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Being on the red carpet as a wheelchair user was a nightmare. It won't change until Hollywood hires more people with disabilities.

Red Carpet essay
Insider reporter Esme Mazzeo at the 2022 Tony Awards red carpet.
Amanda Krause/Esme Mazzeo/Insider

  • I'm a reporter and a wheelchair user who worked my first red carpet at the 2022 Tony Awards.
  • I felt invisible, intrusive, anxious, useless, and inhuman. 
  • I'm unsure if red carpets can ever become accessible. It's not any particular person's fault.

I've dreamed of working in the entertainment media industry for as long as I can remember. At first, I wanted to work as a publicist, but later realized I wanted to be an entertainment reporter. I'm fortunate that my dream evolved because as a wheelchair user, one thing I've always been afraid to do is work a red carpet — and publicists often have no choice in that matter.

Cramped spaces are not fun for anyone, but when you are sitting in a confined place and everybody else is standing, you become both invisible and an obstacle for others. Reporters often have to scream to get people's attention on red carpets — which is a skill I have under the right circumstances — but when everyone is screaming, being seated is a disadvantage. 

I'm also acutely aware that disabled people are not welcome in most spaces when considering architectural design alone, in my experience. I knew I wouldn't be the first person with a disability to work a red carpet, but I had never seen someone do it. I expected I'd be inherently out of place on a carpet and feared being patronized or disrespected. And while I'm used to handling a fair amount of disrespect, I was concerned it would make me question my purpose in being there.

When the opportunity came to cover the carpet at the 2022 Tony Awards, which took place on Sunday in New York City's Radio City Music Hall, I couldn't say no. My fear was real, but so was my excitement at the idea of being even a small part of such a big awards show. 

On Thursday, I received word that the carpet and awards ceremony would be ADA accessible. I stayed at a hotel the night before so that traffic and rain didn't make me late. 

There were positives: I'd have two colleagues with me and I truly was excited for amazing interviews with stars. I was also prepared for uncomfortable conversations where I would need to ask for better accommodations. I was just hoping to have more good minutes than bad ones; I thought it was a reasonable request of the universe. 

Unfortunately, my worst fears were realized on the red carpet

A view of the red carpet appears before the start of the 75th annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 12, 2022, at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
A view of the red carpet appears before the start of the 75th annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 12, 2022, at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

As I made my way to Insider's spot on the gray carpet early to wait for my coworkers to get signed in, I paid careful attention to the space between the little paper squares that designated where reporters and photographers from each publication would be situated.

I approached Insider's spot from the front side of the ropes and tried to determine if I had been given the extra space I needed.

It didn't appear that I had been given any extra room at all, but I didn't mind. The space was more cramped than I'd anticipated, but the carpet was pretty big. It was tight, but I could manage to stay near my square, I thought. Plus, event organizers did come around and move squares so I had a little bit more space (though nothing they could do would make a noticeable difference). 

It took me far too long to realize that journalists and photographers are meant to stay behind the velvet ropes. That sliver of space was meant for bodies and equipment, not just cameras. 

Tony's red carpet.
Reporters behind ropes at the 2022 Tony Awards.
Elizabeth Morales/Insider

Before this could dawn on me, though, a man whizzed by with a question: Was I trying to cross the street?

Me, the woman very securely enclosed in the tent with him, minding my business in the dark blue dress with glitter on the skirt and two different types of media credentials around my neck. Did I need help crossing the street?

I very promptly told him I was right where I needed to be, looking down at the small piece of paper that said "Insider," contemplating if I'd make it through the next few hours of my life struggling or smiling behind my mask. 

The encounter didn't make me feel much, but it confirmed my worst fear. Someone's first instinct was that I didn't belong here. If a man helping to set up had that thought, I wondered if attendees would, too. 

I started to feel even worse as talent arrived — like a caged animal

Tony's press room.
Myles Frost poses in the press room at the Tonys.
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Once other journalists started setting up, I made my way to my rightful place behind the velvet rope. I felt a little bit like a caged animal, but only a little bit — until everyone's cameras started going up.

Then I realized another one of my fears was a reality. Behind the ropes, I was just in the way of my colleagues who were trying to do their best work. And if I retreated toward the sidewalk and waited until we had someone at our spot I was meant to interview, I wouldn't be doing my best work, either. I was also feeling a lot of anxiety being enclosed around the tall people and tall cameras

If I stayed behind the ropes, I might as well not be there at all. I flagged down a woman working the event — dressed, as they all were, in all-black — and asked if I could be on the talent side of the carpet to give myself more room. After getting permission from her boss, I was allowed to break out of my cage to the elite side of the action. A success. I could stay close to my coworkers but out of their way and talent would easily see me, right? 

Wrong. Actors who are willing to stop to talk to journalists are looking at their own eye level. So, if they did stop for us, they spoke to my colleagues most of the time. This was still a win for me, as part of the team. But it left me feeling very useless again. Both invisible and in the way. 

Outside the ropes, I could see and breathe and move a little bit, but sometimes an actor's couture gown would get caught on my wheelchair. 

Here's the awful thing: No one was unkind, and everyone meant well and did their best to accommodate me. Yet it was still terrible.

I was correct to fear red carpets as a wheelchair user. Feeling all of those feelings at once — anxious, useless, invisible, too visible, ignored — creates one giant feeling that very few people have to experience in life. I began to feel like I was inhuman. 

Red carpets will never be truly accessible until people with disabilities have a place at the table

An empty wheelchair in front of a big glass window.
Hollywood desperately needs to hire more people with disabilities.
Getty Images

I finished my job to the best of my ability. It's one that I'm usually so good at and love so much. 

Sure, some days are harder than others, and sometimes writing comes more easily than other times, but it was never something I felt I failed at if I did my best.

Never, that is, until I rolled onto a red carpet, where people are supposed to feel like the best version of themselves, even from behind the ropes.

My feelings are no one person's fault. They are indicative of entertainment media's failure to actually include disabled people in a transformed system that works for everyone rather than throw the few of us that make it here into an extremely ableist one. 

"Disabled artists are literally excluded from the red carpets. As a wheelchair-user carpet is a problem in general, because on carpet our wheels meet significant friction," actor David Proud wrote for I. "Of the red-carpet events I have gone to as an actor, I have had to wheel alongside the red carpet to get in the building… so close but yet so far!"

"The red carpet is a handy metaphor for the industry at large. Sometimes, disabled people are allowed at the edges, but we are not really included — and what's worse, we're asked to be grateful," he continued.

On a bad day, I'm inclined to say there is no real fix to the red carpet problem. That is, not until all areas of entertainment and media begin to deliberately hire more people with disabilities. When that day comes, maybe people in the disabled community can design ADA-acceptable parameters for entertainment events.

I can't say I'll never work a carpet again. But this experience was a good reminder to trust my instincts and stay in spaces that make me feel valued — and human. 

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