Sean Gray sees barriers many people do not. Born with cerebral palsy, the Maryland native has been using a walker since he was 4 years old. He knows how to size up a doorway, a staircase. They could be hindrances, interfering with Gray’s basic right to get where he wants to go.
Often, Gray’s destination is a punk show. The 34-year-old has been infatuated with hardcore and punk rock since his teenage days in Ellicott City. But after years of traveling to shows, only to be impeded by a staircase or an inaccessible bathroom once he arrived, Gray resolved to do something about it.
In 2014, Gray started a website called Is This Venue Accessible? that provides detailed accessibility information for venues around Baltimore and D.C. Since then, the site has expanded to 26 cities, including Glasgow, Scotland, and Osaka, Japan. Now Gray is taking his project to the next level, launching an app that will serve the same purpose. He expects to debut the app later this year.
Gray’s efforts have sparked a larger conversation about accessibility as a social-justice issue, particularly in regional punk scenes. I recently chatted with Gray about the broader impact of inaccessibility and how his app aims to take the stress out of concertgoing for people with disabilities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the true purpose of “Is This Venue Accessible?”:
Sean Gray: I would love to see all venues be accessible, but [Is This Venue Accessible?] is not about changing venues. It’s about providing information that there’s a lack of. If there’s no accessibility information, I have to automatically default to “it’s probably not accessible.”
I took a cab to [D.C. venue] DC9, and it’s my first time going there, and when I saw those steps I just hailed a cab and went back home. The retort for some people would be, “Well, you could just ask someone to help you.” But that’s not as easy as it sounds. For some people they’re comfortable doing that and others aren’t. It shouldn’t be that way. I shouldn’t have to ask for help to go see art. Art and music and culture should be accessible to everybody.
On what accessibility means to him:
When I was a younger teen and in my early 20s, I didn’t really know what a disability was, and I didn’t know how to own that and how that affected me and how the world — the physical world — affects me. I just took the blame myself. ITVA provides information to give you a better guide to go out and actually experience music and art and culture. To me, accessibility isn’t about physical spaces. Full accessibility is about having access to culture and aspects of life that go far beyond getting into a physical building. And I think when you cut that off from a segment of people, it’s hurtful and bad for society.
When I’m not able to get to a show, I don’t just take it as being inaccessible. What that promoter, building or band is saying to me is, “You’re just not allowed to go to this show.” It sounds harsh, but that’s the reality that I and many other people with disabilities live with every single day.
“I’ve been lucky enough to see shows that have changed my life, but I also wonder how many shows I’ve had to miss that could have changed my life.”
On the lack of awareness around young people with disabilities:
Accessibility isn’t really a sexy concept. We’re going through a political election, and I assure you, you will not hear any politician on any side talk about accessibility and disability in young people. You’ve got young people and babies used as inspiration porn, and then you’ve got older people who are disabled, and there’s this gap in between. So there’s this blank space of representation for people with disabilities, and that’s why it’s very rare to see people with disabilities going to shows.
I’ve had promoters or bar owners say that they just don’t see people with disabilities there, and my response has been that you would see people with disabilities at these venues if you actually provided them with the information necessary to come.
On how inaccessibility hampers personal enrichment:
I did a talk at SXSW… and I asked the crowd, “How many of you here can say that you’ve gone to a show that’s changed your life?” Everybody raised their hand. Then I said, “Imagine if the show that changed your life, you weren’t allowed to go to. Not because your parents said you couldn’t go, and not because you had to work, but because you just couldn’t get in. That happens all the time to people with disabilities.” I’ve been lucky enough to see shows that have changed my life, but I also wonder how many shows I’ve had to miss that could have changed my life.
On accessibility as an overlooked social-justice issue:
We live in an age where there are a lot of bands, for good reason, talking about inclusion and oppression, and that’s great. But the thing that always seems to be lacking is accessibility. I saw a drawing once, and it was like a DIY house, and on the front it said, “We do not tolerate homophobia, sexism, racism, ageism,” and everything else, and the way to get into the house were these broken, rickety steps.
On the ambitious goals of the “Is This Venue Accessible?” app:
I’m trying to give the user the total experience of going to a show and planning that out. I want to build an app that I want to use, so anywhere in the world it’s connected to Google Maps, it knows where I am, which venues are around me, which venues have accessibility information, what information I need to make my choice to go to that show. I could have put together an app that just reflects the website, but that’s not the goal. It’s not just about changing attitudes about going to shows for people with disabilities, but making it an experience that is less stressful and less worrisome.
On how punk drove him to make a difference:
Punk has taught me that if nobody is going to do it for you, you do it yourself. ITVA was born out of my frustration of not being able to experience what I love the most — being told that I couldn’t be a part of it. I just wouldn’t settle for that.
When you have a disability, you’re sort of thought of to not be angry, to not be emotional, to not be sexual. There are things that you’re just not allowed to have, and you’re socialized to enjoy the fact that you can just get out of the house — or that you’re alive. In anything that I’ve done, [I’ve been determined] not to settle. It’s OK to be disabled and angry, or to want to see a band and not have to feel like this is a privilege that somebody’s helping you.
I want this site and this app to make people think differently. I think things are changing, and it’ll be a good wake-up call for bands and venues that haven’t thought of this or taken it seriously.
Listen: Sean Gray discusses accessibility on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show