Gabriel McMorland has been going to see — and play — live music since he was a teenager — often in smaller, less traditional venues, as his tastes skew toward punk rock. But his relationship with live shows is different than many: McMorland lost most of his sight at age 19 (due to what he calls "a genetic time-bomb"). As a bass player, a fan of left-of-center bands and an advocate for accessibility (he co-founded the Pittsburgh Accessibility Meetup group), he finds a lot of his interests converging at music venues, and not always in a good way.
"In reality, a lot of music venues are probably not fully accessible" for patrons with disabilities, including limited mobility, he says. "But a lot of those problems are sort of structural or architectural, and would be very expensive to fix."
That's the sort of issue faced by Eric Stern, owner of Brillobox: The small Bloomfield venue is up to code, Stern says, but it's less than ideal in terms of accessibility. Bands play on the second floor, and a long, narrow staircase is the only way to get there
"I don't even know what would be possible" in terms of structural improvements to the building, Stern says, due to "the sheer cost." Right now, he says, patrons who use wheelchairs certainly aren't prohibited from the second floor, but need to make arrangements to have friends carry them up the stairs.
"In general," Stern says, "we try to make this as friendly and accessible across the board as possible. We try to help as much as we can" when a patron calls ahead with accessibility questions, or arrives and needs assistance.
McMorland doesn't look at the problem as lying simply with the owners of small venues. "The question is, what can be done to help them?" he says. "What can be done as a city? I'm interested in seeing what people who help fund more inclusive arts and culture [think] — how can that be done in a way that helps the actual venues where this stuff happens?"
"This stuff," in this case, is the less-mainstream music scene. While big venues like arenas and concert halls, which host a variety of events, often have many options for patrons with disabilities, smaller venues are caught in a bind. Many are in older buildings, with odd setups. (The Smiling Moose is another local venue where bands play on the second floor.) And while some arts nonprofits are able to secure foundation grants to help improve accessibility, that money is generally not available to music venues, which are often for-profit bars.
While there are tax breaks available for businesses upgrading to be more disability-friendly, says Anne Mulgrave, manager of grants and accessibility of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, that only goes so far. "That presumes that they have the money to invest in the first place," she says.
Another issue, says Mulgrave, is that owners of clubs and other small businesses often aren't clear on what they can do to improve accessibility and what resources are available to them
"The biggest issue is that nobody understands the [Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA]," she says, "and there's nowhere they can turn for information. They don't want to call the city, because they're afraid they'll turn their enforcement on them. The Mid-Atlantic ADA Center ... was created by the Department of Education and is entirely educational — they can call and be completely honest about their situation and the Department of Justice isn't going to come after them. But nobody does that, because they don't know it exists, or they're still afraid — they don't trust."