Disclosure: Author Nate Eng is the marketing coordinator and a music instructor for Note-Able Music Therapy Services. 

When Rebecca Shipley sees a stage, she instantly gets a rush of emotions. “I feel excited, I love being on stage and seeing the faces of people in the audience,” she said. When she is in front of an audience, it’s for one of two things, singing or bodybuilding.

She said the other emotions that rush over her are anger and unfairness. Shipley uses a wheelchair. And, for some reason, that makes it harder for her to be seen, understood and appreciated.

Rebecca Shipley performed at Artown in 2021 with The Note-Ables Photo: courtesy Note-Able Music Therapy Services

The capability to be understood or appreciated, to be able to express experiences and personal perspectives, is the first step for true progress. Art celebrates the humanity within all of us. It asks – and artists answer – the question of what is the essence of being human. Every person deserves to have the opportunity to express their human experience. People with disabilities are people first. Just like everyone else, they have the right and capability to express themselves as human beings. Their disability does not define them or their artistry.

“I want to inspire people, no matter what their circumstances are, that they can do whatever they want as long as they set their mind to it,” said Shipley.

Rebecca Shipley recording in Tanglewood Productions Photo: courtesy Note-Able Music Therapy Services

However, quite literally for Shipley and the 61 million other Americans with disabilities, the opportunity to even be on a stage in front of an audience is not always there. The reality is people with disabilities simply do not have the same access for expression as able-bodied people. 

“It’s not fair for me,” said Shipley. “I deserve to be onstage.” 

The following is a small glance into the obstacles Shipley faces when trying to perform. This isn’t taking into account communication, loading gear, bathroom accessibility, and so much more. 

Getting to the venue space

Shipley typically has to schedule rides in advance through the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). RTC Access has been a helpful service for her; however, it only provides access to a limited region in Reno and Sparks. If there are performances or events outside of the McCarran Loop, she must find her own transportation. Even if she can get a ride on RTC, there is a 20-30 minute window before and after her scheduled pickup time, meaning that Rebecca may have to wait outside in the heat or cold for up to an hour. 

Parking

Many venues in town don’t have accessible parking. And places with accessible parking do not always have drop-off zones. To be dropped off by RTC, Shipley may have to travel for blocks to get to where she needs to go.

Entering

Most of us don’t even hesitate to take a step up onto the sidewalk or into a building. For Shipley, she has to make sure that she can find a curb cut, an accessible route to the venue, a ramp, and a door wide enough for her wheelchair. And if the band is performing in an outside venue, navigating dirt, grass, and rocks may make her path dangerous or impossible.

Getting on stage and navigating the stage

“Access” can be loosely defined. There have been times that The Note-Ables have had to play on the ground level because the stage was not fully accessible. Even if some venues have a ramp, most are not ADA compliant and are too steep for wheelchairs to safely enter and exit. The obstacles do not stop once performer is on stage. There are new challenges to navigate like instruments, amps, and lots of cables just to get in to position to play. Sound engineers and stage hands need to have foresight and awareness to accommodate the stage navigation. Simply getting someone up on stage and tucked into a convenient spot is not enough and is not accessibility. I have been told to my face from a sound engineer, when setting up at an event The Note-Ables were hired to play at, “We love The Note-Ables but you guys really shouldn’t be up here.” 

Rebecca Shipley performing with The Note-Ables Photo: courtesy Note-Able Music Therapy Services

Shipley has a very practical answer to the question of how businesses, venues, art spaces and galleries can help people like her. 

“They can be in wheelchairs themselves and see what we have to go through,” she said. 

One might pass this off as sarcasm, but she is serious. There is a pragmatic level of importance and understanding when you literally are forced to experience life in this new way. 

How you can help

Michelle Patrick was recently hired by The Nevada Arts Council as a Community Arts Development specialist and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator. She has advice for actions people can take when there are accessibility issues.

“Ask for the manager’s email to the venue or establishment,” said Patrick. “Address your concerns in the email, but also offer a resource that may turn out to be solution for the venue.” 

Michelle Patrick. Photo: courtesy Nevada Arts Council

Patrick also recommends gently reminding owners or managers that there are over 60 million people with disabilities in the United States, and venues are missing out on income from a huge potential audience.

“People with disabilities are the largest underrepresented group in the U.S.,” Patrick said. “Yes, progress is happening, but it can also be slow and frustrating. Keep in mind that progress also promotes collaboration. Look for opportunities to strengthen the core accessibility awareness.”

“There are a ton of resources and grants available to improve venue accessibility accommodations,” she added.

Patrick’s goal is to help destigmatize the fear that exists around accessibility. NAC will be starting the Nevada Arts & Accessibility Initiative in 2022. The main objectives will be to create a thriving network of accessibility ambassadors statewide within the arts community to promote and build resources for all Nevadans with disabilities. In addition, the initiative will help forge partnerships for arts and culture programming, ADA compliance and training, and on-site visits to venues for recommendations.

“I am working hard to encourage cultural planners to become more engaged and re-imagine what inclusivity looks like in its most authentic form,” said Patrick.

Accessibility is ever evolving. If there is complacency, then there will be a lack of progress. If we want everyone to have a right to self-expression, then we must advocate for everyone in our society. Accessibility is for all of us because it will benefit all of us at some point. We all must try a little more, be a little more patient, and take a little more time because everyone’s voice matters. Everyone should have an opportunity to express themselves and be heard, on the same stage as everyone else.

In the end, Rebecca just wants to be on a stage. “I feel like I can be there. I’m elevated, the audience can see me. I feel proud,” she said.

Note-Able Music Therapy’s next event is “Basement Session,” 11:45 am-1 pm Sept. 20. Attendees will learn how music can improve the physical, social, and mental health of our community. Admission is free, but, space is limited so please RSVP by calling 775-324-5521 or emailing wendy@nmtsreno.org.

Posted by Nate Eng

Nate Eng is the marketing coordinator and a music instructor at Note-Able Music Therapy Services. He also plays drums for The Note-Ables band.