Is this venue accessible? An interview with Sean Gray

Is this venue accessible? An interview with Sean Gray
by Elise Granata

You’re going out tonight. What are the first questions on your mind? Is it parking? Cash or credit? All ages or 21+? When do doors open? Will your friends meet you on time, or will Chris be three hours late again? Will he remember to bring cookies?

Sean Gray adds this question to the list: Is this venue accessible?

You can look to to find out. Sean has created a part-crowdsourced directory that investigates venue accessibility around the world. And it’s mega detailed. How many stairs are outside the venue? How wide are the bathroom doors? Are there usually people around to help out if you need a hand?

At the very least, the site intends to create a dialogue. Characteristics like rickety stair banisters, cramped showspaces and hardly functional bathrooms have become the scrappily charming symptom that your DIY space can’t manage/afford/build anything better. So what about the disabled communities that are left out? Sean hopes ITVA will actually transform how accessible venues are. Bands will use the listing as a resource; to be able to prioritize playing at accessible venues. The non-accessible ones will either catch up or phase out.

Today, ITVA features a venue listing in 19 cities across the world. This site is awesome, and it’s only growing. In addition to confronting the question of archiving a scene in flux, ITVA addresses how to be detailed about it too. Let’s hop on the scroll train to read an interview with Sean we did over the phone last week.

Sean fronting his band Birth (Defects)

Sean fronting his band Birth (Defects)

You speak to this beautifully on the site too, but can you tell me a little bit more about how you started this project?

I was born with cerebral palsy; I use a walker to walk. I’ve been going to shows and run two punk labels [Fan Death Records and Accidental Guest] for the last fifteen years of my life. I’m 32.

Back in November, I got laid off from my dayjob. It was kindof unexpected and was a pretty big bummer. For a couple of days I just didn’t leave my apartment. I just bummed around and didn’t really do much. With my disability it’s not that it’s a whole ordeal when I go out, but there is some preplanning involved. I can go out to most places on a whim, but if they’re not accessible it’s a bit difficult. In any event I was pretty bummed and not really feeling like I wanted to go out and do anything. But it was Friday, and I had been in the apartment for two or three days straight at that point. And I thought: I need to go out. I found out that one of my favorite newer DC hardcore bands were playing. I figured that would be a good way to A) get out of the apartment and B) blow off some steam. I just wanted to mourn losing my job. Like what any “normal,” able-bodied person would maybe want to do. I looked at the Facebook event invite and saw that it was at a venue I knew was inaccessible, and I knew that because my old band had played there before. There was a bar there on the ground level, but the showspace was actually downstairs. For me I really can’t get down any stairs unless there’s a railing and someone can take my walker down, and these weren’t the kind of stairs that would be easy for me to quickly ask somebody to help. But it was one of those things where I couldn’t just go out and go to the show. It was last minute, so I couldn’t ask friends or anything like that.

I was pretty bummed. I was pretty angry. At first I was like, “Well, I could just call out this venue on Facebook” but what would that do? At the end of the day, it wouldn’t really be much. Growing up and going to DIY shows, there’s been a couple of times where I just didn’t have the information that a venue was inaccessible– whether that be a DIY basement or even a legit bar or venue. And there were a couple of times where I went and I couldn’t get into the show. And it’s because I didn’t have that information. Most of the time where I don’t have information and I can’t get anybody to help me or come with me to the show, I just have to default that it’s inaccessible. I decided to start this blog with all the venues I know in DC– because most of them are inaccessible– and I’ll just list out which ones are and which ones aren’t. Then I thought about it a little more and figured that I’d go into detail– what is accessible? What’s not? The thing I always stress to people is that disability is a spectrum. Just because I have a walker doesn’t necessarily mean that everything that is accessible for me is going to be accessible for somebody who’s visually impaired, or somebody who has a wheelchair or other mobility device. It’s a spectrum.

The level of detail you go into with the listings is pretty granular. Can you speak to why you choose to go in that deep?

There’s a trend in the disability community to have websites that really say what’s accessible and what’s not. And quite a few of them are basically just like really quick blips of information. Nothing detailed, just “this has stairs” or “this place doesn’t have stairs” or there’s a graphic where somebody’s going up the stairs. You don’t really know what that means. Okay, how many stairs? Is there a railing? if you have a disability, details matter. Details really, really matter. Because yeah, there might be stairs, but what if the railing is there and it’s rickety or falling off? What if there are no stairs in the venue, but to get into the venue itself there are two curb-type stairs to get into the front door? Those details which might seem small to somebody who doesn’t have to tackle accessibility. But for somebody who is disabled like myself, or who uses a mobility device–that’s huge. So I decided to go really detail-heavy. I don’t want to do any graphics. I just want to be this text-based website. People would ask me if I did that purposefully. And yeah, i did, because why does this have to be a flashy website? I also really wanted the site to be really easy for screenreaders [used by] folks who have visual impairment. Having it be text-based makes it that much easier.

As things started coming together, did anything unexpected happen for you?

I did the rundown of what I knew DC-venue wise. And I didn’t know everything. But part of the reason I didn’t know everything was because there were venues I just can’t get into. There were a lot of basement venues I just couldn’t get into, and just never wanted to because I knew it wasn’t accessible. Before I published [the DC listings] I sat back and I looked at the data. And it was the first time I was actually able to see it laid out. And it was really depressing. Look, I live with this disability every day of my life. I was born with it, I’m going to die with it. Every morning i wake up and I have to deal with it. But that was the first time I actually saw how inaccessible not only the world around me is, but moreso a culture, and a scene, and a community that I am really invested in and felt a part of– or really didn’t feel a part of. This really is pushing me out. It really is an oppression. I really do think disability is an oppression, and we have to see that. Just because the ADA exists and there are certain laws in place to “protect” people with disabilities, it makes it seem like everything is fixed and better. But like with any oppression, that isn’t the case just because these laws are in place. So to have it mapped out was really eye-opening for even someone like me: someone who’s had a disability for 32 years of their life.

After publishing it, I thought about how I’ve been to shows all over the US. I’ve been to New York plenty of times. I’ve toured a couple of times. I shouldn’t just limit this to DC. Maybe I’ll start writing about the venues I know in New York. And then it turned into this thing where I wanted people to be involved in this, and [to share] that they have a stake in this too. And it developed from there.

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 12.19.24 AM

An example of a listing on ITVA

And a lot of the entries are pretty narrative. Because you’re trying to keep it detailed, they need to be super, super precise down to the quality of the banister on the stairwell. No matter what, you are still writing this from your perspective. How do you get as detailed as you want to get while still remaining unbiased?

That’s tough, because there’s always going to be a bias. 95% of these venues we feature right now are from people I don’t know submitting stuff, or people who are able-bodied submitting stuff. People ask me all the time what I’m looking for. There’s a submission form. I always feel like the more detailed it is, the better. I can’t take a submission that just says “there are stairs.” Well, what does that mean? How many stairs? Is there maybe a different entrance that doesn’t have stairs? Are people at the venue willing to help?

And again, I have to stress that disability is a spectrum. I know that unfortunately I’m probably leaving out certain aspects of accessibility that may apply to somebody else with a different kind of disability. The main goal of the site right now is to create discourse. To get this in people’s heads. Accessibility isn’t limited to public buildings, it isn’t limited to “Oh, I can go to the Starbucks.” The thing with disability is this: when you have a disability, you’re not allowed to be a part of certain things, you’re not allowed to feel certain things. You don’t expect somebody with a wheelchair or a walker to be into art or culture or be into punk and culture, or be into experimental music and culture– any fringe-y things. Actually, not even just fringe-y things– even just pop music. I think it’s so alien for society to see somebody with a very visable disability be a part of all arts and culture, or really pushing that forward. And that’s a shame. And the same thing goes for disability and sexuality. Or disability and feelings of love and romance, or being angry. The idea of disability and not being allowed to be angry, or just being happy with what we have… I think that really scares people. They’re just not used to that aspect of somebody with a disability because ultimately we’re less than human. We’re not a fully formed person because we’re missing something or something is different. Disability needs to be in the same kind of conversation for when we’re talking about LGBTQ issues and race issues. We as a society need to hear that people with disabilities can be a part of pushing art, and can be a part of music, and can be a part of punk, and experimental art. I think that’s super important.

What this website aims to do is not only provide information about these venues, but also legitimize the idea of “if you have a disability you should be a part of this, you should be at this basement hardcore show.” When you’re pushing away somebody in society from being a part of that culture, I think the culture or the community becomes somewhat invalid. It’s not taken seriously. It’s one of the things I want this site to push back. [The site] was born out of punk culture. It was born out of DIY culture. And I want it to be a beacon. Next week we’re going to launch festivals on the site– we’ll explore Pitchfork fest, and see if that’s accessible. I’m posting Damaged City Fest which is a hardcore fest in DC, and New York’s All Right, which is an equivalent in New York. Even if you’re not super into pop culture, festival culture is still pretty important in music. To have that on the site provides information and stresses “no, I want to go to these fucking fests too.”

When you laid out the DC venue listings and looked at this all in one bunch, the reality was that so many of these spaces were inaccessible. So if the dream is about making it imperative for disabled folks to be at shows, you need to do the opposite. Make it obvious, give it a structured place, to combat that silence.

Right. And I gotta be clear– as much as I love being involved in punk…I grew up in Baltimore going to shows in DC. I went to many many Positive Force shows that were benefits for all kinds of social issues, ranging from poverty to race issues to LGBTQ issues. But never once did I go to a benefit for accessibility. Never once. So I grew up kind of hating that nobody cared about my disability, that it was invalid, that I should ignore it, and deal with it, and just get over it. And I kindof agreed with it because it was never socialized in me that way.

I live in DC, and it has, what, three different hardcore documentaries or punk documentaries that are out, or are coming out, and are mostly bankrolled by a Kickstarter. And from what I’ve seen it’s been like tens of thousands of dollars raised. And I’m not shitting on those kinds of documentaries. Look, I love Void and Minor Threat just as much as anybody else does, but I don’t need to fucking hear Ian Mackeye tell me the same kind of 7 inch story ten times over. And that’s great, and it’s great that Dischord did their first 20,000 records by hand. We all fucking do that at a punk label. That’s just the way it goes. And I’m glad that story exists, but I don’t need to see another cis white dude tell me about punk. Alright, you bankrolled [this documentary], but we live in DC and there’s not an actual, DIY, 100% accessible safe space here in [the city]. There’s not. It just doesn’t exist. But we can make sure that the suburban, white, privileged hardcore culture that existed here in the 80’s is preserved for other generations to see? I know that sounds like I’m hating on DC, and I’m not because I love those bands and that culture, but there’s a reality here that I think people are ignoring. To not have that here in DC is pretty heartbreaking. In that case, the bigger issue is– if in DC it’s not a priority where it’s the home of Fugazi, it’s the home of DIY ethic, then of course it’s not going to be a priority anywhere else.

"...we live in DC and there's not an actual, DIY, 100% accessible safe space here in [the city]...But we can make sure that the suburban, white, privileged hardcore culture that existed here in the 80's is preserved for other generations to see?" Illustration by Pia Barnett

“…we live in DC and there’s not an actual, DIY, 100% accessible safe space here in [the city]…But we can make sure that the suburban, white, privileged hardcore culture that existed here in the 80’s is preserved for other generations to see?” Illustration by Pia Barnett

It’s so weirdly stuck in the history. That history should be motivating or mobilizing, but instead it becomes something everybody wants to preserve and focus on.

I’m not saying that my site is going to change the world, but I hope that it does. Last year I read an interview with Kathleen Hanna and she said the one thing she really regrets about riot grrrl is that they weren’t inclusive for people of color. She knew it was something she should have been aware of but really wasn’t. And I think that’s going to happen here, that embarrassment, that “This was kindof in our face, and we didn’t do anything about it.” This is not to make anybody feel bad, that’s just a reality. So I really hope that’s what this site does. Beyond it pushing the idea that people with disabilities can be a part of indie culture, I really want it to be a touring resource. I want people to look at this and use these great contacts, and also use it as a place to have alternatives. Band could say “oh this venue has two flights of stairs but this one doesn’t.” If you’re a socially conscious band, punk or otherwise, you should pay attention to this stuff. We buy into bands nowadays who say that they’re all-inclusive, and they’re talking about every other kind of oppression but they won’t mention accessibility or disability. That’s just dumb to me. It’s just so blatantly dumb. So I don’t really take it seriously when bands go on political rants and say how inclusive they are, or how we should. And I’m not saying you have to mention every single kind of oppression– that’s a lot of weight on every band’s shoulders– but this is an oppression that is so public. Accessibility rights is not a sexy issue right now. The only time we hear about accessibility issues is when it’s an inspiration-porn-type story or when it’s older people who spend money and vote. And it’s really lacking of young people. I’m talking people in their 20’s and 30’s.

None of these oppressions exist in a vacuum. So it’s important to normalize talking about venue accessibility alongside the social issues you mention. Part of what strikes me as being normalized in punk–in terms of show listings–is the concept of a sliding scale cover. That’s pretty common. You’ll have sliding scale, or donation, or No One Turned Away for Lack of Funds (NOTAFLOF), and in a way that’s an acknowledgment of your ability to afford this show. So there’s something that’s been normalized in punk. Seeing accessibility details listed out in a venue or house space is not the norm, but just as easily could be.

Yes. And I don’t want this to come off as pretentious, but the real deal is this: Most punks live on the internet. Punk or not, the way we learn about shows today is social media or web 2.0. You can put as much information on a Facebook invite as you want. And you can go through the whole list of information: it’s a safe space, it’s sliding scale, bandcamps, myspace, label site. But you can’t– or you haven’t– thought to put any accessibility information on there? It just doesn’t add up with me. A lot of people will say “Oh, we just haven’t thought of it.” And the angry side of me thinks that’s bullshit. That’s just lazy. I get this all the time from people who run DIY spaces or in bands, who say they don’t see people with disabilities [at shows] so they don’t think they should cater to them. They may not say it directly like that, but that’s how it comes off. The reason you don’t see people with disabilities isn’t because we don’t exist, it’s because you have a venue that excludes people with disabilities. So why would we bother to show up? It’s not that we don’t exist. There are plenty of people who are disabled and into punk, or disabled and into music, who would love to be a part of that culture. But they feel either scared or unsure that they would be accepted. Or they don’t even know it exists!

The other thing I want to point out too is that we’ve been talking a lot about physical disability, but invisible disabilities exist. I have a walker, and that’s a signifier of having a physical disability. That doesn’t mean that somebody who doesn’t use this thing doesn’t have a disability. There’s gotta be an acknowledgement there too because people tend to look for these signifiers. I understand that to an extent, but we need to start thinking outside of the box, and know that people with invisible disabilities exist just as much as someone with a physical disability. I think punk, DIY, everybody in music and art really needs to understand that if we really want to progress forward, we have to be all inclusive.

I don’t understand why again in 2015 I’m seeing people who make it a point to say this is a safe space– and that’s great, that’s awesome– they’ll make it a point to say that, and they’ll list out the sliding scale, and nobody turned away, and we won’t tolerate this and that, but they won’t acknowledge accessibility. I don’t necessarily think The Hard Times is super funny, but they had an article recently that was basically like “safe space actually extremely dangerous.” It was just hilarious to me, because that’s kindof how it feels. Let’s say I do go and see the show. You have this basement with no railing. What if my friends leave? How do I get back up the stairs? That could be a hazard for myself. I did an interview with Maximum Rock ‘n Roll a couple of weeks ago and the person who interviewed me (she had a disability) said “the one thing we don’t really think about is that we’re putting our bodies at risk when we go to shows. We’re putting our emotions at risk.” I’ve been at shows where I’ve crawled up stairs or down them for the show. And I’m putting my body at risk. For what? To see a band? But when you get down to the actual showspace, it might be so crowded you can’t even be a part of it. So the idea of that Hard Times article is like, yeah, you’re putting your safety at risk to make sure you can go into a DIY safe space that makes all these other things clear, but your physical well-being is at risk. That’s something that people with disabilities navigate all the time. Not even just in music venues, but in [places like] restaurants too. These are the little things people without disabilities don’t even think about.

"...yeah, you're putting your safety at risk to make sure you can go into a DIY safe space that makes all these other things clear, but your physical well-being is at risk." Illustration by Pia Barnett

“…yeah, you’re putting your safety at risk to make sure you can go into a DIY safe space that makes all these other things clear, but your physical well-being is at risk.” Illustration by Pia Barnett

Because it’s not communicated well, you are left to make up the difference. And that’s at risk to you. To get to more logistical territory, how do you compile the listings? Are the majority made out of submissions?

Yeah, at this point I did a lot of New York, DC and Baltimore which makes sense because that’s the area I grew up going to shows in. But a lot of it is crowdsourced. I go back and forth between if I should call these venues myself to get this information, but there’s a couple of reasons I don’t do that. I feel like if I call up these venues, I’m really putting them on the spot– which you should– but they may be reluctant to give me that information. I’ll give you a prime example; and this goes into how fucked up it is. There’s a venue here in DC called The Velvet Lounge. The bar area is ground level, but the showspace is up two flights of narrow stairs with a rickety railing. Whenever I’m with a friend I’ll have them help me. It sucks, but I’ll do it. Downstairs there’s a bar. And there’s been a couple of times where I’ll meet up with friends of mine to get a few drinks at the bar. The way [the venue] gets around being accessible is that they have an accessible bathroom…but that bathroom is up three stairs. So then I need to game out: how much should I drink? If my friends don’t show up, how am I going to use the restroom? People wonder why I wouldn’t always ask for help. The one thing i have to stress is that everybody is different. Just because I”m vocal with my disability doesn’t mean the person with a wheelchair is going to be as vocal. The one thing about disability that is hard for people to grasp is that it’s all different. Experiences are different, and the idea of asking for help affects people with disabilities differently. There are certain situations where I’m extremely scared to ask somebody for help. It’s embarrassing. I’m only human. I’d like to think when I go to a show I’d be like “I don’t give a fuck,” but I’m also only human. There’s those times where it’s like, I don’t want my friends to think that I’m weak or helpless. I don’t want to be a burden on people. There’s a lot going on when people ask for help. If they help me, that means they’ll have to wait while I use the restroom, and it might take some time for me to use the restroom….it’s this whole thing, and that’s hard for me to explain to people. It’s just not that easy.

When I started the site and asked people for help, having them submit information is something I was a little nervous about. But my main reason for doing that was I want able-bodied people to be involved. I want able-bodied people to go out there and look at this stuff, to really see it for the first time. If you’re able-bodied and you use stairs, you don’t think of it. If it’s two or three stairs, or even a flight, you just normally do it. With people having to actually take the time out to look at this stuff, it actually opens up people’s eyes. I don’t want it to be an inspiration-porn-type thing. I want people to see the reality of it. I wrote a piece for Pitchfork and at first one of the critiques I wrestled with was: would this be viewed as inspiration porn? But there were two reasonings for me to write it the way I did: I did say in the middle of the piece some people come up to me in the middle of the show to congratulate me on being at the show, and my response was “Look, I just wanted to see the fucking show.” The other thing is it’s all about being visible. I have a disability, and I want to go to this show so much that I will put my emotional and physical state at risk to go to this show. Being visible is extremely important.

Going back to your original question, to have people go through that and notice that there are five stairs there, and that the bathroom is actually up another five stairs, or the bathroom is super narrow– it can get brutal. It can get brutal when you’re thinking about that. It makes people think of the little things. Also, I hope it makes bands think of that stuff too. I’m sure there are some people that submitted already that are in bands. I hope it pushes people with disabilities to go out to these shows, and have their friends join them, and they can all take note of this stuff. I don’t expect the information to be perfect. It’s something I always have to keep my eye on and update stuff. But I want this site to be a human thing. It’s like a zine. I want it to have that feeling. I really want people to have an emotional investment in the site. Not an inspiration-porn kindof investment, but in a “oh, we’re all at risk” investment. Because what is the point if we’re excluding somebody? I want there to be an urgency, to realize that we’re all at risk, we all have something to lose. That’s a small portion of what punk is about, realizing that we’re all at risk and need to find ourselves. And I hope that’s what the site conveys to the user. It’s community driven, and I think that’s super important.

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