The case of a boy with autism who was asked to leave his seat in a London theatre during a performance of a hit musical has raised new questions about the capital’s readiness to welcome tens of thousands of disabled visitors to next year’s Paralympics.
Gregor Morris, who is 12 years old, was enjoying a performance of The Wizard of Oz prequel Wicked with his parents and sister at the Apollo Victoria Theatre when they were told he was causing a “disturbance”.
A staff member at the Apollo had approached Gregor’s family after concerns were raised by a colleague.
Gregor’s parents, Glyn and Jennifer, who live near Inverness, in Scotland, were shocked and mystified, as none of their fellow audience members had shown any signs of being disturbed.
Gregor’s family have been taking him to the theatre three or four times a year since he was four years old, including a successful trip to watch Mary Poppins on New York’s Broadway.
Glyn said that Gregor had been hugely enjoying Wicked and making no more noise than many other children in the audience. A theatre manager admitted there had not been a single complaint from a member of the audience.
Glyn chose to take Gregor back to the hotel the family were staying in, after being offered the chance to watch the show from behind a glass partition or squatting on a flight of stairs and watching through the banisters.
The incident came just as a new website was launched by disabled activists, which aims to highlight the “shameful” failure to put access and inclusion at the heart of next year’s London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
Their unofficial visitor guide, Inclusive London?, raises a string of concerns about the capital’s readiness to welcome so many disabled visitors to the city’s facilities, services and tourist attractions.
There are now more than 4,000 members of a Facebook group (“greenwicked”) set up to raise awareness of the incident at the Apollo. The show itself tells the story of a sorcery student who faces discrimination and bullying.
Glyn Morris, who works in the entertainment industry himself, said: “The support has been incredible. No-one who has had any contact with Gregor could believe what happened.
“The only thing is that he has a hearty laugh, but it is always in context when he laughs. It certainly wasn’t causing any disruption to the audience.”
The Apollo Victoria is part of the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), the UK’s largest theatre owner, which runs a string of theatres across London’s West End and has now “apologised unreservedly” for the treatment Gregor received.
Julia Potts, the group’s head of learning and access, said the incident had gone “horribly wrong” and that “with greater training there are different things that should have been done”, while all the staff involved were now “feeling absolutely terrible”.
She said the theatre accepted that Gregor was “as entitled as anyone else to sit and enjoy the show”.
She said: “As soon as it was discovered that Gregor has autism and his response is related to his condition and he was having a perfectly happy time, they should have been left to watch the show.”
As a result of the incident, ATG is now reviewing its training, and has also asked the user-led arts organisation Shape to run a training session for senior staff from its West End theatres, focusing particularly on customers with autism.
But it has also decided to carry out a special audit of access in its West End theatres in advance of the 2012 Paralympics, and examine what measures it can take during London 2012, such as offering more audio-described, signed and captioned performances.
‘Spasticus’, the anonymous disabled activist running the Inclusive London? website, said the incident with Gregor Morris “underlines the fact that a great deal more needs to be done before London can be described as an inclusive city”.
‘Spasticus’ said: “It is unsurprising that 50 per cent of disabled people don’t attend a single arts event in the course of a year; we know that we are often unwelcome even when a venue is theoretically accessible to us.
“Treatment like this – which is actually extremely common – shows that we need a complete change of attitude, not simply more ramps.”
Glyn, along with many other supporters, has emailed London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, about the incident.
The Morris family have received more than 2,000 emails from well-wishers, many of them from other families who have children with autism, detailing similar discrimination and “a lack of understanding” in theatres, restaurants and cinemas.