Photo: Alanna Rizza

Disability art: how do you participate if only two Toronto venues are fully accessible?

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By Alanna Rizza

Victoria Lacey was at a fundraising gala for Spinal Muscular Atrophy research when she won floor tickets to a sold-out One Direction concert. She was ecstatic.

But her excitement faded months later when she called the Rogers Centre’s “guest experience” department to inquire about the arrangements for her to access the venue. She was told she couldn’t watch the concert from the floor because her power wheelchair would damage the turf.

Lacey has had previous negative experiences with venue accessibility. There have been instances where she couldn’t attend concerts at all because the venue wasn’t accessible. After her conversation with the Rogers Centre representative, she felt heartbroken and wanted to do something, so she wrote a letter to the venue’s management.

“My name is Victoria Lacey, I am 16 years old and I have a very rare, genetic disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy,” the letter read. “I love concerts because I can participate to my full potential. However, as I am getting older and becoming more alert as to how venues deal with disabled fans, I am becoming aware that we are actually very discriminated against and concert-going is in no way a fair experience for us.”

Individuals with disabilities are often excluded from mainstream art culture. Eliza Chandler, an assistant professor at Ryerson’s school of disabilities studies, says art and disability (or “disability art”) isn’t just about its creation—it’s also about how art is experienced. 

According to a 2012 U.S. study of participation in the arts, disabled adults who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education are about three times more likely to attend a performing arts event than those who do not, and disabled adults living in metropolitan areas are 35 per cent more likely to attend versus those who live in more remote areas.

The study was conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent U.S. agency that provides support and funding for artistic projects.

The study also showed that disabled adults who took music or dance lessons growing up are about four times more likely to attend a performing arts event.

The day after Lacey sent the letter, she received a phone call from a Rogers Centre representative who told her, with a reassuring tone, that she could enjoy the concert from the floor and that “she had nothing to worry about.”

Accessibility in a venue is complicated—there’s a wide range of standards that a venue should meet beyond what’s required by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act requirements.

“As I am getting older and becoming more alert as to how venues deal with disabled fans, I am becoming aware that we are actually very discriminated against and concert-going is in no way a fair experience for us” –Victoria Lacey

While wheelchair accessibility is important, there is also the need for gender neutral accessible washrooms and well-displayed information on everything, from venue capacity to the height of door gaps. Toronto in particular has an issue with accessible venues.

There are only two fully accessible spaces with gender-neutral washrooms—The Garrison and D-Beatstro.

This means that people with mobility issues are often left out, or they have to figure out alternative solutions: like arriving early or having an attendant with them to navigate the space.

Often, it’s the responsibility of the person with the disability to find solutions to problems that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Lacey says that since the beginning of high school, she has written about 20 letters to venues with accessibility complaints—a process she says is “draining.” “I’ve never had an experience where everything went perfectly,” she says.

This past Christmas, Lacey, who is now in her second year in Ryerson’s creative industries program, received tickets to go see Mary Poppins at Lower Ossington Theatre (LOT).

But when she called the venue, she was given a familiar response: “There are stairs leading to that seat.” (And every other seat). Lacey couldn’t attend.

She has also experienced difficulty buying pre-sale tickets. She said that every time she went to buy accessible seating pre-sale tickets, they were never available.

The lack of accessibility at concert, theatre and art gallery venues is a reason why she decided to apply to creative industries.

After she graduates, she wants to be an accessibility coordinator to help ensure that people with disabilities can experience art without any access barriers.

But disability art can also be applied to the creation of pieces, since it’s common for people to assume artists with disabilities only create work that has something to do with their disability.

Chandler has been involved with Tangled Art Gallery (TAG) for five years as a volunteer and participant. It is a not-for-profit registered charitable organization that provides support and opportunities for artists with disabilities to showcase their work.

The thinking was that anything interesting or compelling or beautiful that a disabled person made was beyond intention or happened in spite of themselves … and they’ve created this mysterious art that requires somebody else to find beauty or artistic significance in that work,” says Chandler, who was TAG’s artistic director for about two years.

When she first got involved with TAG, she began learning about disability culture, pride and disability rights.

At the time, it was a small annual festival and Chandler was creating short films about navigating and using spaces as a disabled woman.

She would film the different routes she would take every day to get around Toronto. She says she highlighted “the hidden labour that disabled people have to endure in a city that wasn’t built for us.”

Chandler says artists with disabilities are not taken seriously, or that their artistic skills cannot improve because they are often not viewed as having a post-secondary education. One main issue with that assumption is that most university or college campuses are not accessible.

Chandler studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which she says was not accessible, but she was still able to attend because of her ability to walk up stairs.

University and colleges can lead to additional difficulties with inaccessibility because “the working environment might not be doable—taking six classes at a time and it’s ‘produce, produce, produce,’” says Chandler.

Another burden for artists with disabilities is financial inaccessibility. Some disabled artists are on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), which offers financial and employment support.

But the artist may not receive their ODSP if they get an art grant that month, which is supposed to be used for creative work—not rent and transportation, which the ODSP is used for.

According to a 2012 Statistics Canada survey on employment profiles of people between the ages of 25 and 64 with disabilities, five per cent of the people with “severe disabilities” work in arts, entertainment and recreation, and about four per cent have “mild” disabilities.

It’s a warm summer night and Lacey’s a few feet away from the stage watching One Direction perform live.

She’s is in the middle of the crowd and she can feel the energy and excitement around her. Instead of watching Harry Styles’ face from the big screen, she was able to actually see him up close.

While it was a hassle for the attendants to accept her floor tickets, Lacey was glad she refused to take no for an answer.

After years’ worth of complaint letters, angry phone calls and so many losses, she finally won. 


  1. Isn’t the mod club also accessible with a gender neutral washroom?

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