Opening the conversation on accessibility and venues

Post Author: Liz Pelly

Priya Ray has been playing in the punk band Kreamy ‘Lectric Santa since 1992, a heavy, psychedelic genre-bending group that started in Miami, spent years in the Bay Area scene, and is now based in Asheville. They have a vast, winding discography spanning various line-ups and labels, and have toured via the DIY circuit for decades. In 1999, Priya suffered a bad fall at a gig, one that resulted in a spinal cord injury and left her wheelchair bound. After years of recovery, Priya is finally playing violin with the band again, but her concerns about which venues she can play are more specific now.

Is This Venue Accessible, a website started last year as a resource for sharing information about the accessibility of venues for folks with disabilities, is particularly helpful for her.  “Living with uncertainty is a big part of my life as a disabled individual, and a resource like that is something I would consider invaluable,” she wrote me from the road, on her way home after her band’s recent mini-tour. “Being in a DIY band while being disabled at the same time is not an easy task. Venues rarely have a stages that are accessible. Then I have to find out if the bathrooms are accessible as well. And there’s always the issue of where to stay after the show. I have to research and contact people from the different cities to see what their houses are like.  Are there stairs to get in the a person’s space? Will I be able to use the bathroom? Will there be at least a couch I can sleep on?”

Organized by city, Is This Venue Accessible indexes separate pages for individual venues, listing information about staircases, single steps, bathroom locations, elevator access, and more. For example, a band or fan looking into New York venues could learn that Palisades is all on one floor, with a ramp up to the front door, but there’s a step up to the bar. At Muchmore’s, the bathrooms are accessible, but there is one step between the bar room and the stage room, though the stage room can also be accessed via a side ramp entrance. At Shea Stadium, there is a long staircase up to the second floor, but once you’re up, everything is level.

Right now, at least in punk and certain underground music subcultures, it seems people are more and more aware of privilege and oppression. I don’t think this is some sort of fad. The internet has made it easier to call these things out.

“I need to know if there is one step to get into the venue,” says Sean Gray, who started the site last year. “That one curb step could be inaccessible for someone with a wheelchair.  If there’s one step to get into the bathroom, I need to know.”

Gray, the singer of Birth Defects and dude behind punk labels Accidental Guest and Fan Death, grew up in the Maryland suburbs. As a kid he spent a lot of time in DC, a politically active scene where he was constantly attending benefit shows and getting “schooled on social issues”. But when it came to discussions about inclusivity and punk, accessibility was never part of the conversation.

“Never once growing up in DC did I go to a benefit show that had anything to do with accessibility, whether that be raising money to build a ramp in park, or whatever,” he says. “I went to plenty of shows where I would take a cab, pull up to the venue, see that it was inaccessible, and just have to turn around. I hope that never happens to someone again.”

Gray, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker, ignored his disability until his mid-20s, when he decided to start pushing back, to expand the discourse surrounding DIY and disability.  “I didn’t really come out as having a disability until my mid-20s because I didn’t think it was an issue,” he says. “I was socialized to think that, if there are stairs, I’m the one that’s inconveniencing other people that have to help me. I was always feeling guilty about feeling bad about having a disability. I didn’t think that anyone cared, or that it really existed. It wasn’t on people’s minds. It wasn’t a hot button issue.”

Sean Gray, founder of Is This Venue Accessible. Photo by Megan Lloyd.
Sean Gray, founder of Is This Venue Accessible. Photo by Megan Lloyd.

In 2015, though, the culture is different: Gray says in today’s punk scene, conversations about privilege are more prevalent thanks to the internet, which has created space for projects like this to be heard and to effect change. “Right now, at least in punk and certain underground music subcultures, it seems people are more and more aware of privilege and oppression,” he says. “I don’t think this is some sort of fad. The internet has made it easier to call these things out. The lack of representation becomes extremely apparent.”

As a platform, Is This Venue Accessible is a product of these shifting conversations in punk, and also the ways in which the internet has established a greater sense of solidarity within the disabled community at large. “There are message boards and Facebook groups for every disabled population imaginable,” says Ahmad Zaghal, a blind music fan, writer and photographer, who met Gray in 2009 at a Superdrag reunion show in DC. “It’s undeniably helped bring the disabled community together. I can see ITVA becoming a huge asset to both myself as someone who is totally blind and the disabled community at large.”

Jessica Burkman, a 27-year-old grad student living in Pittsburgh, found the site through Tumblr.  “I follow a lot of disability related blogs on Tumblr, and a post from Is This Venue Accessible came across my dashboard,” says Burkman, who has mild cerebral palsy and uses a powered wheelchair as her primary way of getting around. She currently is studying to get a masters degree in Rehabilitation Science and Technology, doing research on assistive technology. “I had thought about making a site like this myself, but didn’t really have time.” Burkman says that in the past she’s had a hard time getting in touch with venues for accessibility information, and that the specific information listened on ITVA is important, because even venues being ADA compliant sometimes doesn’t mean much.

While Gray comes from a background in punk and DIY, as Burkman points out, the issue of accessibility needs to be just as much of a concern for larger, more mainstream venues: “I’ve actually found that smaller venues although they may not be completely ADA compliant, they tend to find ways to make it work so I can still come and enjoy myself even if that means carrying me and my wheelchair up the stairs into the venue.”

Since launching the site, listings have expanded to Japan, Canada, England, and Ireland. Gray has also seen friends in the Baltimore punk scene make a point to include accessibility info on show fliers and Facebook events, a seemingly small but crucial step. The growth of the site ultimately will depend on continuing to get more and more submissions. “It totally is a community project,” he says. “If there’s a definition of a community project, this is it. We can build this together.

Is This Venue Accessible clearly has an urgent, practical function, but in a more abstract sense has also worked as a consciousness raising tool of sorts. Gray has done countless pieces with Pitchfork, Noisey, NPR, MRR, and others, pushing conversations about DIY and disability into a spotlight. “Press has really helped,” Gray says. “I just hope more bands are also taking note. The reaction seems to be ‘I never thought of any of this before’ and I hope that is an eye opener to people.”

Bands are ultimately the ones who have the power to make venues care about accessibility, according to Gray: “If you’re in a slightly bigger band and you have a little bit more pull and you claim to care about issues like this, you should at the very least let promoters know that accessibility is a concern.”

Talking about venues and accessibility is a micro way of prying open a larger conversations of representation. “There’s this complete lack of disability representation once you kind of hit your late teens, 20s, 30s,” says Gray. “Disability is used for something (ahem, inspirational porn) when you are a baby, a child, and then for political purposes when you are a senior citizen. When theres little to no representation of those years in life, people with disabilities become invisible. It’s like we aren’t allowed to have certain things: relationships (romantic/sexual), anger, sadness. Not in the sense of having the disability that makes you sad, but just LIFE.”

All of those deeper rooted feelings and internal realities are missing from the greater understanding of disability: “Shows, art, culture, whether fringy or mainstream provide a rationalization for these experiences,” he says. “So when a venue has inaccessibility, to me that’s like saying ‘no you aren’t allowed to be a part of this, to have those experiences.’”

“Punk and DIY culture socialized me to know that exclusion was wrong,” Gray continues. “If one voice is censored, if one experience isn’t expressed or represented, we all are losing.”