Maartje on a mission: better concert experiences for people with disabilities

Maartje sits in her wheelchair in the center of a light up but empty Ziggo Dome.

What have you been up to lately, Maartje? Oh, just hanging out at Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome to talk about accessibility. Thanks for asking!

I’ve always enjoyed live music. I went to my first concert at age fourteen, in a tiny cafe without seating, where they sat me atop a giant speaker right in front of the stage. Safe? Probably not. Awesome? Yes, indeed!

Those were the days when I still walked, and I’ve seen many concerts since, with varying experiences when it comes to accessibility. I’ve become entirely dependent on my wheelchair, which means my concert experience has been dictated by the availability of accessible seating tickets, their placement and, for smaller venues, the willingness of concert hall owners to provide a space that is both safe and has a good view. Needless to say, going to a concert is much easier when you are able-bodied. Furthermore, you have a choice of where you want to sit or stand and pay accordingly.

For years, I accepted the status quo of accessible seating. Sat at the back of the hall, or sometimes at the side, but never close to the stage. That is, when I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on tickets at all. At the Ziggo Dome, there are 20 to 40 tickets available for disabled people, and the same number of tickets for their carers. With a capacity of 17000, that number makes the ticket hunt feel like a lottery. Thankfully, most of my experiences at the shows themselves were good, if not always that memorable.

The status quo changed in 2018, when a Harry Styles concert brought the accessible seating platform closer than ever: right in front of the b-stage. From there, its occupants, me included, were treated to a very intimate few songs by the larger than life pop star and got to experience what it feels like to have a front row seat. A strange sensation of validation and feeling of inclusivity and equality came over me. As a result, I remember that night very clearly and still talk about it a lot. I also distinctly remember a young woman named Mir, who is now no longer with us. A direct result of her disability. It makes me happy that she got to experience her favourite artist up close, too. Moments like these matter.

I saw Harry Styles in concert again earlier this year, but the accessible seating was back at its usual spot, at the back of the venue. It was a great show, but it didn’t hit the same. When I wrote about the difference on LinkedIn, I was intent on manifesting a change for the better. After all, 2018 proved that it could be. Feeling empowered by that bit of proof, I tagged the commercial director of Ziggo Dome, a man I had never met or spoken to, and was invited to the venue for a conversation about accessibility.

Ziggo was open and honest with me. I learned that venues do not have any say in the number of accessible seats or where in the venue they are (apart from giving options). That is up to the promoters, who in turn listen to their clients, the artists and their teams. Valuable information. As was the confirmation that accessible seating costs money. After all, they take up more space than regular seats or standing tickets and because they have to be elevated to provide a good line of sight, regular seats can’t be directly behind them. Factor in safety, and you’ve got a shitload of barriers to break.

Those barriers aren’t enough to disillusion me. While I respect all of them and want to be mindful of artists’ incomes, I do believe there are ways to make concert experiences better for people with disabilities. To make it easier for them to attend a concert by providing more accessible seating on the one hand, and to make each concert something they’ll think fondly of for the rest of their lives.

I won’t go as far as to say I have all the answers, but I think it starts with awareness. Across the entire music industry. Especially musicians and their clever teams who put tours together. Stage designers who have the power to creative immersive stages that bring artists closer to their audience when the audience can’t move closer to them. Where are the cheeky catwalks that reach all the way to the accessible seating? The larger and longer b-stage sets? Where are the seats in front of the pits full of dancing bodies? Promoters and big bosses (I’m looking at you, Live Nation), put your thinking caps on. With your artists, with your venues, and with people with disabilities. We can make this something extraordinary!

Contact me

If my article inspired you to think differently about accessibility, and you’d like to talk to me, please reach out. I’m not here to tell you you’re not doing a good job. I’m here to tell you how you can do better.

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