Sean Gray confronts gap in venue accessibility for people with disabilities in Baltimore and beyond

City Paper

Most music fans take for granted that they can attend a show, see a band, and drink a beer with friends. However, many people with different levels of mobility don’t have that luxury—they have to plan outings and are often faced with music venues that are not set up in a way that gives them access.

To make matters worse, information on what level of accessibility is available is often hard or impossible to come by in advance. The website Is This Venue Accessible? (itvaccessible.com) makes information about venues’ accessibility available to all, while also sparking a conversation about accessibility issues in general.

The site’s creator Sean Gray has been contributing to the area music scene since the early aughts—he has run or co-run a string of notable record labels (Hit-Dat, Fan Death, Accidental Guest) and released albums by artists such as Double Dagger, Roomrunner, and Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, among many others. He’s a musician who currently performs with the punk band Birth (Defects). He also has cerebral palsy and uses a walker, which can make getting into venues that are only accessible via stairs a challenge.

Gray says that the inspiration for the site came from just such a situation. He found himself unable to attend a show of one of his favorite hardcore bands, Red Death, at a Washington, D.C. venue called the Pinch: “It’s down a flight of steps . . . I was really frustrated. I felt like not only could I not go see a band I really liked, I couldn’t even blow off steam like everyone else.”

At first, he wanted to complain or call out the venue on social media. But then he decided to channel his frustration into creating the site, initially on social platform Tumblr, then on its own domain, in the hopes that it would become “a resource for myself and anyone else in D.C., so they at least know what they were getting into if they had questions about accessibility.” He knew from experience that there wasn’t much accessibility information out there.

“When one has a disability, one of the big things is planning ahead of time, “ Gray says. “A lot of people in the disability community don’t necessarily have the privilege to just go to events or even places on a whim.”

Originally, Is This Venue Accessible? detailed accessibility issues in D.C., but has grown to include Baltimore and 18 other cities. Gray started collecting information from users (which can be the venues themselves, promoters, or anyone) who submit details about a venue. This includes the general level of accessibility of the space, how accessible the bathrooms and audience area are, and whether there are any features of the venue that could be inaccessible. If a venue has to make special arrangements to be accessible, the steps needed are listed as well, along with venue contact information, website, etc.

Gray tries to include as much information as he can because “with disabilities...it’s all about the little things. How many steps? Are there railings? Both sides? Are they sturdy? Where are the restrooms? Are they accessible?” He stresses that “disability is a spectrum. Just because my disability, which is cerebral palsy, may allow me to be more mobile or less mobile, doesn’t mean that’s how it is for everyone with a disability. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer here.” A more-is-better approach to information helps people decide whether or not to make a trip to see a band they love—or realize that the venue may not be prepared for them.

This is because while bigger, more corporate venues generally are fairly accessible, smaller DIY venues are often more problematic. Many are in warehouses or basements, or up flights of stairs, something this writer has noted hundreds of times while helping a friend schlep an amp into a show space, though I never thought to consider how this would affect someone with reduced mobility.

“Things start getting really dicey when it comes to venues that hold one or two hundred people. It starts getting into mostly inaccessible for DIY venues. Which makes sense, but that doesn’t mean accessibility should be ignored,” says Gray. “I’ve been forced to skip a few shows. One actually being a Roomrunner show a few years ago due to it not being accessible. The steps were too steep for anyone to help. I had no idea how inaccessible the venue was due to it being a DIY venue.”

While Gray doesn’t expect every DIY venue to install rails or elevators, an impossibility for many due to their temporary nature, he makes the point that the scene is doing a poor job getting this information out there: “It’s 2015, you can make sure to ask me to show up on time to see your band and to make sure I bring money, or even ‘ask a punk’ where the address is for a DIY venue, but you can’t tell me if the show space is up a flight of stairs? Give me a break.”

Sadly, it seems that accessibility and disability issues have long been something that many people just don’t think about unless they had to—even if they are a part of the purportedly inclusive DIY community.

“I grew up going to a lot of benefit shows in D.C., for all kinds of social issues. These shows and the bands that played them really opened up my eyes to being more aware of these issues. The one issue that never got attention was accessibility. Disability rights wasn’t even on my radar,” Gray says. “For the longest time I thought my disability was just something that I had to deal with. I would apologize for needing help up stairs at venues or being slow. It felt like for the longest time my disability was my struggle and my struggle alone.”

The site has gotten a lot of attention recently, with articles appearing on Pitchfork and elsewhere, increased user submissions, new cities covered, and some venues (including Baltimore’s Holy Underground) making it a point to post accessibility information.

To Gray, the interest and results have been gratifying, but there is more work to be done: “Part of the reason show-goers don’t see people with disabilities at shows is partly due to the fact that our needs aren’t being met in terms of accessibility. It’s not because we don’t exist, it’s because how can we go somewhere that we can’t access?” 

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