Why should we bother making comedy more accessible? | James Gardner thinks the industry considers disabled people an inconvenience…

Why should we bother making comedy more accessible?

James Gardner thinks the industry considers disabled people an inconvenience…

Ask any comedian their ideal room to perform in and invariably they’ll describe some sort of basement setting: underground with a low ceiling and an audience packed in, shoulder-to-shoulder.  They might mention an attic, comedy’s archetypal room above a pub, but that’s just an upstairs basement.

What makes this sort of venue so thrilling to play?  It’s just better.  It’s the optimum environment for making people laugh. Everyone knows this.  If you’re a comedy purist - and at the risk of romanticising – you’ll know that comedy was designed to be performed here.  

It’s so much easier to create a conducive atmosphere in a smaller room; 30 people in a basement can create a cacophony of laughter, the noise amplifying and reverberating with every punchline.  You can also mitigate the risk of poorly attended night far more easily in a small, basement room.  Even with 10 people in attendance, it will look and feel busy.

It's not just about the comedians, the audience will have a better time.  Their experience is paramount, and they’d much rather see you tell jokes in a small room with no windows down two flights of stairs.  It’s more immersive, a greater departure from reality.

Of course, some people: the woke, meddling, socialist, martyring, liberal minority might suggest otherwise.  Some of these people, though, carry a severe bias against comedy clubs:  they’re disabled.  Some of them are the worst kind of disabled too, they’re in wheelchairs or have very limited mobility which means – of course – they like to moan about accessibility.  

But comedy wasn’t designed for them, so they shouldn’t take it personally.  There are lots of things that weren’t designed for them like live-music, air-travel, bricks-and-mortar retail, restaurants, parks, festivals, educational institutions, public transport and so on.   Why should comedy be the one to change?

Yes, some (ok, very few) comedians do their bit to make comedy more accessible by providing BSL interpreters or captioning at their own cost.  Some clubs are now level access and some comedians are even disabled themselves.  That’s progress enough surely?

I’m not disabled.  I enjoy a non-disabled privilege where everything is accessible to me.  Stairs, escalators, lifts, planes, restaurants, pavements, parks, festivals, basements, buses…I can do the lot.  Not a problem. 


I am the problem.  I perform in inaccessible venues with impunity.  Do I make a fuss about it?  No.  Do I down tools over it?  No.  Do I demand change?  No.  I just want to be booked.  It’s not my problem to fix and I like to think I’ve served my time fighting an unfair system in support of disabled people.  More specifically, one person.

My older brother Alexander is severely disabled.  He has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and is non-verbal.  Alexander spends most of his life in a moulded wheelchair – he’s unable to sit up or support himself without it.  He has complex needs and requires a high level of care, 24 hours a day.

Alexander communicates with his eyes, looking up for ‘yes’ or down for ‘no’ and talks by pointing at a series of clues and cues, which you then have to interpret through a series of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions before arriving at the answer.  Once there you have to rearticulate the fragmented pieces of conversation into a coherent sentence - in his persona - while he conducts you with a series of ‘yeses’ and relevant facial expression.  

Alexander has a brilliant personality and a wicked sense of humour and he might be trying to tell you anything, from a song he’s suddenly remembered in the charts 30 years ago (he loves music) or he might be telling me to go and fuck myself for something I’ve done that’s annoyed him.  (The latter is particularly amusing when I have to tell myself, in his persona of course)

I’ve grown up as a carer for Alexander and spent my formative years pushing his wheelchair around the housing estate we lived in, navigating our way round the fences my friends would jump over to get onto the red-ash football pitches.  When I was older, I took Alexander see his favourite bands, often in basement or attic venues which required me to carefully but strenuously pull his wheelchair up several flights of stairs and then, at the end of the night, lower him back down.  Very occasionally there would be lifts, but often they’d be out of order and sometimes they’d be so small we couldn’t get Alexander into them.

I could write pages about our experiences being isolated by hostile architecture, ignorant attitudes and antiquated social systems so that’s what I did.  

Last summer I performed my debut hour called "Born in a Wheelchair" about my life with Alexander, it was funny and absurd and it challenges perceptions on disability and takes aim at my own ignorance on the subject.  My venue was in The Caves, up two flights of stairs and along a series of narrow turns and passages.  It was completely unsuitable for wheelchair users – like the majority of Fringe venues - the irony of which was not lost on me.  

In my naivety I tried to rationalise this conscious decision as an 'artistic' choice; disabled people didn’t need any education on the subject, non-disabled people did.  That’s who I was looking to reach.  I convinced myself this was OK because I wasn’t disabled myself, so why should I put myself into an accessible room?  It would cost me more money.  I’d have to fill it with more people and if I didn’t manage that I’d have to perform to the dreaded, sparsely populated audience in a cavernous space.  Not the space that comedy was designed for.  

I put on a couple of level-access shows in Leith (free of charge) during the festival.  This was a tick-box exercise designed not only to insulate myself from criticism but to convince me I’m a just and righteous person.  But I wasn’t and I’m not, I copped out and used my non-disabled privilege to suit myself, no matter how well-meaning my intentions were.  

Why does a comedian like Rosie Jones, for example, cop a load of grief if she performs in a venue which isn’t accessible when non-disabled people do it every day without consequence?  

In order for comedy to become more accessible and for meaningful change to occur, we need to stop treating disabled people as an inconvenience.  And when I say we, I mean non-disabled people.  Because we are the problem.

• James Gardner is performing Born in a Wheelchair at Norwich Theatre this Saturday, March 2, at 8pm and Wednesday March 27 at 8pm at Strathclyde Student Union in Glasgow.  Both venues are fully accessible with tickets still available.

Published: 27 Feb 2024

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