Listen to Looch: talking with Justin Smith, music fan and accessibility advocate


Mary Lucia interviews Justin Smith, a music fan and college student who is also a blogger, public speaker and an advocate for the disability community. (Mary Mathis | MPR)

This week, it was my pleasure to welcome special guest Justin Smith, who is a music fan, a college student, also a blogger, a public speaker and an advocate for the disability community.

You can watch our conversation above and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

MARY LUCIA: Thank you for coming in, Justin. Now, when did you start writing your blog, Justin Smith Writes?

JUSTIN SMITH: I started writing my blog three years ago, right after I graduated from high school.

MARY: And you are obviously a big music fan, going to live shows is important, and also, calling attention to the venues just to be more inclusive to ADA patrons. I think that's so important, and I thank you for that, and I wonder how many live-show experiences did you have before you even decided to write about the accessibility issues at the Armory.

JUSTIN: I hadn't had a frustrating live-show experience before the Armory. I try to go to lots of concerts and, in my blog, I write about how important inclusion and accessibility are, and what's happening in my life.

This includes accessibility and inclusion at concert venues. I am a disability-rights advocate, but I don't want to be thought of as an expert in all disabilities.

MARY: Mm-hm.

JUSTIN: I know and can share my experiences as someone with cerebral palsy who uses a power wheelchair and has hearing issues. Chances are, if things are accessible for me, they'll probably be accessible for a whole lot of other people.

Part of the reason I'm doing what I'm doing is because I love it — I'm writing about inclusion and accessibility because it is important. A quarter of the population has, or will have, a disability, and I think perhaps venues like the Armory don't always think about how people don't want to be stuck a half a block away from the stage just because they need ADA seating.

MARY: The Armory is large; it is massive. And I wanted to know if you shared any of your thoughts about your experiences at the Armory with the staff, and if you did, were they responsive at all?

JUSTIN: No. We did not share our thoughts with Armory staff. At the time, I really just wanted to enjoy the show. I think if we had asked to speak to a manager, it would have happened, but not sure it would have helped. I shared my thoughts in my blog post.

Look, I don't want to be negative or anything, but I think that if you have a physical disability and want to go to a concert or a theater or sporting event, you should just go without worrying about accessibility. I think that concert venues should hire someone who uses a wheelchair to find out what the experience is actually like.

Maggie Rogers at the Armory
Maggie Rogers performing at the Armory in Minneapolis on Sept. 26, 2019. (Lucy Hawthorne for MPR)

MARY: I mean, something as logical and sensible as elevator use, I mean, it just might be something that people take for granted, but what would you have for advice to people at shows with elevators?

JUSTIN: I have a few years of dealing with elevators, and by a few, I mean all of my 21 years! If someone really needs to use an elevator, great. But if you are just trying to beat the line out, don't.

MARY: So what other venues offer main-floor ADA access?

JUSTIN: I haven't been to all venues; I think for general-admission standing shows, most venues allow you to go where you feel comfortable. The trick is moving around at a packed show if you use a wheelchair.

The Varsity Theater had a great space set aside at the side of the floor at the stage; that was awesome because I got to meet the Interrupters!

MARY: Nice!

JUSTIN: It wouldn't have happened if I had been way in the back somewhere.

I'm not sure about the big arenas as I have never tried to get floor seating in them.
At the Palace, the ADA seating is the raised area at the back of the floor in front of the main bar. That's OK since it isn't as big as the Armory.

MARY: Yeah.

JUSTIN: It would be nice to have the option of getting closer to the stage if I wanted to without getting blocked in though.

The Cedar is small enough that it is OK at the back of a seated show, but if the crowd stands, the stage isn't very tall, so is difficult to see.

It's not a typical venue, but I'd give a shout-out to Surly Brewery Field. They have an elevated deck next to the light and sound board that works great.

MARY: That is smart, and I just love that if you want to go to a show, you want to see an artist live, you're gonna go. And then you end up dealing with everything as it comes, and I just wonder how many venues have specific policies on their websites? What you can expect if you're going to a show in a wheelchair.

JUSTIN: My parents are more qualified to answer this question since they get 98 percent of the tickets!

All I'm going to say is make sure the website is accessible and that it's clear how to purchase accessible seating.

MARY: Does it ever take away from your enjoyment of a show, having to be just so mindful of the people that are around you?

JUSTIN: It can. It's difficult at new places because I don't know what I'm getting into. It is tricky to move through crowds. I worry about people bumping into my chair. Also, I have super long arms and uncontrolled movement, so I worry about hitting people accidentally.
That can take away from just enjoying the concert.

MARY: And what have been some of your favorite shows? Now I know obviously Maggie Rogers, but who else?

JUSTIN: The Interrupters were awesome! And of course, Maggie Rogers. My parents dragged me to see the Violent Femmes and Ben Folds. (laughs)

I'm going to the Jayhawks at the Palace in December. Some of my other favorites from maybe a little over a year ago were CHVRCHES, Haim, Imagine Dragons, Hippo Campus, and Lumineers.

Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES in concert
Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES in concert at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. (Andy Witchger for MPR)

MARY: Oh yeah!

So Justin, in a perfect world ‐ yeah right! — how would a concert be laid out so it would include all patrons in the venue and everyone would have that chance to feel connected and not have that separation?

JUSTIN: It would be nice to have a choice of areas, not be limited to just one.
Areas for wheelchair seating need to be elevated or have space in front so viewing isn't blocked.

MARY: Yes.

JUSTIN: It would be awesome if my care attendant was able to get free or discounted entry. I have to buy tickets for my aide. If I want to go to a concert, it's expensive.

It would be nice if all the staff knew how accessible seating works in their venues. The Varsity and Palace were pretty awesome with having helpful staff.

MARY: All of the things that you are talking about are sensible and thoughtful and inclusive, and I can't help but think that if these venues could meet you and hear what you've told me, that they wouldn't consider making some changes, and you could be an agent of change for ADA people!

JUSTIN: Yeah! I would love to meet with venue staff and be an agent of change. If sharing my experiences helps make the world more inclusive and accessible for all, then I'm ready. This has been my main goal with writing my blog, public speaking, and advocacy: to create a world that's more inclusive.

MARY: Justin, thank you for coming in. And you can find Justin's blog at

JUSTIN: Thank you.

MARY: You're welcome.

Hosted by Mary Lucia; video by Mary Mathis; engineered by Cameron Wiley; produced by Luke Taylor.

External Link

Justin Smith Writes

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