Photo of Birth (Defects) by Hasan Ali
Sean Gray is super fucking punk. He's been booking shows and running DIY record labels Fan Death Records and Accidental Guest for almost fifteen years. Alongside co-host Ahmad Zagal, he makes up one half of Accidental Guest radio (88.1 FM College Park), and still somehow finds time to write powerful essays and front the band Birth (Defects). Sean was born with cerebral palsy, so he does all this (and everything else too) with the assistance of a walker. He's one of the most active people in the scene, but for years he's run into problems with wanting to attend events in buildings that he can't navigate with a mobility device.
Ever the community-builder, he's recently launched Is This Venue Accessible?, a submission-driven guide designed to provide bands and showgoers with information about the accessibility of music venues in cities across the US. I got to talk to Sean about his personal history in the punk scene and his motivations for launching the site.
Noisey: What was it that finally prompted you to start Is This Venue Accessible?
Sean Grey: I was born with cerebral palsy and I use a walker to walk. This makes it hard to go to certain shows if there are steps to get inside the venue or in an area where I can see the stage. Something as small as how big the restroom is and where is it can be a deal breaker, too. I have to actually juggle how much I can drink on any given night if the bathroom is not on the same floor as the venue, or even if there's a ton of steps just to leave the venue. Because of situations like this,, I've had to forego many experiences seeing bands, hanging with friends, and feeling like I was part of certain communities.
Growing up, I was able to go to some of these shows if my friends were there to help me, so I used to feel like my disability was a burden on people. I didn't really own or "come out" with my disability until my mid-20s. In early November I got laid off from my day job, and one of my favorite DC hardcore bands, Red Death, were playing that night at a venue called the Pinch. The show area is down a flight and a half of stairs. I didn't have any friends that wanted to go, so I was outta luck. I thought to myself, "I can't even do something I love to help get over being bummed, this fucking sucks." After calming down, I realized I never wanted that to happen to me or anyone again. So I started a blog listing as many DC venues as I could think of, detailing their accessibility and inaccessibility from steps to restrooms. I knew information is power. It wasn't easy making those listings— not because information was hard to come by, but because seeing that data really hit home how inaccessible a lot of venues are.
What made you decide to expand from the site's original Tumblr to a submission-driven full site?
I really wanted the site to go beyond DC. I decided early on this was going to be for everyone everywhere. That being said, I knew I would need others' help. I know a lot of people outside of DC that go to shows, promote shows, and play in bands, so I've been depending on them for information. I also wanted to make sure it's a site that can be used by as many people as possible, so Jake Reid, who helped build the new site, and I made sure it was reader-friendly for those who use visual impairment software.
It sounds like ITVA is really going to help people in bands who want to be mindful of accessibility when they're booking tours, but it will of course be an even bigger help for bands that have members who have disabilities.
I don't expect venues to change, but I think if artists and bands make this a priority and at least address it, it can, at the very least, get venues to be more upfront with their issues of inaccessibility. I also think that if artists have information that the venue is inaccessible and have the option or privilege to play somewhere else, they should. If a bigger band makes it clear to the venue they don't want to play due to inaccessibility, or at the very least, are concerned about it, that can speak volumes.
I've said this before, but I think it needs to hit home: I live in a city where we've kickstarted three DC hardcore documentaries, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for them, yet we can't even post about a venue's inaccessibility on a flyer or Facebook. This should be a hot button issue! If you are excluding a segment of people, how can you fully say you're one hundred percent for inclusion? Being aware is huge, it isn't the full answer but its a big start.
Sean Gray / Photo via the Washington City Paper
It seems like everyone should want to get behind anything involving making safer spaces so more people can participate, but what happens when people or bands don't recognize your concerns?
I think a lot of it is that people think, because there are things like curb cuts, ramps, and elevators, that we live in a post-disability society—but that's as clowny as saying we live in a post racial society. These oppressions are real, we created them, we need to acknowledge them and have a dialogue about them. I tend to believe that people are afraid to bring up disability and ask questions, or maybe admit that some things in society really are ableist. We've been socialized to view people with disabilities as people who need to be taken care of, as emotionless, sexless, or less than a full person. It's as if I'm not allowed to be angry and I should just be happy with the fact I can maybe go to one place, that I can maybe leave my apartment, that I have a few friends. Being the angry cripple is not allowed.
I don't buy into the fucking bullshit "my disability doesn't own me, I own my disability" inspirational porn quotes and soundbites. Having a disability fucking sucks; it's hard every day, every moment. This website isn't going to change the disability world, but what it can do is not only give those with disabilities the information they need to go to these social events, but also provoke able-bodied people to think beyond what they know as inaccessibility. Some disabilities are hidden, and because there is no "sign," we don't take these disabilities as seriously. I'm hoping to do things on ITVA like list how many people can fit in a venue comfortably, if it gets crowded quickly, and where the exits are in relation to the bar, stage, etc.
What has it been like putting all this information together?
I really need peoples' help with this project. I can't do it alone. I got into punk because I believed in community. I run record labels and book shows because community is important to me. We need to be okay with giving people with disabilities a voice and an identity, and really understanding that ableism is real, and that disability is an oppression.
Seeing the raw data for DC, and even NYC (which isn't even finished yet, and let's not get started on the fact that even though a venue might be accessible, getting there isn't— the subway is definitely not friendly to those with disabilities)—it's hard to take in, even for me. It makes you realize how little we think of accessibility. While that one step to get into the venue might not seem like a big deal to you, it really could be a deal breaker for someone with a certain mobility device.
Meredith Graves is showing her support on Twitter.