During this pandemic, musicians and music lovers alike can all agree on one thing: we miss live music. We miss the excitement and atmosphere of live gigs and some of us have experienced the disappointment of our favourite artists having no choice but to cancel events. The bottom line is, being unable to access music venues is miserable. What if this was normal? What if being unable to get into a venue was something that happened to you all of the time? Now, imagine all of your friends and family can go to the gig…except you.
I ask how this would feel, because being unable to access music venues is something that people living with disability face everyday. Perhaps this is a good time for us to reflect on how musicians and gig-goers with disability often miss out on musical experiences that many of us take for granted. Whether a venue has no wheelchair access or no disabled toilet, Kiana Kalantar-Hormozi knows this experience all too well.
Kiana is a musician, filmmaker and human rights activist. Kiana has SMA Type 2, a muscle weakening condition which makes her dependent on her wheelchair and support for her independence. In her own words, Kiana is not a ‘sit-at-home type of gal’, and I have to agree with her. When she isn’t making videos for BBC’s The Social, she’s working on her debut album, and when she isn’t making music she’s working on campaigns (like making films about fighting the injustice of Care Tax). I talked to Kiana about her experience accessing venues as a musician and a gig-goer with disability, and what venues and artists can do to make a change.
*There is an ongoing debate about the use of the terms ‘disabled’ vs ‘person with disability’. For the purpose of this article, the term ‘person with disability is used, as this is Kiana’s preference.*
Honor: First of all, what is the experience like for you as a gig-goer? Do you find people and venues are aware of problems with accessibility?
Kiana: It’s so bad. A lot of people I think are unaware, but there are a lot of people who are aware who are like, ‘so what?’. For example, I commented on a [Glasgow music festival] post on Facebook because I really wanted to attend their events, and I looked at all the ones that I wanted to attend and they were all in inaccessible places. I was like ‘seriously?’, so I commented and at the end I was like, ‘if you need help or advice I can do that’, but they never got in touch.
Do they normally reply to comments?
They replied to comments to say that some of it was in accessible venues, but it was all of the ones that I didn’t want to go to. I would actually say about 70% [of the shows] were inaccessible.
Do you think it’s worse at festivals?
I don’t really go to music festivals, just because it’s outside and we don’t live in LA- you know what I mean? (both laugh). I really enjoy smaller gigs, I feel like it’s more intimate, but so many places have gigs that are totally my type of music and are totally inaccessible to me. Did I tell you about Manchester?
Yeah, but tell me again.
So, I went down to Manchester to see my favourite Hip-Hop artist. Before I went I contacted the venue and they told me there was access, there weren’t any steps. When I got to the venue they said ‘Sorry, there’s no access. It’s in the basement.’
They told you beforehand that there was access and no stairs? Who was dealing with this?
I don’t know, the venue was absolutely confused!
Was it a small venue?
Yeah, it was. It was a small space with steps down to a basement.
How could you be confused about access if your venue’s that small?
I don’t know (laughs).
What happened when you got there?
Well, they didn’t say much. The band came out and spoke to me and were like, ‘This is terrible, we’re sorry’. They also did a live mini performance for me on the sidewalk, which was so cool of them to do! The venue did nothing. They didn’t even offer a refund or anything.
I take it you had paid to travel down South, for the gig and to stay over?
Yeah, I paid £700, or a bit more. It was me, my mum and dad and a couple of days holiday. Anyway, I met the band and that was interesting even though it was an overall crappy situation. That was fun, and I said ‘next time you have to come up to Scotland’. So, I’m on social media and I realise, ‘Oh, they’re gonna perform in Scotland.’ Awesome. Where? Glasgow, even better. And then I realise it’s in a venue that’s inaccessible. Here’s the thing. They [the venue] were looking at making the place accessible. There is a way that they can open another entrance to the basement. So, I was trying to really push. They already had all of the plans to make this possible, they just need to get on with it and do it. In the end, nothing happened.
How do you feel when you turn up and you can’t get in, or just knowing that you can’t go somewhere full stop?
I feel like we’re living in the dark ages. We wouldn’t say to someone, ‘sorry…we’re not letting you in the venue’, you can’t do that but somehow when it’s about disability, that’s acceptable. It’s just so enraging.
Earlier I was thinking: Imagine I went to a gig and they said to me: ‘sorry, you’re a woman and we just don’t accommodate you.’
It must affect you as a new artist as well as a gig-goer.
Starting out as an artist is so hard, even when you don’t have a disability. I feel like as an artist you have to make mistakes and you have to have some bad performances, but you wouldn’t go to some big fancy hall and mess up on the biggest performance of your life. You’d go to some basement gig, and practice things out or try material that you’ve written, but I don’t have that luxury. Not only is it inaccessible to me, not only is it hard to network with other artists and build a support network, but for me to even get a foot in the door, I have to be outstanding- which is already hard because of my health.
It is such an important part of being a new artist, going and testing the waters. You have to have those experiences.
You have to, even if you’re good. I think you won’t get better unless you do make mistakes and evolve as an artist. For my first track that I’m working on, it’s spoken word and I tested that out at one of the spoken word performance nights. Now, they’ve changed that to an inaccessible venue. It’s supposed to be really accessible and really inclusive- when I say inclusive they had so many interesting people, all really diverse backgrounds, and they’re actually saying: ‘we want more women to do performances because we don’t have enough women’, and then they changed to an inaccessible venue.
I know. The thing is they have scratch nights for new artists to try out material and then they have their main nights, and I used to try out at the scratch nights and then I’d go watch the main night. After I had a conversation with them they said, ‘I’m sorry’. I don’t really want you to apologise, I want you to sit down and talk to me and I can help you move forward. They weren’t willing to take my offer.
That’s really sad.
They don’t even take me seriously. It’s just like, ‘i’m sorry, that’s tough, bye’.
What really gets me is that there is no need for a performance to not have wheelchair access. You’re not changing anything about a performance by having it in an accessible venue. I understand that there are all different types of health conditions, so some people need captions, or quiet performances. I get that it can change the essence of what the performance is and there is a time and a place for that. But you don’t lose anything by having physical access to a building.
At work I’ve learned about things like the Purple Pound.
I’ve heard about that but i’m not sure what it is.
It’s basically money from disabled people, their families and friends. It’s worth £249bn [to the economy] in the UK, and that is a lot. For example, tonight I’m going to this gig, it’s accessible to me, I’m going to pay for my ticket and bring you along. That is me as a consumer, I have that spending power. I think it also includes your immediate family, because if you think about it, if I’m going out somewhere with my mum and dad, they’re not going to go somewhere that I can’t get to.
And a disabled person might need a family member to be with them for support?
Yeah. There’s the ethic of it, that we’re excluding a whole group of people, totally unnecessarily, but there’s also the fact that as a business you’re actually missing out on money. As a creative industry we’re potentially missing out on talent.
For all of the people with disability out there, of course there are plenty who are more than capable. Not just on stage but other jobs behind the scenes- sound, light, etc.
That’s actually something I’m so angry about. Before I had my job, I was trying so hard to get a job with Indie media companies and you would not believe how many of them are in inaccessible premises. They don’t need to be, but there’s no law to stop them.
Almost all venues don’t have accessible toilets. Some people comment on it like, ‘that would be expensive, that would hard’, i’m like, seriously? Why don’t you try not peeing for 12 hours and then tell me what you think about it.
People think it’s not a big deal to have access to a bathroom?
Yeah, some people say it’s too expensive but that’s not the point.
There’s just a complete lack of dignity for people.
It’s dignity and respect. It’s so dehumanising.
How do we change it, is it education, is it awareness?
I definitely think education, but proper education. Because I see people who think they know everything about inclusion and disability but they don’t. When I go to most places they genuinely want to be helpful, and they say ‘Here’s our disabled toilet’ and they don’t realise I cannot use that toilet. Sometimes I can’t even fit in that toilet. So I think education by someone like me (laughs). Someone who actually lives that experience. But here’s the thing. I feel like in the music industry, they’ve kind of made this gap for “disabled” artists, and I say that with inverted commas, where there’s organisations for disabled people to do music. But it’s not professional. It’s almost easier for them to give money to people who don’t want to be commercially successful in music. I agree with what they’re doing campaign wise, but I don’t see it making an impact. It’s a bit like if you’re classed as disabled: ‘here’s this little group for you, because you can never be commercially successful.’
Like you’re not welcome outside of that community?
That freaks me out. I hate that more than I hate inaccessible venues (laughs).
It is. It’s difficult because I don’t want to sound like I’m being disrespectful.
Do you think that many people with disability don’t consider going into music because they feel like there isn’t a place for them?
Yes- again to do with education. In some ways I wish that when i was 17, and my voice was really strong, that someone had been like ‘oh, this girl has talent, let’s support her’. But no one did that. In a way I’m not sad about it but I also am, because there’s no radar for someone like me to get picked up on.
Yeah, like what route do you go down? Where can music execs find you?
What can we reasonably expect of venues?I have no idea about making buildings accessible. Should all buildings be able to make themselves accessible at this point, or will there still be some that can’t do that?
There are some buildings that are realistically not able to, but I think there’s so few of them.You don’t have to knock down walls, you can put in things like platform lifts. So, you’re not changing anything there. That’s the thing, it’s about attitude…but people don’t see it as necessary, they see it as a luxury. It’s not a luxury.
What would you say to artists that want to be more accomodating and inclusive? Book places that are accessible?
Definitely that, that’s one big thing. I would say if you meet someone like me who does want to work in the industry, help them as much as you can- without that sounding patronising. It is so hard. And also don’t judge or compare, because I feel like some people have an experience with someone who’s disabled and they feel like everyone else that they meet is going to have the exact same vibe. It’s like, no!
You’re your own person with your own personality.
Exactly, there might be someone like me who’s terrible, and there might be someone like me who’s amazing.
Treat me the way you treat everyone else. If I perform badly, I don’t want people to be like ‘Aw, that was great, you’re in a wheelchair, you tried’ (laughs), do you know what I mean? If I’m good, tell me, if i’m bad just boo me.
Don’t boo! (laughs) That’s not good for anyone!
If you know someone [with disability] vouch for them, or help them get in touch with the right people. Help people up and just do what you can.
To hear more from Kiana, you can find here:
Check out Kiana’s Scevo wheelchair fundraiser here:
Interview conducted by Honor Logan