Festival changes policy for disabled gig-goers

By Beth Rose and Damon Rose
BBC Ouch

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJanelle Monae on stage at Glastonbury 2019

A disabled R&B fan has been guaranteed a seat to see one of her favourite acts after being warned she may have to stand.

Virginie Assal had bought a seated ticket months ago to see Janelle Monae perform at Castlefield Bowl in Manchester.

But she found out a week ago her place had become "first come, first served".

The gig's organiser said it had now reserved seats for all those who indicated they require them.

The Manchester International Festival (MIF) website said those who had already expressed they needed "access seating", or a wheelchair space, would receive a wristband allowing them into the access area.

Ms Assal has scoliosis, a serious back condition, which means she cannot stand for long periods. She also cannot risk being in a crowded area in case she gets hurt. She does not use a wheelchair but is mobility-impaired.

image copyrightVirginie Assal
image captionVirginie Assal

The 25-year-old had booked her ticket to see the popular US singer, who's just played Glastonbury, in December last year. At the time, she requested a seat away from the crowd, and was told "that was fine".

The situation changed last week. She looked at the festival's website and saw only wheelchair users could reserve spaces. Seats for mobility impaired people could no longer be assured.

When Ms Assal messaged MIF, it replied: "We will have an accessible seating area available for the performance. As we have limited capacity, we'd advise turning up early as the seating area will be first come first served."

How early was early, she asked the organiser?

"[A]s soon as doors open," she was told.

It emerged only 12 reservable places were to be made available, for wheelchair-users only. A further 40 access seats were to be made available but could not be reserved.

image copyrightAlamy
image captionStepped standing area of Castlefield Bowl

Ms Assal complained to the festival organisers about its change of policy. She felt she could not have attended the gig with confidence in case she couldn't sit down. And, if she did get a seat, she would feel bad for potentially stopping another disabled person from sitting.

However, after the BBC reported her story on Tuesday, MIF apologised. It clarified that Ms Assal would be guaranteed a seat. It was sorry if the advice given was "at any point was confusing".

Ms Assal received the reassuring news in an email on Tuesday evening from MIF's chief executive, John McGrath.

In a statement, MIF said it considered access a "key priority".

"[W]e work hard to ensure our events are as accessible as possible. MIF does not manage this particular space and although it is a standing event, we have worked closely with the external team to ensure there are accessible positions."

It asked that everyone booking tickets for an MIF event "make us aware of their access requirements when they book". It says it has increased the capacity of Castlefield Bowl to meet demand."

Ms Assal said she was "on the whole pleased and grateful.

"It's a win, it's better. Accessibility can always be improved but my general request was for all the disabled people who needed a seat to have one and that was achieved."

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