Et tu, Hannah Gadsby? “Phone Free Experiences” and ADA Accommodations #MentalHealthAwareness

This won’t be the post you expect.

Noted lesbian and creator Hannah Gadsby is coming to Pittsburgh this Thursday as part of her Body of Work tour. She’s performing at the noted Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, part of the Carnegie Museums. A lovely venue. My first visit there was in the 1990s when I took my mother to see Carol Burnett perform. Mr. Rogers was in the audience and Carol gave him an ovation of his own.

Late last week, I learned that this show will have the added bonus of freeing us from cell phones. How wonderful. I didn’t know that was something I needed to be freed from, to be honest. I mean I’d like to be free from sitting next to a Trumpy or having an exceptional long line at the bathroom. I’d love to be free to sip a bottle of water (health reasons) and certainly we can all agree that freedom from excessive perfume in a closed space would be awesome. Most of us probably have a list of ball-and-chain type aspects of public events that we’d gladly shed if given the opportunity.

I know, I know. I’m asking a lot. Why can’t I be grateful with this extra bit of freedom so graciously included with my ticket surcharges, taxes, and handling fees?

Here’s the lingo:

YONDR MOBILE PHONE POLICY

Hannah Gadsby’s upcoming tour will be a phone-free experience. Use of mobile phones, smart watches, smart accessories, cameras or recording devices will not be permitted in the performance space. Upon arrival at the venue, all phones and smart watches will be secured in Yondr cases that will be opened at the end of the event. Guests maintain possession of their phones at all times, and can access their phones throughout the show at designated phone use areas in the venue. All phones will be re-secured in Yondr cases before returning to the performance space. Anyone seen using a mobile phone during the performance will be escorted out of the venue. We appreciate your cooperation in creating a phone-free viewing experience.

So before I lean back into sardonic tone, let me be clear – Hannah Gadsby has been very clear that she needs accommodations to perform for us. Asking us to reasonably adjust our behavior to accommodate her is perfectly fine. It is legal and decent and we should do our best. I have no quibble with that.

But my accommodations are right there on par with hers. The fact that she’s the star and I’m the lesbian blogger from Pittsburgh does not mean her needs outweigh mine. It means her promotional team and my team me have to work together to ensure we can all access this encounter with minimal disruption and discomfort.

But … this policy doesn’t meansure up to the standard set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so I set out to get some answers on how my needs can be reasonably accommodated. I contacted the Carnegie Museum Special Events folx. I contacted Disability Rights Pennsylvania. I contacted disability advocacy groups on Facebook. I googled. I consulted my therapist. I did a lot of work to get some answers.

And this is the official answer.

In response to the patron needing their medical device for a medical reason, we have encountered this situation before and have a protocol we follow to ensure they feel supported while also protecting the artist and the phone free space. We have a colored wristband that we will give to the patron. This symbolizes to the staff inside/ushers/security that the patron is indeed allowed to have their phone for medical use only. Our on-site Event manager, Chris will explain to the patron the device should only be used for the medical reason. 

I do not need a medical device for a medical reason. It isn’t a medical reason. It is a civil right protected by federal law. Important not to conflate these things. Nothing in this response acknowledges that I as a disabled person have certain civil rights that the venue, the promoter, and the artist must respect. Nor does it acknowledge that Hannah and all of the people involved in this tour also have those rights. These are rights, not blessings showered upon us by benevolent gods.

Whomever “Chris” may be, I am fairly sure they are not someone who should be explaining to me how to use my own device to meet my own needs. Does Chris have a checklist? A medical degree? A law degree? A degree in art history? Is Chris going to set up a little card table where us crips can shuffle over to get our pretty wrist bands to confirm that we are recipients of benevolence as well as careful monitoring to make sure we don’t violate the rights of the phone-free space. What if my disability wristlet falls off or gets gross when I wash my hands? What if someone with sensory processing issues can’t wear a paper bracelet?

Space doesn’t have rights. Phones do not have rights. To have or not have a phone is not the question. And it is paternalistic as fuck to conflate civil rights, artistic expression, and whatever the fuck a ‘phone-free ‘ space actually is into this ball that disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable.

It is fucking hard to go to a live performance when you have anxiety, chronic trauma, and many other disabilities. It takes extra energy to plan, to figure out parking, to count how many steps you’ll need to climb, to figure out the ban on water in the venue, to get an aisle seat, to prepare for your bathroom needs, to contend with being seated next to a complete stranger, to worry about a PANDEMIC, to make sure you eat properly, etc. If you don’t have a lot of disposable funds, those things become even harder. No car, relying on the bus? Harder still.

In this case, add on many hours of time trying to get clarity on your civil rights. I had to take two different phone calls around this and I don’t enjoy the phone call experience. I’d like to have a phone-free experience around my civil rights, please.

Whether you call it a digital detox or technology free experiences, it is not something to impose on people. You don’t know me or my medical situation, Chris. If you had a clue about this, you would have the accommodation information on the ticketing websites and make sure the venues are well-versed in how to offer patrons dignity. You’d get it right the first time.

When I want to attend a show at Stage AE, I email. They add me to a list so I can utilize the disability entrance just by giving my name. When I want to attend a show at Club Cafe, a similar email will result in a small table with two chairs being reserved for me, often with the lovely comment “At the request of the performer” so I can sit down in a standing room only space. These are not complicated procedures. They are not well-advertised, tis true.

I understand phone screens are distracting, illegal recordings of the shows are illegal, ringers and buzzers and auto-play videos are annoying. I know some people are merely annoyed by technology, while others have their own health issues to address (think migraines and screens.) I’ve learned that there are union contracts to respect involving cell phones.

There’s a difference between boorish behavior and relying on technology to manage my disability needs. Putting a disability bracelet on me and admonishing me about medical use only is not dignified. It is appallingly insensitive.

My phone is assistive technology. I use it for certain tasks in public and group settings so I can successfully participate in them. I am 51-years-old so I am fully aware of how to turn off my ringer, dim my screen, and avoid taking photos in situations where that is not appropriate. I don’t need to justify my phone usage to CHRIS, Jack White, or this guy:

Frankly, no matter how often I generally use my phone, I don’t use it at concerts. I want to be “here and now” and I don’t want other people to watch the entire show through my screen. I go to concerts pretty often, and people who do this really bother me and ruin the experience for me.

Controlling the way other people engage the arts is pretty cruddy. Why not make us line up in our seats, cross our ankles, and fold our hands while we watch the show like we are in 1970s grade school? Or force us into a mosh pit because the men want to see the women jump around like eye candy? I mean, it isn’t a group performative event. How I watch a show is none of your damn business. Don’t patronize me with this bs about knowing what is best for me whether I’m disabled or not. If you want a fucking controlled experience, save up your money and hire the artist for a private show.

If Jack White wants people to have a phone-free experience, fine. He’s rich and quirky enough to do whatever he wants and I’m sure people will show up. But he isn’t doing anyone a favor, except himself. And the companies that make the tech locking bags.

I expect more from Hannah Gadsby than I do from Jack White. He wants us to gaze as his interesting naval with him while Hannah is trying to help us be a little more mindful and conscious of how our naval gazing is connected to millenia of oppression. Hannah also has made it clear she’s advocating for herself as a performer with disabilities, not a performer with control issues.

Her team let her down here, my friends. And all of us.

I’ll devote a future post to how I do use my phone to assist me. The venues can as always consult with the Department of Justice or disability advocacy groups or their own counsel to make sure they are in compliance and even using the very best practices.

Right now, I’m just processing my disappointment. I have no fucks left to give on this matter, really I don’t. This week has been brutal and it is Monday evening. I gave up a trip to NYC to participate in a free red carpet event – something I’ve dreamed of doing my whole life like most of us. I was ready to participate in an important meeting over the phone from the parking lot leading up to the show. I adore Hannah Gadsby. Reading the book right now. Missing out on this show will be devastating for me on a very personal level. And I have more fuckery on tap this week so I was soooo looking forward to a night where the show would be just enough lesbian for my needs.

But … my disabilities require me to make a lot of sacrifices, a constant cost/benefit analysis of any activity – how much energy, how much time, how great the possibility of risk of exposure to COVID-19, Kellyanne Conway loyalists, or people who think Summer Lee and John Fetterman are actual communists who will rip the fabric of our universe apart to serve Putin. Am I going to see Chick-fil-A sponsorship ads everywhere and be forced to play along with “find the chicken” silliness, thus sacrificing some of my sanity? I miss family meals, once-in-a-lifetime concerts, plays, fireworks, parades, and more.

Each time, I make a choice for myself about participating in that activity. Giving up the bits of my dignity to see Hannah Gadsby perform live is probably too much for this lesbian. You may not agree, but that is how it works – we make our own decisions with a few caveats like respecting my civil rights and yours, too.

I have no delusions that much will change. I’ve beat my head against this wall for years on this blog about accessing water at rock concerts and securing an aisle seat at a movie theatre. I’ve been to feminist events without accommodations. I’ve taken shifts guarding someone’s motorized chair so they could “access” a space with a walker and no place to safely leave said chair. I’ve been to civil rights marches that are miles and miles long without vans or chairs or bathrooms. When it comes to intersectional, disability intersections are often very low on the priority list.

That was never more clear to me than last month when I blogged about the filicide of a 19-year-old autistic AAPI trans woman named Kathryn Newhouse. The response to her death was harrowing and a terrible example of how truly awful all of us are when it comes to supporting people with disabilities. There’s not enough room in this world for my pain.

Still, this is Mental Health Awareness Month. I am trying to blog daily about my daily mental health experiences. And this is the experience for today. Let it be written, let it be done.

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  • I’ve experienced tremendous difficulty with the Carnegie Museums and reasonable accommodations. I call and leave many voice mails for their accessibility people and no one has EVER returned my calls. Then when I arrive for an event, they tell me I should have contacted them sooner. I think most of any institutions’ accessibility proclamations/publicity are performative only, and the People In Charge simply don’t care.

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