Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you simply stop being you and instead become a representative for every disabled person in the world. In fact, this isn't really about disability, women can easily be in a situation where they become all women, and gay people, all gay people, and God knows, black people, all black people. It is the nature of systemic bigotry that the lens with which you are viewed purposely leaves out the 'youness' in order to focus on your 'otherness.'
A couple weeks ago, Joe and I went to see "the Messiah" at Roy Thompson Hall. I go here warily as they often mess up disabled seating. But this is a yearly tradition that we love and it's worth the chance that 'this year they will get it right'. And they have, a couple times. But now it's literally 50/50 that we will go problem free.
So it begins with us going in to our seats. I see that two seats have been removed rather than one. That means, I think, either that there is another wheelchair user to sit next to me, or there's a problem. Joe takes his seat and immediately notices that his ticket number doesn't match the seat number. It's one over. He gets up immediately, in plenty of time for a problem to be fixed, and goes out to speak to an usher. The usher reassures him that he is in the right seat even though he has the wrong ticket for it. He comes back and tells me, and we are both tense as we wait for others to arrive.
Just as the lights go down an usher comes to us at the end of our row and leans over and tells Joe he is in the wrong seat. Joe protests that he reported it and was assured that he was where he was supposed to be. She states that there were people to be sat there and now cannot because I am where I am and he is where he is. Everyone around us hears this. And I stop being me and become 'the problem.' Oh she spoke to Joe about his seat, but believe me when I say, people hearing this are looking at fat old me in the wheelchair taking up too much space, and seeing the problem.
The lights are going down, the music about to begin and we are both feeling responsible for people being displaced and upset at being singled out as 'the problem' when the only problem was being disabled wanting to sit with my non-disabled husband at a show we wanted to see. Then, it suddenly gets a lot worse. The door opens again, and the same usher who blamed us for the Hall making a mistake, is back with three people, one of whom has a disability and is in a wheelchair.
Why she brought them down, knowing that there was no seating, I don't know. What they did do is stand there and discuss the problem in loud whispers disturbing everyone. We missed two arias during the time it took for them to discuss seating and turn around and leave. During this, everyone in our area is turned around angrily watching the muddle. Angry stares don't stop with their exit, they continue for a few minutes as people's temper gradually subsides. Nope, not feeling a lot of love from those around me.
The intermission comes and, as a representative of all disabled people, I am peppered with questions about what was going on, people asked me as if I knew the other disabled person, because of course we all know each other. Then the usher domes back and we are told that I have to move over into 'my seat' and someone will come and install Joe's seat. We are told that 6 people had come together and they had to be split up because we were in their seats. Great. Nice to know that we were responsible for the displacement and splitting up of a group of friends. The seat is installed, I am moved over, Joe is in the newly installed seat.
We notice that the elderly woman in the wheelchair who entered shortly after the show began and was focus of that loud discussion, was waiting in the next section for a chair to be removed for her to have a space. Lots of fun at the hall for disabled people!
Once Joe is installed and I am moved over the usher comes to apologize. I do not accept the apology. This is a world class theatre and their confusion about disabled seating is simply unacceptable. But more. I told her that the anger and upset of those around us wasn't at the hall for messing up seats, it was at me as a disabled person for being out and taking up too much space. It was at the elderly woman in the wheelchair for causing a problem. It's not at the Hall for messing up seating for disabled people. It's never at the location and always at the person with a difference. "You folks have furthered the prejudice and bigotry that people carry about disability and that's not okay with me."
The Hall beings to fill again and the four displaced people, two of them were in their seats a couple over from Joe, join their friends. Yep ice cold reception from them. I don't blame them, they bought tickets as a group and the two of us are responsible for kicking them out of their seats. They don't think about a Hall error, that's too abstract, particularly when there are people and people with differences and disability to blame sitting right beside you. I was worried that Joe would get frostbite by the end of the show.
I am exhausted by the experience.
The next day we get a call, I'm at work so Joe answers. Someone at the Hall must have heard of our upset and called to talk to us about it. They were lucky, they got Joe. It was explained that two seats were taken out so that I, as a wheelchair user, wouldn't be sitting near the top of the stairs. It was also explained that a message hadn't been effectively transmitted to the ushers to ask the six people to move one seat over and into a place that was reserved for them to be able to do that. Joe accepts the explanation and calls me.
I tell him to call the guy back and tell him that Joe, the nice guy, isn't the one he needs to be dealing with. Joe does this. We still haven't talked though he's made a valiant effort to speak with me. I've been busy, he's been busy.
The solution isn't to sell two seats, one to us and one to another group, and then ask them all to move over. That continues the problem of communicating to a group of people that they have to defer to disabled people and our undue demand for space. This puts us in to the role of recipients of their understanding and their acts of charity.
I know, why not sell disabled seating to disabled people and non disabled seating to non disabled people? I know that's a radical thought.
For the record, both Joe and I thought that this performance of "the Messiah" was the best of all that we had seen. The soloists were astonishing.
You know how "the Messiah" performed miracles, like the feeding of the 5000, or the water into wine trick? Well, what would be a real miracle be to get disabled seating right at a performance at any of the big halls in Toronto. But, I suspect that raising the dead is a slightly easier task.