We need to make a song and dance about disabled access

When we talk about community we should consider people already left out of so much

"Where's good for a dance around here?" is a question that stumps a number of people in Ireland. But add "where's good for a dance around here – that's also wheelchair accessible?" and you'll find that short list is no longer a list at all.

When the news trickled in earlier this year that a new music venue and club space would replace Lillie's Bordello, there was hope that Ireland's clubbing scene would no longer face a destiny of broken bricks and dust. Known now as Lost Lane, this space is one of Dublin's leading medium-sized venues, putting on gigs and hosting club nights such as Nialler9's Spacer and Mother, one of Ireland's most popular queer-club nights. Newly refurbished and kitted out with an impressive sound system, it is inaccessible to people with physical disabilities. A saving grace for Dublin's nightlife – absolutely – but its lack of access means dance floors are becoming a place where disabled people cannot go.

The dance floor is a unifier.

Under the flashing lights and throbbing bass, everybody has a chance of happiness, recklessness, bad nights, good nights, hooks-ups and fall-outs. But as the number of dance floors in Ireland moves all but upstairs or within a rabbit warren of steps, disabled people are the hardest hit. The discussion that follows the closure of each new club and cultural space in Ireland puts serious weight on to the sense of community that’s being dismantled; but when we talk about community, we need to consider people who are already left out of so much.


Create and perform

From an arts and culture point of view, we need these spaces to experience music in its full power and we need these spaces so that artists have an outlet to create and perform. Socially and most importantly, we need these spaces so that we can feel like we’re part of something.

Laura O’Connell is one of the DJs from Bounce, a club night for adults with intellectual disabilities supported by That’s Life, an arts programme from the Brothers of Charity Service. Running since 2016 and hosting monthly events in Galway’s Róisín Dubh, O’Connell explains the importance of creating communities within club spaces.

Dancing is a remedy to everything that ails you and we cannot take that away from people

“For years in Galway, nights out for adults with intellectual disabilities took place in a school hall, a function room of a hotel or in a back room of a pub hidden away from the rest of society. It was really important for me and the rest of the team at That’s Life to change this,” she says. “One of the greatest challenges we faced in setting up Bounce in a regular music venue in Galway was the lack of accessible spaces in the clubs and late-night venues here. The Róisín Dubh was one of two suitable spots we found in the entire town. Thankfully, the Róisín welcomed us with open arms and Bounce has been allowed to flourish into something really special.”

Importance of clubbing

In terms of social history and cultural movements, the importance of clubbing cannot be undermined. The rave culture of the late 80s and early 90s has long been praised for bringing a sense of temporary release from sectarian violence in Belfast and bringing a sense of belonging in Manchester where class division, unemployment and Thatcherism hammered hard.

In more recent times, music venues and club spaces across the world have been targets of terrorist attacks and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community, women, people of colour and young people; but the party goes on in spite of the hatred. There’s power on the dance floor. For a tenner in at the door, you check out of your midweek mindset, put your worries on pause and give into the music until the lights go up at 3am. Dancing is a remedy to everything that ails you and we cannot take that away from people.

Existing venues that describe themselves as accessible come with a list of caveats for disabled people. If you want to dance, you have to pass some or all of these challenges: get assistance at the front door, be escorted down a lane and get in through the delivery door, ask a member of staff at a very busy bar for the key to the always-locked accessible bathroom or leave the venue to use an accessible bathroom in a nearby hotel; and, last but not least, stick to one floor and run the risk of losing your friends to the upstairs smoking area or the shift.

These challenges exist because Ireland has a strange love affair with protecting old buildings at the cost of disabled people’s presence.

The sting of not  'tonight, mate' is unlike any other, but imagine that as an overall blanket reply to socialising

As it stands, access for disabled use – that’s Part M of the Building Regulations – is only legally required for new builds and renovations that require planning permission. However, these regulations can be relaxed if the “architectural integrity” of a listed building is compromised, which means that things such as lifts and accessible bathrooms are no longer essential. Disabled people’s rights are almost always at the bottom of the equality list because our inclusion comes with a definite financial cost that few are willing to or can afford to pay.

‘Not fit for purpose’

"Currently, a lot of spaces for people to go dancing are not fit for purpose but that's because of a lack of viable alternatives," says Hidden Agenda's Stephen Manning. When the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin was demolished in March, the promotions company had to find a new space for its events and the search showed just how bad things are for Irish night life and culture. "There is a criminal lack of available spaces. For those trying to take on art and cultural spaces, pubs, music venues etc, they will take what they can get," he says, explaining why so many club nights have no choice but to relaunch in inaccessible spaces. "Ideally there would be a Government initiative to build or designate existing property as protected cultural spaces that are inclusive and have proper access infrastructure."

Have you ever been refused entry to a night club?

The sting of “not tonight, mate” is unlike any other, but imagine that as an overall blanket reply to socialising. The psychological impact of being left out of dancing and clubbing denies disabled people the right to switch off, the right to make mistakes and to dance like your life depends on it. From chancing your underage arm with a semiconvincing ID card to dancing to acknowledge a heartbreak, a redundancy, an engagement, a referendum, a birthday or an emigration, we return to the dance floor time and time again.

The dance floor isn’t just for a throwaway Saturday night – it’s a part of life and unless we remember to include disabled people in this culturally and socially important community, these are the experiences we miss.

These are the important parts of life that we cannot access.