Is This Venue Accessible?

Baltimore musician creates website for music lovers with disabilities

Imagine going to a music venue to see your favorite band perform live but being unable to dance with the crowd, easily move about the venue, get drinks, or go to the bathroom. For many able-bodied people, this scenario is very unlikely, but for the disabled community, it’s a reality, and it’s a much bigger issue than most realize. Sean Gray has been attending shows, producing, and performing punk music for over 15 years, and he also happens to have cerebral palsy.

Just last year, Gray created a website called “Is This Venue Accessible” to raise awareness of the inaccessibility of music venues for the disabled community, and to give details as to which venues are handicap-accessible and which aren’t. “I was disappointed that there were so many venues in D.C. that were either completely inaccessible or inaccessible in ways that I couldn’t experience the whole thing if I went to a show,” Gray said. “I would go to shows and there would be mountains of stairs.”

The website provides vital information, such as if there are stairs and the location of bathrooms. “It was born out of anger and frustration. A lot of communities that are oppressed are built out of that.” Gray said.

In his personal experience, Gray has found that just attempting to attend a concert at an inaccessible venue can be dangerous. “You’re sacrificing your body in some ways,” he said. “Disability is that one group you could instantly be a part of in a minute.”

The inaccessibility of music venues has much deeper implications for the disabled community beyond just entering the venue. “There’s a huge social aspect when you go to a live show,” Gray said. Being unable to access the bathroom limits the concert experience, making the idea of drinking nearly impossible. “I don’t have the luxury of moving around the venue,” Gray said1. This can range from getting a drink at the bar to meeting with friends.

For the disabled, attending shows requires more planning and logistic consideration than an able-bodied person. It’s an extreme inconvenience that deters them from attending concerts. It underrepresents the disabled community. They become invisible, and makes the issue go unnoticed. “People need to start looking at disability and accessibility as oppression. When a venue is inaccessible, I’m not allowed to go,” Gray said. “It’s really easy to write off a group of people that are invisible. You don’t see the oppression they’re going through.”

Photographer: Juliet Laske

Photographer: Juliet Laske

Venue inaccessibility not only affects concert-goers, but musicians as well. Gray himself fronts the Baltimore punk band Birth (Defects). The band typically chooses to only play at accessible venues. “If you have the option to not play an inaccessible venue, you should,” Gray said. This doesn’t keep the band from playing inaccessible venues however, as Gray, with the aid of a walker, uses them as a way to prove how difficult it is as a disabled musician to perform there. He believes that bands have a very strong influence in this movement. Saying no to inaccessible venues sends a message, “Once you start hurting their bottom line, which is money, they’re going to think about it.” Gray plans on participating in an unofficial DIY panel on this issue at SXSW in Austin, Texas next March. He originally campaigned for an official panel, but his request was denied.

So how can we go about fixing this issue? Gray says there is no simple solution. “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. That scares a lot of venues and people. Because you really have to think about this.” The most important suggestion from Gray is what he has done with his own website. “Information is key. That’s the number one thing.” A lack of information is what keeps such few members of the disabled community from even attending a show in the first place. Not knowing whether a venue is accessible or not is certainly a legitimate deterrent.

This lack of information marginalizes the disabled community, and in a way, shuts them out from the world of performing art and music. “When venues provide that information, you will see a greater increase in people with disabilities going to shows and being a part of music and culture and art. It’s all about access,” Gray said. He sees social media as a vital tool for communicating access to venues, suggesting that bands use their Facebook pages to spread the word. He also suggests that accessible venues make it clear that they are. “If you’re totally accessible, you should be proud of that,” he said. Gray also stresses that inaccessible venues should make people aware of the obstacles, and not in a demeaning manner, “If you aren’t accessible, it isn’t people calling you out, it’s just you being real and honest for people who want to go to your show or frequent your venue.”

For more information about Sean Gray and his quest to raise awareness for venue accessibility, visit his website: http://itvaccessible.com/