At Last, Wheelchairs Welcome on Broadway
Are you a musical fan? You’re not alone: 11.57 million people attended Broadway musicals last year. There’s something really special about getting to see a show live, no matter how many times you’ve listened to the official cast recording. But imagine going all the way to New York to see a musical, only to be told you can’t attend.
If you’re disabled, that’s exactly what might happen to you, because many Broadway theatres have fundamental access issues. They’re hard or impossible to navigate with wheelchairs, scooters, canes and walkers, with poor signage and other communications to help disabled people get around or determine if they can attend a show in a given venue. Wheelchair and scooter users in particular may not be able to enter the theatre itself, let alone buy concessions, visit the restroom, or even hit the ticket stand to pick up some hot tickets for the show they’ve been dreaming of seeing.
All that’s about to change.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and a variety of supporting caselaw, the United States has a clear legal precedence for equal access; all people should be able to enter venues like Broadway theatres without discrimination or physical barriers. That includes disabled people, and in a historic settlement with the Department of Justice, nine theatres have agreed to eliminate 500 documented accessibility issues in their facilities. Yes, you read that right, 500.
This legal victory is a testimony to the fighting power of the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama. The agency has excelled when it comes to identifying disability-related civil rights violations and fighting back on them, pushing to enforce existing law and to secure equal access for disabled people in U.S. society. While access to Broadway theatres might not seem like a big deal, it is to people who want to see shows…and it speaks to a larger need to make this society one in which everyone can move freely.
Disabled people who rely on wheelchairs and other assistive devices for mobility can sometimes find themselves encountering barriers at every turn. They can’t make casual plans to go out, or change plans on the spur of the moment, because they have to consider issues like whether venues will be physically accessible: can they get to them on public transit? Will they be able to get in the door? Will the bathroom be accessible? What would you do if all your friends wanted to go out to a bar and you couldn’t get into the bathroom? That’s a very real problem for disabled people.
Pushing for open access across society means that disabled people don’t need to worry, and they can enjoy the experience of making casual, relaxed plans with friends. Under the Broadway settlement, disabled people will be given priority wheelchair seating in addition to aisle seating for people who are comfortable making transfers from their chairs to theatre seats. In addition, access problems in restrooms, concessions stands, ticket stalls and other areas will be addressed so people can navigate theatres freely and comfortably.
That sounds like something to sing about, and so does the $45,000 civil fine the theatres will be paying, a warning to other businesses that don’t comply with legal access requirements that they could be next.
Photo credit: Norris Wong.