Disability and London Theatres

In planning a recent trip to London, I wanted to incorporate a little culture by watching something at a theatre. After all, the capital of Great Britain is renowned for its theatres and shows of all types. Like any other theatregoer, I began with a list of what shows were running and would be open on the dates we could attend. I setup a shortlist of possibles, decided which was my favourite and went onto their website to book tickets. There was no button to click for accessible seating so I worked my way through multiple layers of adverts and information in search of their accessibility details. Apparently, I have to phone them to make arrangements. A premium rate number, of course.

I rang and was told that I was speaking to a booking agent and would have to phone the theatre directly. She gave me another premium rate number. This went on until I eventually got through to someone at the venue itself. She informed me that they only have one truly accessible seat – and that it’s booked for every performance for several months, although there are “normal” seats available for the majority of dates. I asked why they don’t make some of that clear on the website and she told me they prefer to speak to disabled customers individually, so as to offer the best service they can.

At, of course, the customer’s expense.

It took me a whole day of internet use and expensive phone calls to find out that none of my shortlist could offer me a ticket for the week in question. Several of the theatres don’t have any accessible seating at all. A few of the comments I received:

There’s no call for wheelchair seating.

We’re an old building, we don’t have to comply with the regulations.
Our fire officer says we can’t have wheelchairs in the auditorium because they’d take too long to get out and be a hazard to “normal” theatregoers.
(My quotation marks.)

We have to take out a dozen “normal” seats for every wheelchair space we create – it’s not cost effective.

Several people told me they had to speak to each disabled person before allowing them to book a seat, with a variety of reasons, none of which convinced me. If it’s so important for me to be asked in person what my requirements are, why don’t they pay for the call by providing a freefone number? Or even a straightforward geographical one?

In the course of all this, I did come across one website that provides much of the information in a handy downloadable form:


Which is very helpful, but quite shocking in terms of equality for the disabled. The theatres which have accessible spaces told me they’re booked up long before the auditorium fills. If I want an accessible space, I need to book as soon as a show goes on sale – months before I’m actually going to be there.

Needless to say, we didn’t get to see a show.

If I try to do this again, I’ll start with the list of theatres from the above link, so that I don’t waste time and money on the ones who have no accessible spaces at all. I have a suspicion that my choice of shows is the last thing I’ll be able to decide.

Discrimination by Any Other Name…

… would still smell as foul.

Okay, this is a rant. I’ve been trying to book theatre seats. I was pleased to find that I can book them through my favourite cashback website, giving me a small but handy discount on the price. So I clicked through to the booking website, gave them my contact details, told them what we’d like to see, which performance and everything. The website offered me a few possible seats, but of course they’re not accessible. I hunted for the “wheelchair seat” option and found nothing. Eventually, I scrolled down the screen and spotted a sidenote which says, “To request accessible seating or wheelchair access, please call our team on…”. I swore quietly and rang the number. Two hours of patronising messages later I was still ringing the number. I think it was answered at one point – I’m sure I heard the phone being picked up – but then it was dropped and the line went dead. Eventually I got through to a person, who continued the theme of patronising me – insisting that it’s not possible to book wheelchair spaces online because the theatres have to speak to the wheelchair user to make sure they have all the assistance they need and everyone’s needs are different. I asked for her name and got an extremely patronising response. She did the old “talk loudly and slowly” thing and told me she wasn’t being patronising, that I had an attitude problem. Then she told me that this as the wrong number (despite their website’s statement) and gave me the premium rate number I have to call.

I called the number she’d given me and quickly got through to a very pleasant young lady, who checked and informed me that the theatre only has one wheelchair space and it’s already booked for the performance I wanted. So it goes. But we had a nice chat; I told her about the rudeness I’d experienced at the hands of their agents and she told me their justification for insisting on speaking to someone on the phone to make sure they took care of their specific needs in each case.

Now, I may be biased, but I call this discrimination. If I wanted “normal” seats I could book them online. It would take a couple of minutes to click through the relevant web pages and buy them. But because I need to arrive in a wheelchair, I have to phone both the booking company and then the theatre to make the arrangements. I would have to give my credit card details over the phone (which I hate doing – you don’t have the security you would online), waste half my day and don’t even get cashback on the purchase. I’ve already received one sales email from the agents – and I’m not even allowed to book seats through their website!

I understand that wheelchair spaces are at a premium in theatres, especially in the older ones that are minimally accessible. But is it realistic to effectively add to the cost of booking in this way? I spent two and a half hours to find out there was no suitable seat available – do I have to do this for every performance until I find one I can attend?

And if they’re so keen to speak to me in person rather than letting me book online, why isn’t the accessibility assistance number a normal-rate geographical one? Or even a freefone number?