitial cystitis—a debilitating pain syndrome that affects the bladder and makes you urgently need to use the bathroom—says that all she needs from a venue is the promise of a disabled bathroom. "When you have an invisible disability, it can feel embarrassing to ask to skip the bathroom line because people don't believe that you've got a disability. And going into the men's bathroom makes me feel unsafe."

"We get a lot of hot air from venues—everyone's got their excuses—but it's part of the Equality Act: Legally, they have to do better."

The organization, Attitude Is Everything, has been doing brilliant work since 2000 in order to encourage clubs and music venues across the UK to meet the needs of deaf and disabled people. They put on fully accessible gigs and club nights at big venues in order to show them how it's done. At London's Village Underground, for example, it used one of its "Club Attitude" events to demonstrate to the venue where it was falling short on ramp access, why its disabled bathroom wasn't up to snuff, and how staff—from security to bar staff—can best be briefed on disability awareness. But perhaps, most important, the organization does a biennial report that shows where venues are falling behind; the 2016 edition discovered that one in three big venues and two in three independent venues provide no info about accessibility on their websites, posing the question: How are disabled people supposed to check out whether they can even go somewhere to begin with?

"You want to go where your friends go. If people say, 'We're going here, do you wanna come?' it would be nice to know you just could, but for people like me, it's difficult," says Igna. Wouldn't some sort of centralized, user-generated database for info on clubs accessibility help, I ask. "I think a resource like that would be helpful, to cover technical access needs. Does it have a bar that's wheelchair accessible? Do they use artificial smoke or not if you have asthma? Is strobe lighting being avoided for people with epilepsy? Venues should have it on the website and be specific, but I guess that could be avoided if there was some sort of registry." Activists are currently campaigning for a disabled access route option on Google Maps but a specific disabled access bar and club app or database has yet to exist in the UK.

Meanwhile, the LGBTQ disabilities access protest has had some small successes. James Bartlett, Deputy General Manager at gay bar Comptons of Soho, found the conversations sparked by the action to be helpful. "When I met with these guys, I felt a mixture of things," he explains. "First, frustration with myself that we had overlooked such a simple thing as access to the venue. Second, anger for the fact that an often sadly ignored part of our community has to stage a demonstration to simply ask how they can get in and buy a drink." The bar has since committed to putting up notices to alert wheelchair users about how to gain access, to improving the team's efforts on giving assistance, and to notifying wheelchair users about disabled bathrooms nearby (they say they can't provide one themselves because of "building restrictions"). The group has now sent a legal letter to other venues requesting similar action. "It's not harsh," says organizer Glass. "We get a lot of hot air from venues—everyone's got their excuses—but it's part of the Equality Act: legally, they have to do better."

Legality and social conscience aside, SCOPE points out that the benefit for bars and clubs to make improvements like this are also economic. "Businesses should be recognizing the spending power of disabled people and be doing everything they can to be accessible," Media Manager Cora Bauer urges. Wilson agrees: "Economically, if a bar has wheelchair access, people with disabilities can bring their friends into that bar. They can convert that into dollars. Right now, they're losing money when they don't have people with disabilities come to that bar."

Finally, for Hepple, the most crucial thing about these small changes are the ripple effect they could have on wider society. "I find stairs and the lack of access for many impairment groups to be debilitating to everyone." The reason, he explains, is that while disabled people are restricted from social spaces, they're kept out of sight. "It's critical that disabled people can be seen in many different environments so that they are less stigmatized generally," he says. Until then, ignorance sadly prevails. "While we were protesting, a woman came up to us to chat and said that access was a disabled person's responsibility to get a better wheelchair," recalls Glass. "Then she said: 'What about Machu Picchu, would you want that to be wheelchair accessible?" I couldn't believe it. We all looked at her and then someone said, "Yes, I would. If there was a gay club at the top."

Follow Amelia Abraham on Twitter.

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