Musings on Music and Ableism (Inspired by Kanye West)


There are several adjectives which come to mind when the topic of the hour is Kanye West, and this week, media reports have added a new one: ableist. During a concert in Melbourne, Australia on Friday, West refused to perform until everyone in the stadium stood. He reportedly went as far as to check ID to verify that those not standing were actually disabled. Now, there are many things wrong with this situation.

1) It’s none of his business why a given person chooses to not stand during his concert. If someone has paid for A SEAT, they have the right to sit in it.

2) Not everyone who has a disabling medical condition is considered “disabled” on paper, and wouldn’t have “proof” to show anyone. My chronic pain means that sometimes I’m exhausted and just can’t stand for long periods of time. Do I have documentation saying I benefit from sitting to regain some energy? Nope. And neither do many others.

3) It is obscenely invasive to assume that people need to prove anything to attend a music performance.

The thing is, though, that even though this latest demonstration of insensitivity is pretty awful (and it really is, no question), we’re absolutely fooling ourselves if we believe Kanye West is the first and last (or even the worst) example of ableism in live shows.

I mean, for the audience member who uses a wheelchair to enter the Qantas Credit Union Arena at all implies that it’s at least wheelchair accessible in the first place. How many performers or their promoters book gigs in spaces that aren’t accessible at all to people in chairs? How many small-scale music venues can we name, without even thinking about it, which are basement or second-floor establishments, with no elevator? Even if a space has ground-floor access, where are the washrooms located? Are we telling physically disabled/chronically ill people that only those who can make it into these spaces, only people who never have to pee, have the privilege of enjoying live music?

Yeah, we totally are.

Every time someone opens a new club and doesn’t insist on ground-floor washrooms and a slight ramp to get over the lip at the door, they’re telling disabled people that they’re not welcome.

I get it. Space is at a premium, and there are many factors that go into renting venues for long-term occupancy and for one-off events. Sometimes, in older buildings, increasing accessibility is cost-prohibitive. It can cause serious hardship for event promoters who are doing their best to provide what they can for as low a cost as they can offer. But it’s still a problem, no matter the justification.

Kanye West was 100% in the wrong. But before you jump on the accusatory bandwagon, take a minute to think about who else is doing exactly the same sort of thing. Then ask if you’ve thought to call them out as loudly as you do West.

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