Access Review: AO Arena

This is very much a narrative account of my evening and is therefore very much a tl;dr situation.

Tl;dr: it was grim at every single stage, I cried all night, was made to walk around and up stairs unnecessarily and without aid, was basically left to wet myself and then I couldn’t use my legs for three days. 

Booking tickets

I first spent several days trying to figure out the following:

  • if access tickets existed (i.e. if there was access and also if I could get a free PA/Carer ticket)
  • How to contact AO to find out if access tickets existed

You can’t ring and speak to humans because all their tickets are sold through TicketMaster, where you also can’t speak to anyone for any specific queries, and which didn’t have any access information or Carer ticket options. It just says to call the venue. 

I eventually found on the AO website this rather long and cold statement about accessibility. Both here and on their website’s detailed pages describing the numbers of stairs etc (which is good, so thumbs up for that aspect of information provision) it simply says that if you need to speak to anyone about accessibility, you have to phone the access line. I then spent a few days ringing the access phone number. There was no answer. Actually, the phone didn’t even ring. I checked multiple times and across their different accessibility pages to make sure I had the right number, which I did, and then tried it on different phones to make sure it wasn’t an issue with me, but when I rang it, it just made that sound it makes when a phone line is dead. Just flatlined.

I emailed the access email, and had no reply. I then emailed again and tweeted AO Arena on the day of the concert (Saturday) asking them what I was meant to do. They tweeted back saying that I needed to email. I explained that I had. I then received a reply in my junk mail. The accessibility team was just the box office, they are not a specialist accessibility team. Their approach was to explore ways to blame my own incompetency and lies, apparently (super weird), for the problems I had faced trying to get in touch. 

They replied, but not to apologise for the confusion and help me book a ticket. This would have been one polite email sentence, which they didn’t even have to mean. 

I found this email in my junk folder later in the day: “Thank you for your email. The accessibility line is closed on Saturday, we are only open Monday-Friday 10am-5pm.  These tickets have been on-sale for a while, we do not have much availability left.  However if you could tell me your access requirements I can see if we have any availability.”

I email them again, this time having attached a form I found on the website that you have to fill in to prove you’re disabled and send them alongside evidence of PIP etc. A great process that I am sure you are all familiar with. I get a reply: 

Our accessibility line is open Monday to Friday from 10am – 5pm. We ask all customers to call and leave one voicemail with your name and number so if you can let me know your number I can check our call logs? This has been an extremely popular show and sold out very quickly of accessible seating.

Questions: 

  1. Where and when do you ask people to do this? I did not see this anywhere on the site which I trawled from top to bottom. 
  2. Where is this voicemail? The phone line is dead. A crucial part of why this email exchange is even happening.

Nevertheless, I replied with my mobile number, and explained again that the phone line was dead, that there would be no recorded message or voicemail as I hadn’t even had the opportunity to leave a message. Again, the phone line, which every other part of the website tells you to phone, was dead. 

Instead of dropping it and moving on to helping me get the damn tickets, their reply again focused on my lack of voicemail: If you call outside of the office hours, it won’t give you the option to leave a voicemail so this may be the case as I cannot locate your number in the call logs.

So now I am in some petty, passive aggressive war with a customer service person. The office hours thing, if it was true, which it wasn’t because the line had been dead all week, seems bizarre for an enormous venue that makes its fortunes from evening and weekend gigs, but whatever. I said (again) that I had been calling Thursday and Friday within those hours and that the line was dead. The next email didn’t mention it again and (finally) went onto booking a ticket. They made it clear that “You know, the tickets for this event have been available for a while, so we’ve basically sold out all the wheelchair seats anyway.” Again, my fault, apparently. I said that I could do without the wheelchair space, but that if this is the case then I would need to receive access support and be in the accessible block, which I read on the website was Block 105. Anyway, finally got the tickets sorted and was told to collect them at the box office (this was 2hrs before the event started).

Getting into the building

Remember when reading what follows, that I walk with two crutches and therefore am visibly disabled, and also that it was fucking freezing and windy.

We got out of the cab at the corner of the road. Asked a steward which way the entrance was. They pointed us towards the tunnel under the bridge. We could see it was a long walk away so we double-checked with another steward on the way to make sure we were going the right way for certain, as I didn’t want to do that whole walk and then be stranded. They confirmed and gave clearer instructions to walk under the bridge and turn left, then ‘it’s up there’. 

Got to the front (I think?) of the building. There are those millions of stairs up. To the left, there’s a shorter 2 flights of steep stairs (still a shit-ton of stairs) to a platform, where there was a security guard and more stewards and an entrance of some sort. Through the glass doors I could see a lift. I couldn’t see where else to go and thought, “Right, I am getting desperate. I will try make it up these stairs if that then means I can go inside and get in a lift and this freezing and painful part of the evening can be done with.” 

I was behind a family with an elderly member who struggled with the stairs too. They told her to wait there while they checked if it was worth coming up the stairs. They spoke to the stewards and then came back down :”It’s okay mum go back down we’re not going in this way, we’ve got to go back”. The steward & security guard watched me – painfully and slowly – hobble up these steps one at a time to get to them at the top. “Are you here for the Heineken lounge?” “No, I just really need to get in the building and get my tickets. Please can you help us? We have just been sent a really long way and I’m in a lot of pain.” 

“This is just for the Heineken lounge, you need the other entrance.” No room at the inn.

Could one of them really not have come and met me on the stairs to check I needed to climb all the way up? 

“I just really need a lift to get in – I’ve already walked all the way from the other side, up here and up these steps and I am in a lot of pain.”

“The lift is actually inside Victoria train station.” WTF?!

I ask if someone can show us because  we just need to get inside to pick up our tickets. They asked where I was meant to pick them up from, I showed them the email that just said ‘Box Office’.

They mutter to themselves. “Can we get a supervisor?” “No, I just sent him off with the older lady” 

“There is a lift behind you please can you just let me in so I can get in the building and get some help? I just need to get inside and sit down.”

“Which box office?”

“I don’t know just the box office?”

“Yeah right so you need to go back round through the tunnel where you came from, up there and then go to your right and up the hill-,”

“Are you joking?”

“No, sorry. Then if you need an accessible entrance, you can come back around here to use the train station lift and go through security. 

“Walk all the way back where we have come from, then come all the way back here and around the train station? I can’t do that? There is a lift right behind you, can no-one help me out? You’re going to make me walk all the way back again and then up a hill?”

“Yeah”

“Even though I am disabled?”

Mild awkwardness “Yep. This lift is for the Heineken lounge and we’d need a supervisor so…”

“I can wait for supervisor.”

“Nah he’s gone.”

I felt my eyes well up and made my very wobbly and vertigo-inducing way back down the stairs of doom, trying to use all my energy to move my legs and to not fall forwards.

Steward bounces around at the bottom of the stairs “Hi guys you alright?”

“No” I say bursting into tears, “we’ve just been sent the wrong way and I just need to get indoors in a lift”

“Oh right, well the train station lift is broken so you can’t go that way-,”

“Broken?!” So if I had followed the Heineken lounge advice, I would have arrived at a broken lift.

“So yeah, go back through the tunnel-,”

Yeah, yeah. Back through the tunnel. My legs at this point are starting to reach their maximum output zone. When this happens they start shaking aggressively. We get back to the corner and ask the steward what’s going on and explain that we’ve been sent all over the shop.

They’re like “Oh, you didn’t say you had to collect your tickets, you’ve got to go up this hill and under the tunnel”

Uphill. Uphill is just stairs but less pointy and more sneaky. We go uphill and into the tunnel and see the box office. Ask stewards here what is going on. Legs are shaking, “is there anywhere I can sit down for a minute?”

“There will be when you get inside.” Well yeah, duh, when I’m inside in my seat I will be sat down, yes. Queue with shaking legs in lots of pain, struggling to stay upright then can flump on counter – they have only reserved me one ticket. I had to say again in front of everyone that there is meant to be a PA/carer ticket, that it is all in the email thread, and that that is why it is being held at box office. Anyone who has ever booked a PA/Carer ticket anywhere will be familiar with this charade. There is then a long period of muttering and faffing and not telling me what’s going on, while everyone stares at me, before then sorting out the ticket. I notice during this time that a steward has been assigned to the family with the older lady who had a walking stick, and the steward was walking them in to make sure they got to the right place. I didn’t manage to catch them and ask them to wait for me. Got tickets. Ask steward where to go that’s an accessible route. Steward points up grim corridor: “There’s a lift there”. I could see there were multiple doors and things at the end. “Can someone show us please, because we don’t know where we’re going and I’m really struggling here?”

“No, it’s just down there, someone will tell you where to go.”

What is wrong with this place? Find our way to a lift where we are hustled in and then go up to a concourse. Security time.

“Got any liquids?”

“Yeah my morphine”

“MORPHINE?!?!?”

“It’s prescription.” I show him the bottle with the prescription sticker on it and he doesn’t look down at it but continues looking at me. “Morphine?”

“Yeah, look, it’s my pain medication, it’s prescription.” 

I then get a full body search with the bleepy thing. Fair enough, I am actually down for all the security measures. I was worried for a bit that he was going to try and say I couldn’t take it in, but thankfully I just had to have a head-to-toe bleep done and that was it.

Getting to our seats

We thankfully see the block number of our tickets is right near where we have come in, so we show tickets to a steward who looks at them and then points us down the MAD steep stairs to our row. At this point, I would crawl to my seat if that made it happen any quicker. I hobble down stairs – everyone is looking at me because-, well, because I am a 6 foot blonde female aged 28 who mobilizes with two crutches which apparently is akin to wearing a flaming hat that says “Look at me for more than 10 seconds and I’ll give you a million dollars”. But also because my legs and arms are wobbling very visibly and it really looks like I am about to topple over completely like jelly. I get to the seats, four steps down, and then realise that she has sent us to the wrong side of the row. The temptation to just scream is overwhelming. Doing this would definitely make me fall over down the stairs and off the balcony though, so I don’t.

I get assisted back up four steps and she’s like “What are you doing?” 

“You sent us to the wrong place.”

“Oh, right.” No apology, no guidance, nothing. Wobble along and down the four steps on the other side of the row into our seats. Unbelievable. My legs are numb, I am not sure I can get them to warm up and be movable again, or if they are about to have the cramping fit that happens, or if they are literally going to just stop working, so I am going to have to cause more of a scene and have even more people muttering about me because I won’t be able to get back up the stairs.

*First act of show happens*

People around me are nice and let me sit in the aisle so I can stretch my left leg out as my hip has twisted from all the stairs and walking.

Interval

I need a wee. I manage to temporarily cheer myself up through sheer force of will just enough during the show, through some initial silent tears in the dark, to convince myself that going to the toilet will be fine, because I have a radar key and the stewards here might be more used to helping out disabled audience members than the ones outside. Back up the four steep stairs on the wobbly legs, which are VERY wobbly now. We get out and walk to where the disabled toilet is supposed to be (i.e. near the accessible block) but looking around the corner as well, one isn’t visible. Best to ask someone so that we don’t have a repeat of the box office. We ask and they say “Yeah, just follow the signs.” 

“Are they around the other side?!”

Off we go again. The ladies is nearer than the disabled ones. I stare at the queue to ladies and my heart must have visibly dropped, as a steward approaches to ask if I’m okay.

“I really need a wee and I can’t stand in that queue.”

“Have you got a thingy key? I’ll take you to disabled toilets”

We then walk half-way around the arena. Again. But at least someone has identified that I need help and is also treating me like a human. She takes me to disabled toilets where there is an enormous queue of people leading off the one disabled toilet. One. 

I explained with a wobbly bottom lip; “I can’t queue, my legs are fucked already from all of this, I can barely stand still for half a minute”

She goes, “Oh dear love, I’ll check the women’s cos they have cubicles too.” Thank G-d, finally someone is helping me.  She comes out and goes, “No, there’s a big queue there as well.”

Hmm… I am confused. Clearly I was wrong in assuming that she meant she would go in with me to the front of the queue so that I could quite urgently access a toilet cubicle.

“Well, can’t you come in and help me just get into a cubicle?”

“No, there’s a queue.”

I start to feel a slight out of body experience coming on. Have I been speaking in tongues all evening? Do I not actually mobilize with two crutches? Do I exist? “But I am literally about to wet myself.”

“Oh, are you alright? There’s the disabled toilet.” She motions again at the enormous standing only queue for disabled toilet. 

“I can’t stand in the queue.” Fully crying now.

She pulls a sympathetic face, “Ohhh, yeah. Oh dear. You alright?”

“No, I have had the worst access experience tonight, and now you’re telling me I’m actually going to end my evening here by pissing myself in front of everybody?” I looked her in the eyes, through my tears. She pulls the sympathetic face. “I don’t what else to suggest.”

I am already leaking and can feel it down my leg. I start hobbling off just wanting to find a space of the floor to sit on as my legs are really struggling. I then see the men’s toilets like an oasis mirage in front of me. I ask the steward there through tears if there are cubicles in this toilet.

He says “Yeah, but they’re at the other end.”

“I really need to go, I am going to go in.”

“Erm, you’ll have to wait for me to get a steward, ‘cos you’ll have to walk past a long row of urinals and there’s quite a lot of men in there at the minute.”

Oh no, my eyes shall burn. I just go in and hobble along the men’s just about holding my sobs in with tears streaming down my face and then have to wait a bit for a cubicle, holding onto the wall, leaking even more now, and then finally go in, pee what’s left and then. Just. Cry. I wanted the toilet to swallow me. That would be gross but preferable to the cloud of humiliation that was behind the cubicle door. I couldn’t actually stop crying, so instead I tried to calm it down a bit and had to just rub my legs to try get them to be alright enough to be able to get me across the floor back to my seat. I come out, trying to maintain a sense of dignity, but swaying. Half the men don’t even seem to notice me, but I feel naked, exposed and humiliated. It feels like my body is hyper-visible to everyone else, super distorted and twisted and repulsive to everyone. Especially as I walk out of the men’s and loads of people stare at me. 

I was going to say at this point that this is one of many reasons why unisex toilets would be great, but I’m pretty sure that if AO decided to do this, it would just be used as an excuse to half the number of toilets and put overpriced bars and merch stands in their place. 

I can’t stop crying but I’m trying to hold it in as quietly as possible, as I stagger to my seat. All I can think about is whether or not the next step will follow this one, constantly in fear that the next step I try to take will be the last one, where my legs collapse altogether. More staring. Spent rest of the show weeping and wanting to go home but unable to because my legs needed serious rest and rubbing in order to be able to get me up and moving again.

The Irony

The irony of all this, is that the show I was there to see was Strictly Live. This may seem a bit basic to many of my friends, but Strictly always envelopes me with a warm, sequinned hug throughout the winter, and this year was particularly special because of how much winning superstar Rose did to raise not just awareness, but interest in, and passion for, British Sign Language as well as accessibility at live events. 

Why is my experience ironic? Because all over the Strictly promotional material, including over the Arena site, are boasts of how the show is the biggest ever arena show with full BSL accessibility. This is wonderful, obviously, and the irony lies in that I intended to go and have an evening that would celebrate diversity and disability, only to be humiliated by repeated instances of ableism that caused me a great deal of hurt. 

It was horrible

None of this is intended to throw any shade at individual stewards, although there was evidently a lot to be desired. The AO states on their website: “All of our customer facing staff have undertaken Deaf and disability awareness training and will do their best to ensure your visit is both enjoyable and safe.” I don’t believe these staff received adequate training, and my evening was neither of those things. 

If the AO Arena would like to book an accessibility consultancy appointment with me, I can provide some very simple and easy to implement advice that will significantly improve their accessibility. Paid, of course. That might go some way to make up for the three days of work I missed because I was rendered immobile by the time I got home. Not sure how far that would go to make up for the humiliation, degradation, pain and injury.

Rated: 1/5

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