Written by TJ Hayes and Cassie Wilson
In comparison to smaller clubs and theaters, arenas are often leading the way when it comes to accessibility. It’s often easier to find detailed accessibility information on their websites, and accessible seating options are almost always available at the point of purchase. Arenas also do a better job of accommodating as many disabilities as possible. That being said, arena accessibility is not without its flaws.
The idea for this blog post was inspired by a thread we saw on Twitter when tickets for Harry Styles’ 2020 tour went on sale. A fan, Paula, from Germany shared a seating chart for Olympiahalle in Munich where the only accessible seating option is the absolute top back row of the arena. It isn’t only overseas venues where accessible seating is an issue for this tour. With the stage being in the center of the floor (at least for most US dates) it completely changes price tiers and seriously limits the amount of inexpensive accessible seats that are available based on their angle toward the stage. While there’s about ten sections of regular seats that are in the $36 range, there might only be one section of five to ten fully accessible seats at that price. Some venues have semi-ambulatory seating available within the regular seats at this price, but if you use a wheelchair or any other mobility device that limits where you can go, then you’re stuck paying more money, hoping you get one of those very few seats, or not going at all. This is because accessible seating is priced the exact same way as regular seating even if there’s less accessible seating available at certain price tiers.
Seating as a whole is a big problem in a lot of arenas across the country and around the world. Those without disabilities have the freedom to buy a seat in any section they choose while disabled people are limited. In arenas that have only a small number of accessible seats, often the only choice is between either the cheapest seats far from the stage or regular seats on the floor if there’s an elevator. Floor seats are not only more expensive, but can be dangerous for disabled fans as well. At most arenas, there is no accessible floor seating, so even if you have the money to spend to be closer, there aren’t any options closer than the lowest tier of the regular side seating, even if it means that’s the farthest point from the stage. Arenas definitely have the resources to create accessible floor seating either close enough that the view is unobstructed or on an elevated platform to either side of the rest of the floor seating, but its existence is rare. Disabled people deserve just as much freedom of choice as the next person. While some may be perfectly okay with being in a general admission pit or among assigned rows of people standing up in order to be closer to their favorite artist, others may want or need a different option, but the choice has to be available.
There also needs to be more consideration put into making sure people with multiple disabilities are fully accommodated. Some seats are accessible to those with physical disabilities while others are designated for those who have low vision or are Deaf and are in areas that are not accessible to those who cannot navigate stairs. This brings on a whole other set of issues. What would someone who is physically disabled and Hard of Hearing or blind do? They either get to be in an area that is physically accessible to them and possibly sacrifice the ability to see or hear the show, or they get to see and hear but put their bodies at risk getting to their seat, and that is simply not okay. Lack of elevators contributes to this issue as well. Even if the seat is physically accessible to the person, the lengths it could take to get to their seat due to only having one or two elevators in the whole building on opposite sides of the building from the seats can pose safety concerns and difficulties.
Pricing of accessible seating is an issue, too. Accessible seating often costs more than the section that it’s actually in because it’s at the front of the section. Even if you have the ‘worst’ accessible seats in an arena, there will still be cheaper regular seats that you don’t have access to because they’re up stairs. And when ticket companies run promotional sales that lower the cost of those cheap seats even further at select shows, a lot of times disabled seating is not included in that, but regular seats within that same area are. How is it fair that just because the accessible seating is one row down, it’s $30 or $40 more?
Let’s talk numbers on how many accessible seats are available in a standard arena that has floor, box suites, and 100, 200, and 300 levels. We asked Portland’s Moda Center for actual counts of how many accessible seats they have, but they declined to comment. For me (Cassie), this is my local arena and compared to a lot of arenas it does have a pretty large variety of accessible seats available. Since we weren’t able to get concrete numbers from the venue directly, I attempted to count all the accessible seating I could based on detailed seating charts for shows that are already on sale. When the full arena is in use, there are about 300 accessible seats with half of them being fully accessible and half of them being semi-ambulatory, and they’re spread out across the 100, 200, and 300 levels. The venue’s total capacity is 19,980, so 300 accessible seats of 19,980 is about 1.5% of seats. That number is then lowered when part of the arena is closed behind the stage for concerts. The number lowers even further for those who require wheelchair accessible seats, meaning that only 1% or less of seats are fully accessible. This is at a pretty accessible arena, though. Sure, they don’t have accessible floor seating (hope to see that change one day), but compared to a lot of arenas, this is actually a lot of seating options. Yet, compared to regular seats, it’s still limited.
Accessible seats are victim to bots buying up tickets just like any regular seat, and this becomes especially apparent when you’re at a sold-out show. Almost every time I (Cassie) have been to an arena show that is “sold out,” I’m still the only one in my entire accessible row and when I look around the arena at other accessible sections, they’re at least half empty, too. One time, I even went to a sold-out show with a regular ticket and was moved to a completely empty accessible seating area. Accessible seats being bought up and not used becomes an even bigger issue if you could only afford one of the very few available inexpensive accessible tickets, but when they get bought up by other people or bots, then you have no other options, even while plenty of affordable regular seating is still available. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, accessible seating will free up in those areas closer to the show date. Disabled fans shouldn’t be priced out of going to a show while hundreds of regular seats at the same price are still available. Obviously this issue is less about the venue itself and more about the power of ticket companies and those setting prices.
Another issue a lot of people don’t think about or realize at all is the inaccessibility of VIP at arenas. For a lot of larger artists who are playing arenas, the VIP packages for their shows include a random seat within the first ten rows or a pit ticket. This leaves disabled people out of the VIP experience entirely or forces them to spend the same amount of money for a lesser experience, being moved to a farther away accessible seat. It should be an option to choose an accessible seat when purchasing a VIP package instead of having to call the box office or ticket company to sort it out, and if you’re not going to be in the first 10 rows, you shouldn’t have to pay that same price either. Yes, you’d still benefit from some of the other VIP perks, but if the costs of VIP are itemized, then the ticket price itself should be able to change for disabled fans. The floor is fine for those who want it and are capable of handling it, but those who are unable to use those seats shouldn’t have to miss out entirely on the VIP experience. Being assigned a random seat within a select amount of rows is an issue even for those who are ambulatory. Some may be able to sit at the end of a row but not navigate down a tight aisle or may have preferences based on their height, too. Having no choice in where you sit other than being within a large group of seats is unfair and unsafe. Again, if arenas had accessible floor seating, it would fix this whole issue.
Still, there’s a lot to learn from arenas. Buying an accessible seat and knowing you’ll have an equal experience is something that smaller general admission venues haven’t figured out yet. Being able to get every question possible answered on an accessibility FAQ page is something arenas already have down. (The Half Access database exists to answer questions for venues that don’t have an accessibility FAQ.) Many arenas are or are becoming sensory inclusive, too, making them far more advanced on the path to full inclusivity and accessibility.
That said, there is still plenty of room for arenas to continue improving when it comes to seating and price tiers. Fans should have equal access to all viewing levels and accessible seating should be more fairly priced and better protected from bots or whatever is causing entire accessible sections to be left empty at sold out shows.
Improving accessibility and inclusion is a constant work in progress that should continually be looked at and worked on so all people can fully enjoy live music.
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