Accessible Arts part 2: maze rollers

Adventures in wheelchair access to Portland music events

by DAVID MACLAINE

Have you have ever been to one of those restaurants with paper placemats designed to keep children occupied for a few precious minutes? Remember those mazes where the young ones try to trace a pencil line from opening to goal? Or perhaps you know teens, or even twenty-somethings who pay visits each autumn to a corn maze.

The challenge of the labyrinth, the quaint pleasure of braving corridors that twist and turn and double back, which offers only the dubious pleasure of emerging unscathed at the other end, may seem like one of those childhood delights that we can abandon with few regrets when we decide to embrace the “grown-up” role. But if you intend to maintain the most active life you can, despite whatever tribulations may befall along the way, that practice threading through mazes may be more handy than you expect.

Loedewijck Toepet, aka Lodovico Pozzoserrato, “Pleasure Garden with a Maze,” ca. 1579-84, oil on canvas, 147.4 x 200 cm, Hampton Court Palace, London

That, at least has been my experience the last five years attending concerts with my partner who now needs a wheelchair to get around. Thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act, your concert venue will almost certainly provide a decent place for chair-using fans to enjoy the show. But getting there may require you to dust off your maze-running skills.

Earlier, when Konnie could still barely manage to get to a regular seat, there were various adventures with the devices–first a walker, then an electric scooter– that got to the building and down the aisle to the row of seats, and some further challenges when it came to finding a safe place to stow the aid in question. But in time the power chair was the only option, which meant that proper wheelchair seating was the only section she could use. That’s when the maze running began.

Obstacle Course

Typical examples would be our jaunts the last two summers to the Montavilla Jazz Festival.

• Getting to the venue. The Portland Metro Arts Center where the Festival takes place is only 11 blocks from our place, but conditions on the street in East Portland make what should be an easy neighborhood scoot the first maze for us to solve. Many sidewalks lack curb cuts, so any trip through our neighborhood involves more than a few blocks rolling on the street, where the next obstacle is the minefield of potholes on poorly maintained roads. We haven’t yet worked out a route that would rate as “Good,” although we have just about edged up from “Poor” to “Fair.”

Portland Metro Arts Center

• Entering the building. Arrival at the Arts Center brings the next test: the main entrance is up a short flight of steps. A sign directs wheelchair users toward a side door, just a few feet away along a narrow sidewalk. On both our trips, this sidewalk was obstructed by various accessories belonging to a food stand. As is all too common with sidewalks in this city, the idea that they ought to be kept clear at all times had not sunk in. (City ordinance requires keeping sidewalks unobstructed, a rule enforced about as often as the one that requires scooter riders to wear helmets).

In both cases the path was cleared for us fairly quickly, but of course both times left us with that spike of irritation you get when a simple thing becomes impossible because someone hasn’t thought of how their actions affect others. Once the obstructions were removed, we entered through the same door the musicians used to come and go, turned left down a hallway and made our entry through the makeshift curtain that divides that passage from main entryway.

• Reaching the performance space. Once within it was a matter of heading to the ticket table and making our needs known over the sound of music playing from the area just beyond and behind them, a large space with tables and monitors and its own small where student performances take place between the mainstage acts. Last year that space became the torment of Tantalus because we quickly discovered that all those amenities were a step down, and therefore off-limits for Konnie. This year a ramp had been installed to solve that problem, when we were on a schedule that left no time to enjoy that access.

• To the main stage. Once through the preliminary mazes and past the obstacles, the wheelchair seating for the Festival proper is quite nice. The general admission area is reachable only by steps, so by necessity people in wheelchairs must use the rows of portable seats normally reserved for patrons or other V.I.P.s. The usher removes a seat, the chair scoots in, and we enjoy a lovely close-up view of the musicians.

• Taking a break. The restroom facilities are a tighter fit than Konnie prefers, but they are at least reachable by a direct route. Popping out between acts with the main waiting area off limits means a greater temptation to exit the building, which means retracing route to the side door and then back to the narrow sidewalk. This makes it distinctly tougher to take full advantage of the festival’s ala carte option, popping in and out to enjoy the acts that most appeal. On our first visit we took one break for dinner; on our second Konnie simply waited for the headline act.

Inadequate Guidance

Side door entries like this are not an uncommon feature for concerts that take place in local churches. Downtown Portland’s First Baptist Church, our preferred site for concerts by the Portland Baroque Orchestra, is one of several whose main entrance is up a flight of stairs. A sign indicates that entrance for people with disabilities can be found around the corner, so on our earliest visit we took the trek away from the crowds in front, wheeling past a long deserted stretch of wall and street (a tad intimidating for someone taking that route alone) until we found a way in. It was a quaint private entrance, that included a gate–fortunately open– and a path, and a back door with a sign over a button saying “Ring Bell if Locked.” No sign told people with disabilities which door to enter, but this one was ajar, and after we gained entry we found ourselves at the very back of the church, threading a winding path past lounging musicians, restrooms, and the hall with refreshments before finally reaching the performance space, where naturally our reserved spaces were on the far side.

Downtown Portland’s First Baptist Church

This particular maze was tedious, but less painful than the process of working out which of the wheelchair slots was set on a slant and therefore a painful choice for Konnie’s arthritic back. Eventually we determined that the safest choice was up front to the side, or if that wasn’t available, to settle for the very back row. In the last case we might be a bit awkwardly placed for traffic flow and farther from the performers, but those were acceptable trade-offs to avoid ending up on a slope.

By the time we had come to this conclusion, we discovered that our long detour through the musicians’ entrance was unnecessary. Another, closer door on that side of the building, unmarked, unattended and shut on our first excursion, was now available and manned by helpful ushers, and instead of an elaborate roundabout, this entry brought us in very close to where we sat.

In all our dealings with the PBO, the ushers were attentive and did their very best to help, were in fact alerted to keep an eye out for us from the time we bought our tickets. But because after the first sign that sent us off around the corner, there were no clear signs on the outside of the church to direct us, we could only enjoy the aid of those helpful ushers after we had located a door that would get us in.

A Kalakendra concert at First Baptist Church

The pitfalls of the First Baptist Church are magnified if the organization using the space is less familiar with these features, and apparently never stops to wonder how wheelchairs are supposed to get in. Such was the case with a recent concert of Indian music sponsored by Kalakendra. The music was great, but I’m not at all sure how Konnie would ever have gotten in without an aide who could use the stairs. After I had entered to secure our tickets, and went back outside for our now-familiar we discovered that even the minimal signage PBO provides was missing, and both the “proper” door, and gated way were tightly locked. Back in I went, and while I was waiting for the person summoned to address the problem and open a door–after Konnie had been waiting five minutes on the street–I saw that she had managed to finagle her way in when the sound technician used the door.

As it turned out her memories of the evening are ecstatic ones–her first exposure to this sort of music was everything one might hope for–but getting in to hear it was a dance on the edge of disaster.

Long and Winding Road

Our maze-running adventures during the last season of big events at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral were a similar mix of compromise and misunderstanding. Unlike First Baptist, which is built into a hillside and therefore includes some street-level access, Trinity was constructed atop its own little hill, and the addition of ramps in front solves the problem by means of a series of switchbacks, long legs that take the chair on a back and forth journey that gets there eventually.

Wheelchair ramp dedication at Trinity Cathedral.

It’s not a difficult maze to decipher, just a slow and tedious one to traverse. It also has the drawback of bringing us to a side entrance the length of the cathedral from where tickets are sold, but as I am still able to dash up the stairs to the “Will Call” table, we have never tackled the issue of how unaccompanied wheelchair patrons handle traversing the performance space before they reach the area where tickets are secured.

Our usual spaces for the concerts–up front and on the very right side–are good ones for seeing and hearing the performers. Unfortunately, the open space at the front of the cathedral, which at a normal service would provide a speedy way to cross from one side to another, was blocked on these occasions by seating for performers (mostly the orchestra).

Reaching those seats from the left-side entry where the front ramp deposits us therefore means a run through the maze of the cathedral interior: up the left aisle, across the rear, back up the right side, with the first part of that journey upstream from the main traffic flow. On the plus side, the restroom with the best design for real accessibility is just outside the closest door.

Monica Huggett conducts Portland Baroque Orchestra at Trinity Cathedral in 2017.

On our first trip to Trinity, an usher accidentally seated in the very front row, in an area supposedly kept clear for the convenience of the musicians. I don’t think we bothered them especially, and it was illuminating to enjoy Eine Kleine Nachtmusik from roughly the same perspective as the second violins. During the process of sorting out the error at intermission, we were pleased to discover that we would still be sitting at the front of the hall on the right–Trinity is a space where sound dies quickly as you move farther back– easing our momentary worry after hearing a passing mention of “at the back.” We were directed to seating that offered a splendid view and excellent sound, and became acquainted with the PBO’s executive director while accepting her profuse apologies. On this occasion it all worked out in the end.

There was one annoyance suffered during those first few visits that turned out to be easily avoidable. Unwilling to face that long roundabout path through the exiting crowds, we decided to wait until the Cathedral had mostly emptied before we departed. Konnie asked me if there was any way for her to get out through the exit nearest that handy restroom, and I had stepped out onto the landing, looked around, and concluded that the only way out on that side was down stairs— impossible for her.

A couple of concerts later I finally took the extra steps around the corner that revealed an unsuspected ramp down that side, perfectly placed for a rapid getaway. Once again, the trial and error method proved a tad heavy on the “error”: my own in jumping to conclusions, and that of the church in not providing a clear sign that said “Wheelchair Exit.” Next time we go I should try to find out if they will take our tickets and let us enter on that side, instead of at the entry that the entire design of the front approach leads toward.

Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall

Ups and Downs

Our maze challenges up to this point had all been two dimensional. But on our first trip back to Portland State University’s remodeled Lincoln Performance Hall in 2017 we found a vertical dimension added to the puzzle. It wasn’t hard for me to find the balcony level that provides a lovely wide space for wheelchair users, as inviting as any we’ve yet encountered. It was “right up there,” an easy shot for someone who could use the stairs.

But how exactly does an audience member using a wheelchair get there? Well, as best I can remember, the direction was “Go down there to the elevator, get off at the first stop, get on the other elevator, go up another level, exit from the door opposite the one you went in, then ride along this elevated walkway until you reach the door to your left.” I suspect that I have some part of that wrong, but I remember a great deal of puzzlement before we finally emerged from our elevator adventures. Perhaps next time around, PSU or the presenter will provide written directions or an usher who can guide us, and we won’t feel quite so much like Maxwell Smart passing through the array of deceptive doors and drops to reach C.O.N.T.R.O.L Headquarters. It was some consolation that the excellent sound quality on the wheelchair balcony at no point brought to mind the Cone of Silence.

When you have grown accustomed to taking what would, in the old days, have been the servants’ entrance, it is a relief to visit more modern halls where main door access is easy, and the spaces reserved for wheelchair-using audience members are just inside the hall itself. Granted, the convenience of the seating at Keller Auditorium and the Newmark Theatre arises because in both spaces wheelchair seating is at the very back of the main floor.

In years past when I was buying season tickets to the opera we were closer, but those were also the days when Konnie still tortured her ruined knees transferring from mobility device to a standard chair, and a bit of extra distance is a small price to pay to be seated without pain. And the Newmark, where Portland Opera now does a couple of productions every year, is intimate enough that being at the back matters not at all, except that there are some spots where it requires uncomfortable leaning from wheelchair height to see past the balcony overhang to the supertitles on a screen above the stage. But even if you accidently book one of those seats, there are side-of-stage title screens available as back-up.

For both of these halls there is a minor bit of maze-running to reach the accessible restrooms, the single-patron rooms with space for necessary maneuvers, which in both cases are found to the left of the hall. Once you have got the locations down, the process isn’t too bad, although using them at intermission involves the familiar frustration of navigation through crowds of oblivious patrons for whom stopping to socialize apparently brings on complete amnesia about the notion that others may need to move from point A to point B, and that human bodies are semi-solid obstacles. I have maintained my agility in part by long practice darting through the microscopic spaces left by Mesmerized chatters; but the wheelchair can’t do that, and we have to displace dozens on each pass as we “excuse me” through the throng.

Portland5’s Newmark Theatre

But at least these restrooms are fully accessible once you reach them. Several of the other locations I have mentioned have spaces that may technically qualify but whose drawbacks have put them on Konnie’s “I’ll go before we leave and hold it” list. The women’s room at First Baptist has the little wheelchair logo and actually includes two stalls for their use, but an unfortunate slant to the layout means that it’s impossible to maneuver the chair to the front of the toilet. There’s plenty of space to the side, but that doesn’t solve the fundamental problem, because you can’t transfer to the toilet unless you can walk. A geometric misjudgement produces an “accessible” restroom space that is really just an unsolvable maze.

Making Space

The oddest of our forays into wheelchair seating came when we got to watch a space be created that wasn’t there before. Among the options offered for wheelchair patrons at Arlene Schnitzer Concert is a spot on the end of any row. (The alternatives were either in the posh mezzanine section, which it turned out was NOT an option for lowly Arts For All users, or the back of the hall, a notorious dead spot in that venue.) When we chose a seat fairly close up though to the side, the ticket-seller said he would pass on a note to staff to prepare that space in advance.

But as it happened, the message went astray, and we had to wait in the aisle while the usher summoned someone from the custodial staff to make the change. It turns out that they just pop the proper wrench fitting on the power drill and whip out the heavy screws that bolt each chair to the floor. This creates the space for a chair, although it also leaves tighter footroom for the patron sitting behind.

The balcony, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall/Courtesy Wikimedia

Our embarrassment at clogging the aisle during the process of taking out a seat just for us did bring to mind that scene in Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy where dinner service for one involves a spotlight that draws the eye of every patron in the place to the diner’s solo status. It is fortunate that of the two of us, Konnie is the extrovert, comfortable calling on salespeople for help, while I would much rather deal as little as possible with strangers. Being the one who orders and picks up the wheelchair seats has extended my comfort zone a bit, but I hate to contemplate how much I might be tempted to give up if I were the one who found myself in a chair forced again and again to ask for directions so I can thread the latest maze.

But I will say to those who share my painfully reserved personality: the people we do end up asking for those instructions have invariably been eager to help, and most of the time they succeed in their effort, provide the information we need, do their best to get us seated with a minimum of fuss and bother. What impatience and resentment we do on rare occasions meet tends to arise on the bus or MAX we ride to our events. Grumpy transit riders (and drivers) are old news to people in wheelchairs, part of the price of an evening out, just as the challenge of parking is for drivers.

Advice for Accessibility

There are a few obvious changes presenters might make that would improve the experience of arts patrons with mobility limitations.

  • When you direct your patrons to a side entrance, make sure the sidewalk that leads there is clear.
  • Listen to your patrons. Konnie brought the waiting space problem to the attention of the Jazz Festival, and they made the necessary improvement.
  • Provide clear signs on the outside of buildings so that patrons sent to seek their entry know when they have found the right door.
    Provide clear signage inside buildings too. A visible sign on the inside indicating that the side exit is accessible would have helped us find our shortcut out of Trinity.
  • And although it shouldn’t need saying, when you’re planning a show in a venue, scout out the premises so you know how your disabled patrons will need to get in, and actually think about what you will need to do to make that happen.

Wheelchair ramp at Salem’s Pentacle Theater

Other problems are not as easy to address. If the architect who remodels your antique restroom gets the real requirements of “accessibility” wrong, a solution is likely to involve considerable expense. And they do blunder, in ways that amaze: famous Portland cartoonist John Callahan was trapped for hours in a stall at PSU because the doors opened the wrong direction.

Portland artist John Callahan

Once you have designed and built a system as complicated as the elevator access at Lincoln Hall, you don’t have much recourse, other than painting a path with directions on the floor, or passing out headphones that provide step-by-step instructions like those that GPS systems use to direct drivers. Or perhaps just hire an extra usher or find a volunteer who is free to walk patrons who need it through the maze?

And human nature as it manifests in our self-centered culture makes me suspect that no change short of standard-issue cattle prods will solve the problem of oblivious traffic-blocking intermission crowds.

While it’s sometimes galling that using these venues can require brushing up on your maze-solving skills, the payoff of great music makes for a prize worth winning by those willing to face the challenge and start rolling. The Minotaur is long dead, and if you can navigate your way through them, these little labyrinths often lead at last to harmony, virtuosity, genius and joy.

Readers and presenters, please let us know about your experiences with accessibility and Oregon arts in the comments section below this and the other stories in this series. Read Part 1 here.

David Maclaine is a Portland writer.

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