Until my fine motor skills were eroded by multiple sclerosis, I often used to supplement my meagre student income by busking. I still get nostalgic every St Patrick’s Day, remembering the rich pickings to be made by playing schmaltzy renditions of Danny Boy outside the nearest Irish pub. However, it’s now been over ten years since I handed my violin on to my daughter, consoling myself by with the thought that music would continue to enrich my life as an audience member, if not a street performer.
However, even the passive consumption of music and other forms of entertainment has turned out to be far more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Sitting on your backside to enjoy the performance might be easy enough, but first you have to get that backside to its allotted place. I use an elbow crutch for balance and have a difficult relationship with stairs, crowds and queues – all of which are common features at performances and exhibitions.
The late, great, writer and comedian Stella Young placed the need for improved disability access firmly on the agenda for the Melbourne arts scene. I witnessed Stella’s advocacy on this issue for myself when we were both invited to participate in an International Women’s Day event at the historic Grace Darling hotel in Collingwood. As Stella pointed out to the organisers, the steep flight of stairs to the bandroom presented an insurmountable obstacle to her. On that particular occasion, I managed to climb the stairs with the help of a friend, but it’s not an exercise that I would care to repeat.
Stella’s various friends and collaborators, including Jax Jackie Brown and Kath Duncan, continue to enrich accessible arts in Melbourne via their performances and campaigns, and the scholarship established in her name nurtures a new generation of disabled artists. The Melbourne Recital Centre has an extensive outreach program for disabled performers and audience members alike. However, access to the arts for those with various forms of impairment remains far from universal. The little wheelchair symbol on the websites of many venues often means only that one area of the premises is accessible, and this might not be the space where the event that you wish to attend is taking place.
Various major venues including Federation Square, Trades Hall, the State Library and the MCG are notionally accessible but exhausting to navigate in practice. The disabled entrance is often far from the main entry, poorly labelled and often poorly lit into the bargain. Retrofitting old building to provide more convenient ramps and/or lift access may be prohibitively expensive, but providing decent signage surely wouldn’t break the bank.
And many of the most interesting arts events are low-budget affairs that take place in inaccessible bars, cafes, and pop-up galleries that may have agreed to host them at little or no cost. Often, these venues hold sentimental memories for the participants concerned, so relocating them to a more accessible but less atmospheric location involves sacrifices on several different levels.
Audience members as well as event organisers and venue managers can contribute to improving disability access. Entering and leaving the venue, pre- and post-performance milling around in the foyer and trying to find a safe base while others jostle for the position with the best view are all situations in which I’ve been reduced to a state of near-panic as I struggle to maintain my balance amid the madding, art-intoxicated crowd. This seldom arises from aggression or even impatience so much as from lack of attention.
Melbourne has perhaps rested on its laurels as the home town of Stella Young and the location where so many other exciting disabled artists and campaigners are emerging. The “Stella Young Effect” on disability awareness is real, but it’s now in danger of allowing Melbournians to believe that there is no further work to be done. This clearly isn’t the case. There’s a lot of goodwill on display when it comes to making the city’s entertainment scene fully accessible, but translating goodwill into action will involve resetting our priorities so that the fact that the building is heritage listed or the budget is tight does not always become the end of the conversation.