A Disabled Musician Shines a Light on the Accessibility of New York's Venues

Sean Gray, who uses a walker and sings in the band Birth (Defects), is pissed off about the East Coast's inaccessible music venues.
Sean Gray, who uses a walker and sings in the band Birth (Defects), is pissed off about the East Coast's inaccessible music venues.
Courtesy Sean Gray

Sean Gray probably knows more than you do about your favorite music venue.

For the 32-year-old, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker, knowing the venues inside and out can be the difference between buying a ticket to a show he wants to see and having to wait for the bootleg.

Gray, a veteran of the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene, says that despite the existence of the now 25-year-old Americans With Disabilities Act, finding easy-to-navigate music venues is still a huge pain in the ass.

"To me, it's no different than any other kind of oppression," he says. "What if you're not allowed to go to a venue because you're gay or a person of color? That's what this feels like."

That's why Gray is launching a crowdsourced website called "Is This Venue Accessible?" The site shares accessibility reviews of American music venues. Those reviews note specific details that someone without a walker or wheelchair might overlook: a rickety railing, a barely-wide-enough bathroom, or a small curb step in front of an entrance. He hopes the website will empower disabled music lovers to know what they're getting into before they go to a show.

"I'm not saying these things have to change. I'd like them to change; I don't expect them to," he says. "But information is power."

Gray started the project in D.C. after a particularly brutal night in November when he couldn't see a show by a band called Red Death — just because of a flight and a half of stairs.

"I'd unfortunately just got laid off from my day job that week," he remembers. "So I really just wanted to see this hardcore band. I didn't have to go to work anymore, and I was like, 'I can go out tonight, blow off some steam, forget about things for two hours.' "

That's when Gray checked out the Facebook invite to the show, and was dismayed to see it was happening at a bar called The Pinch.

Gray knew The Pinch well; his own band, No Paris, had played there in the past. It has a bar and restaurant at street level, with a music space in the basement. When Gray played The Pinch before, his bandmates helped him get down the stairs. But that night he was on his own. Suddenly, he knew he wouldn't be able to go.

Says Gray: "I just got angry."

So he decided to do something about it. Gray started his site as a humble Tumblr, listing the good and bad accessibility points of venues in D.C. Local media outlets heaped their praise on the idea, and he decided to expand it. His new site, itvaccessible.com, also reviews venues in Brooklyn and Manhattan. What's more, the site features a form where concertgoers across the country can review venues in their own cities. Gray says those reviews will become the lifeblood of his project.

"I'm really depending on people outside of D.C. to make this work," he says. "I really would like to get reviews from people with varying experiences."

One thing that is obvious from the list: New York, with its big loft-style spaces, by and large offers better accessibility than the nation's capital. But Gray says there is still room for improvement. Things seemingly as minor as a step between the bar and the rest of the space at a venue can still be difficult for patrons in wheelchairs.

Gray says he isn't just documenting which bars he can get in to and which he can't. He wants artists to help him change the ratio. He's calling on bands to refuse to play inaccessible venues whenever possible, thus forcing bars and DIY spaces to get their act together. "If you have the privilege [as a band] where you can say no, you should say no," he says.

So far, he knows of only one musical group — Syracuse- and Brooklyn-based Perfect Pussy — to have followed through on that: Lead singer Meredith Graves was livid in April last year when she heard Gray couldn't see her show because of his disability.

"She immediately texted their booking agent and said, 'We do not want to play this venue again,' " he remembers. "She's the only person in years and years who's done that."

Graves wants to be clear. Perfect Pussy aren't, well, perfect about only playing completely accessible locations. "We don't have that much pull," she says.

But talking to Gray was a wake-up call to play accessible bars whenever possible.

"For me, it's just like playing an all-ages show. You want to give as many people access as possible to your music," says Graves. "Once you see someone you love struggling with something, it lights a fire under your ass."

Send news tips to ktoth@villagevoice.com Follow @kat_toth on Twitter


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