When He Missed a Beyoncé Concert, the Hive Went to Work


Jon Hetherington was ready for Beyoncé. He had been ready for 25 years.

He had his outfit — black pants and a gray T-shirt with an image of the superstar and a cobalt-blue graphic for her song “Heated” emblazoned on the back. He arranged a ride to take him to the airport in Eugene, Ore. And most importantly, he had a highly coveted ticket to the Renaissance World Tour in Seattle, purchased after painstakingly navigating a competitive ticket sale process.

But when Mr. Hetherington got to his gate at the airport last Thursday, that plan quickly fell apart.

The airline could not accommodate the electric wheelchair Mr. Hetherington, who has cerebral palsy, relies on to get around. The crew tried to find Mr. Hetherington, 34, another flight on a plane that could accommodate his wheelchair; an Airbus could do it, he was told, but the only one available would get him there 12 hours too late.

“This is a systemic issue, this is ableism, this is what I’ve dealt with my whole life,” Mr. Hetherington said in an interview. “I was demoralized by the whole thing.”

He posted a video on social media detailing his ordeal, and Beyoncé fans, better known as the BeyHive, went to work, tagging the singer and her management company, and promising to reach out to contacts in their networks to see if anything could be done.

The mighty BeyHive strikes again.

Mr. Hetherington now had a ticket to see Beyoncé on Thursday night in Arlington, Texas, after representatives for the singer reached out to him. In addition to the concert, they also arranged for his transportation, including the flight. A representative for Beyoncé did not immediately return a request for comment.

“I’m really grateful and very much appreciate that this is all happening,” he said. When it comes to making spaces more accessible, he said, “I hope people will actually engage with this stuff and not just let it go. That’s what’s important to me.”

Mr. Hetherington, who originally attempted to fly on Alaska Airlines, said the situation was “bigger than one airline.”

“We have not built our society or this country in a way that is fully inclusive,” he said. “Day to day, we’re kind of ignored and invisible,” he said, referring to people with disabilities.

He may not have made it to Seattle, but it was not for lack of effort.

Gate attendants helped Mr. Hetherington into an airport wheelchair, and tried repeatedly to get his own wheelchair to collapse. Mr. Hetherington said the gate attendants were kind and helpful, but in the end, the chair was still four inches too tall. The airline said it would refund the cost of his flight, and a gate attendant helped him file a disability complaint with Alaska Airlines, which was later reviewed by The New York Times.

“We feel terrible about our guest’s travel experience with us,” the airline said in a statement. “We’re always aiming to do better as we encounter situations such as this one.”

The company confirmed the details provided by Mr. Hetherington, and said its Boeing planes have dimension limitations when it comes to loading electric wheelchairs into the cargo hold. Travelers are not required to alert them that they use a mobility aid but are encouraged to do so.

To make matters worse, he had flown the same route on the same airline just two weeks earlier, he said, on a trip to a different concert that had almost convinced him to skip Beyoncé’s show.

Mr. Hetherington, whose love of live music can best be summarized by the fact that he’s seen six Lady Gaga shows, had tickets to see the opening of Janelle Monáe’s tour at WaMu Theater in Seattle. The flight was delayed for about 20 minutes to load Mr. Hetherington’s chair onto the plane, he said. That was embarrassing, he said, but it paled in comparison to his attempt to leave the venue.

Mr. Hetherington has seen Lady Gaga in concert six times. He met her in 2014.Credit…Jon Hetherington

When the show ended around midnight, Mr. Hetherington said he tried again and again to get an accessible taxi, to no avail. The taxi service said it would send a ride when one was available, but none ever came, he said; Uber and the police both directed him to call the same phone line. So Mr. Hetherington tried to make his way back to his hotel on his own. But the GPS function on his phone stopped working, and Mr. Hetherington wound up wandering Seattle from midnight until 9 a.m., right after his chair lost power.

A friend’s father eventually came to his aid and booked him a new hotel room. Mr. Hetherington doesn’t normally travel with his wheelchair charger for quick trips, and had to have a friend send one overnight using Amazon. He eventually made it to the airport, where he had to charge his chair once again.

“I figured if this happened at Janelle, what was going to happen at Beyoncé?” he said. “I thought, maybe I just don’t go. Am I going to get stranded again?”

But no, Beyoncé was “a once-in-a-lifetime” experience, he said. Though he’s been a fan since he was about 9 years old, when Beyoncé first catapulted into the national spotlight with Destiny’s Child, Mr. Hetherington had never seen her perform live.

“You don’t get to see Beyoncé every day,” he said.

When Mr. Hetherington got to the gate in Eugene last week to head to the Beyoncé show, he said the gate agent recognized his chair from the last trip to see Ms. Monáe.

“I’ve been disabled since birth, ableism is a feature of my life, I’m used to it,” he said. “I can’t even do the ‘normal thing’ of booking concerts and having this experience. Everybody else can just do that. That’s what’s frustrating.”

People with disabilities risk personal injury, loss of equipment and lack of accessible bathrooms when navigating plane travel. Airlines are not required to comply with the Air Carrier Access Act if wheelchairs do not fit, said Jani Nayar, the executive director of the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality. That can be especially true for expensive custom wheelchairs or in small aircrafts.

If the chair does not fit through the plane door, “the airline really cannot do anything about it,” she said.

The concert obstacles have been just a small sliver of the hardships Mr. Hetherington, who uses his social media platforms to promote disability awareness, has faced. His life has been punctuated by sadness in recent years: the back-to-back deaths of his parents; the deaths of two brothers and a grandfather; and the near loss of his home in Cottage Grove, Ore., which was specially retrofitted to accommodate his needs.

Through it all, Mr. Hetherington has turned to music for solace.

“Music has always been a form of liberation for me, it’s fundamentally important,” he said. “That’s going back to Janelle and Beyoncé.”

Now, he says he’s finally in a place in his life “where I can kind of breathe and treat myself to these experiences.”

By Friday, Mr. Hetherington was basking in the joy of not only seeing Beyoncé, but meeting Beyoncé.

“Beyhive, you made this happen,” he wrote on Instagram. “You pushed and tagged like the internet has never seen. Tonight, for the first time ever, I had a seat on the floor for a concert. Welcome to the RENAISSANCE.”

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