How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
The last time Rachelle Chapman danced on her own two feet was May 22, 2010 — the night of her bachelorette party. She spent the evening getting dressed up with her best friends before a limo whisked them off to her favorite local bars.
“Dancing was my favorite thing to do in the world, but eventually we got really exhausted, our feet hurt, and we decided to come back and go for a swim,” she says.
She stood at the edge of the pool, hesitating to take a dip in the late spring chill, when a friend playfully pushed her in. The prank ended up paralyzing her from the chest down.
After spending months rehabilitating her body and learning to use a wheelchair, Chapman was eager to regain a sense of normalcy in her life.
She wanted to celebrate Halloween like most 20-somethings: going out to bars and dancing.
But it would prove to be a completely different nightlife experience than what she was used to.
“There were so many crowds and navigating them in a wheelchair was frustrating,” says Chapman, who’s now a spokesperson at Dallas Novelty, a sex toy company for people with disabilities.
“People couldn’t see me because I was so low to the ground and they couldn’t hear me saying ‘excuse me’ because the music was super loud. I don’t think I danced at all that first night.”
Calling ahead to check on accessibility — often to uncertainty — and finding alternatives
Chapman’s not alone in her experience. Many people with disabilities feel they’ve been overlooked by nightlife establishments. Bathrooms are frequently inaccessible, intoxicated clubbers lose their inhibitions and sometimes get aggressive, and staff don’t know how to accommodate them, let alone keep them safe.
It’s a struggle, but that doesn’t stop the pursuit of the party
The challenge of going to bars and clubs does, however, force people with disabilities to make compromises in their nightlife experience — a lot of them.
You can’t assume you’ll be able to get into a venue with a wheelchair, says Dallas Novelty founder Nick Mahler, who has a rare condition known fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, which turns his muscles, ligaments, and tendons into bone. He frequently travels around the country for adult industry events.
When he wants to go out at night, he has his wife and sister call the bars and clubs ahead of time to ensure they can accommodate Mahler’s 600-pound power wheelchair.
“They look for entrances to make sure I’m able to get into places,” he says. “Some entryways are too narrow — I need at least 29 inches to get through — and some double doors have a spine down the middle. A lot of times businesses think if they have a ramp, they’re fine, but I can’t always go up it.”
The uncertainty of getting into a bar or club drives some people with disabilities to seek alternative nighttime entertainment.
Alison Carville, an independent public relations consultant who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, opts to go to chain restaurants, such as TGI Fridays, and movie theaters when she wants a night out with friends.
“There are ramps and wide aisles, and the servers are attentive to my needs,” she explains.
You won’t usually find Quemuel Arroyo, policy analyst for the New York City Department of Transportation, at the local bars around his home in Greenwich Village, even though he likes going out a couple nights a week for a drink.
That’s because they don’t easily accommodate his wheelchair, which he started using 11 years ago after sustaining a spinal cord injury in a mountain biking accident.
“I find myself quite limited to hotel bars and lounges because they tend to be in newer buildings, and that almost guarantees me an accessible bathroom,” Arroyo says.
“I end up having to spend a lot more money than my friends when I go out because I can’t go to the cheap bar down my street — I have to seek higher-end, accessible facilities.”
He was reminded of the importance of checking for an accessible restroom just last week, when he was at a hookah bar on New York’s Lower East Side and nature called.
“The hookah bar didn’t have an accessible bathroom, so I went around a five-block radius to try to find one and I couldn’t. I was so angry and upset, and it reminded me that no amount of money would make my environment welcoming, inviting, and accessible to someone with a physical disability,” says Arroyo.
The vast majority of bars, clubs, and event spaces were designed with standing patrons in mind, creating potentially awkward situations inside for people with seated bodies.
“A lot of places only have tall tables. If I go out with friends, I have to use a bar stool as my table while everyone else is up high,” says Chapman.
It’s difficult to have conversations when you’re much lower than everyone else. It’s even more difficult to order drinks from a bar at that height.
“If I go out to bars and clublike places, the bar’s usually six inches to a foot above my head,” added Carville.
Treatment by venue staff — and other customers — can make or break your night
Treatment from staff at nightlife venues varies depending on where you go. Bouncers have helped Chapman find alternative entrances when the main door to the bar couldn’t fit her wheelchair, and bartenders will try to spot her in the crowds when she comes up to order a drink.
However, sometimes door staff deny entry to people with disabilities out of fear that a mobility device could cause a safety hazard in a dark, crowded space.
“I’ve been turned away [from bars and nightlife venues] mainly because there was no way I was going to fit — either the space was too narrow or too crowded, and I wouldn’t be able to move around. Staff at venues I show up to are very uncomfortable when they see me approach,” says Arroyo.
Even inside, the hospitality might not improve. Some people with disabilities have faced discrimination from the staff at nightlife venues.
“A lot of times the staff at clubs don’t expect that you can afford anything, because a lot of people with disabilities are on fixed incomes,” says Mahler.
“At one club in Los Angeles, they wouldn’t bring us the drinks we ordered, even though everyone around us got their drinks. I’ve learned not to get really mad, though. It doesn’t do any good.”
But the real highs and lows might be more likely to come not from the service, but from other customers.
They might perform random acts of kindness, either by trying to clear a path when a person using a wheelchair needs to get through, or even covering their bar tab.
“I’m surprised by how many free drinks I get from either people around me or the bartenders,” says Arroyo, whose statement was echoed by Mahler and Chapman.
“I assume they come out of pity, but at the price tags of the drinks at places I go to, I’ll take it,” he adds.
Getting stares seems to be par for the course when you roll up to a nightlife venue in a wheelchair — but the real problem comes when intoxicated people start behaving in disturbingly inappropriate ways.
“There’s the occasional drunk person who thinks of me as a designated chair. Usually it’s a very drunk woman who sees an attractive guy in a wheelchair as a harmless person for them to throw their dead weight and drunken selves onto, and expect complete obedience from me,” says Arroyo.
“They’re utterly shocked when I extend my hand in front of my lap and say, ‘This is a no parking zone. Keep moving,’” he says.
Naturally, if someone violated your personal space and safety when you’re out having a good time, you’d probably want to leave right away.
That’s not always an option for people with disabilities, who often need to arrange transportation in advance. Arroyo, for example, usually requests a car 20 to 30 minutes before he’s ready to go.
The ongoing need to solve logistical challenges makes it hard to enjoy the fun in the moment, says Carville.
“People with disabilities are always anticipating what’s next and how we’re getting there and how to best be ourselves,” she says. “I can’t not think about these kinds of things [like getting rides.]”
What does accessible nightlife look like?
Do some cities in the world offer better nightlife experiences for people with disabilities?
Sure. Berlin’s been touted as “the best city to party in a wheelchair.” Los Angeles and Las Vegas are “probably the best for accessible nightlife,” according to Mahler, since most the buildings there are newer and tend to have accessible facilities.
Arroyo argues that New York City’s a good destination for nightlife for people with disabilities. The density of places to go in Manhattan makes it easier for him to bar hop.
Chapman, on the other hand, considers the Big Apple to be the worst place for accessible nightlife due to the uneven sidewalks and ubiquity of stairs. She prefers the ease of going out in Raleigh or Virginia Beach.
Given the sheer diversity of body types and ways of getting around, it’s hard to pinpoint one particular city that’s created truly enjoyable, accessible nightlife for every person who wants to party.
There are some tweaks owners of bars, restaurants, clubs, and music venues around the world could make to create a friendlier environment for their customers with disabilities.
“A very simple place to start would be flipping the hinges on bathroom doors so they open out. That way, I could fit my wheelchair in,” says Arroyo.
“Business owners can also be more mindful of having high and low tables. Getting rid of the step at the entry and creating a ramp so everybody could come spend money at their establishment would also make a big difference.”
But until nightlife spaces start becoming more accessible, people with disabilities will find other places to party — and take their money along with them.
“If there’s one universal language, it’s money, and they’re missing out on mine and my friends’ and family’s when they don’t have accessible facilities,” says Arroyo.
Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, the Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Prevention, HealthyWay, Thrillist, and more. Keep up with her on Instagram and check out her portfolio.