Lafayette comics fight for accessibility

Three men, one sitting in a wheelchair, one in a barstool and one standing.
Comics Charles-Thomas Vidrine, Joshua Ewing and John Merrifield, left to right, at Cité des Arts in Downtown Lafayette, La., on May 29, 2024. Photo by Alena Maschke

Don Schexnider rolls onto the stage of Cité des Arts’ main theater for his performance at the 2024 Coullion Fest standup comedy festival wearing a bright orange shirt and a wry smile.

For him to perform, his comedy group required him to make an announcement, Schexnider tells the audience. “I don’t do standup comedy,” he says with a smirk. “And you’re not getting your money back.”

Schexnider is one of several members of Oof Comedy, a Lafayette-based group of comics, who rely on wheelchairs to get around. Having limited mobility is a challenge in most circumstances, but for the comics, inaccessible venues make it difficult to practice their craft — and they’re willing to put up a fight.

Like Schexnider, fellow comic Joshua Ewing makes jokes about his disability and life with it a regular part of his routine. Sometimes, the infrastructure of the venue makes it unavoidable, like when he has to be lifted onto a stage that doesn’t have a ramp, putting a spotlight on his disability before the first joke is told.

“It can be in-dignifying, but it can also be a good opener,” Ewing said. “That’s where ‘making fun’ comes from: You take a shitty situation and make it fun.”

Then there are situations that make it harder for Ewing to hold on to his good humor. Like last year, when the group started holding a weekly standup open mic at a local venue downtown. The venue, housed in an older building, wasn’t accessible to people using wheelchairs, unless they were willing to be lifted up and down a flight of stairs, often by other comics or patrons who may have been drinking.

Scared of falling, Ewing didn’t feel it was safe to participate.“What did you want me to do, go there and risk being injured every week?” Ewing wondered out loud. The bathrooms, too, were inaccessible, Ewing and Schexnider said. The owners dismissed their concerns and dragged their feet in making changes, according to the comics.

With every week and month that passed, Ewing missed out on an opportunity to perform with his fellow comics and hone his craft. “It’s the gym for comics. Nobody can practice their comedy unless they can do open mics,” fellow comic John Merrifield said. “That’s the backbone of the comedy scene.”

An older building with an accessibility ramp and a construction trailer.
A ramp allows people with limited mobility access to the Atmosphere bar and event venue in Lafayette, La., on Tuesday, June 4, 2024.

The venue, Artmosphere on Johnston Street, eventually built ramps that allow people in wheelchairs to access the building independently, roughly a year after the group started performing there and Ewing began lodging his complaints. Once the ramps were built, Ewing was subsequently banned from the venue, the comics say, as retaliation. Owner Kade Trahan declined to comment on the matter. Oof ComedyThe group now holds weekly open mic nights at Cité des Arts.

Renovations to make a privately-owned building more accessible aren’t always required by law, leaving some business owners to decide whether they want to build ramps, widen bathrooms or add fixtures. “That is something that a lot of times businesses are afraid to address, because they think it’ll be costly,” said Liam Doyle, assistant director of the Governor’s Office of Disability Affairs.

In his previous role as disability affairs coordinator for Lafayette Consolidated Government, Doyle helped local businesses, such as Old Tyme Grocery, become more accessible to people with disabilities.

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“As a whole, Lafayette has come a long way in the last couple of years,” Doyle said. “But also, there’s a lot more work to be done.”

The comics would agree. Even getting to the venue would have been a challenge for Ewing, because of the condition of the sidewalks on the outer edges of downtown. “They’re buckled, broken, some of the sidewalks are just missing completely, so I’d have to go into the middle of Johnston Street to get to another part of the sidewalk,” Ewing described his dilemma.

Local governments should be doing more to improve the accessibility of public infrastructure, such as sidewalks, he argued. At one point, Ewing even considered suing LCG over the issue.

Schexnider agreed that more needs to be done, but said there should be a better way to ensure compliance, especially when it comes to public infrastructure, than the courts.

“I’m just a person who needs ways to access the same services everybody else has. And the same entertainment everybody else has. And the same happiness everybody else has,” he said. “That’s a right given to me in the Constitution and it’s their job to enforce it, not my job to sue them until they do.”

A man in an orange shirt sitting in a wheelchair and holding a microphone on a stage.
Don Schexnider performs at Cité des Arts during the Coullion Fest standup festival in Lafayette, La., on Friday, May 24, 2024.

Harlon Cowsar, LCG’s disability affairs coordinator, said the city and parish government is working on improving accessibility, but those kinds of projects aren’t easily accomplished. “They take time and they take planning,” Cowsar said. “Until I started working in this position, I didn’t realize how much goes into a sidewalk project.”

And while the Americans with Disabilities Act has been federal law for 30 years, there’s a lot of lost time to make up for, Cowsar noted. “We have 250 years of construction where people with disabilities weren’t considered. It’s going to take a long time to correct all of that.”

LCG does have several projects in the works to improve accessibility, including widening sidewalks downtown and adding curb cuts that conform to current standards. The crumbling sidewalks along Johnston Street and in neighboring Freetown and Fightingville are not currently part of the plan.

The government needs public input to choose the areas it will focus on, for example, through participation in the meetings of the Awareness Committee for Citizens with Disabilities, which take place every other month, Cowsar points out.

“Right now, we have a list of over 600 sidewalk projects that we want to do. But we can’t do them all at once, we have to prioritize,” the disability advocate said. “We really need community participation.”

For people with disabilities, it can feel like the entire burden of making communities more accessible is on them, adding weight to their lives, which are already made more complicated by their limited ability, the comics point out.

“People with disabilities have to risk their lives to do comedy. In general, they have to risk their lives to do basic things every day,” said Merrifield, who has full mobility but has seen many of his fellow comics’ challenges while performing and touring with them.

Receiving help from others can feel like a two-edged sword, Ewing noted.

“We do have a great community in Lafayette that does reach out and help when they see someone who needs help. But we need some official action to make things accessible, so I don’t have to sit there and wait for someone to help me,” Ewing said. “I need to live my life.”