Going Out with a Disability: Will I Be Able to Go In?

Guest blogger Sean Gray is from Washington, DC and runs two independent record labels, Fan Death Records and Accidental Guest Recordings. He has written for local DC news outlets DCist and Washington CityPaper.

It was a November afternoon; it was a tough week as I had just gotten laid off from my day job. I decided I should probably leave my apartment, go see some friends and see a band play at a local bar/venue. I saw a Facebook event invite from a band I knew I liked, but as soon as I opened it and looked at the location, I knew I couldn’t go.

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Sean Gray Performing

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Sean Gray Performing

I’m 32 and I have Cerebral Palsy. I’ve always been into music, especially not-so-well known artists. I’ve been going to concerts since I was 14 and many shows have helped shape who I am today. Music is a social experience, so it’s a good outlet to meet new people, hear new ideas, and really feel like part of a community. Some of bands who play smaller shows tend to push inclusion, which is great. The smaller performances I was going to when I was younger (and still to this day) have addressed many types of oppression. Yet, they never seemed to address disability and accessibility. I used to think my disability didn’t matter and that it wasn’t real because none of my peers were talking about it.

Going out with a disability isn’t easy. I’ve been socialized to believe that I can “do anything”. The reality is I can’t-not because I’m not smart enough or don’t have the skills-but because of the barriers put in my way because of how we treat and view disability in society. I wouldn’t question why there were stairs at a certain place, or why the bathroom wasn’t accessible because I was socialized not to. I was socialized to deal with it and view it as a part of life or some kind of hurdle that I just have to get over. I could never hide my disability, sure, but I would almost pretend it didn’t exist, especially when I was in any kind of social environment. I didn’t really start to come out with my disability until I was in my mid-20s. I started to question why people weren’t talking about my experiences, and really felt what I was going through was being swept under the rug. Maybe it was because the ADA exists, and maybe it was because there are visual reminders such as ramps, curb cuts, elevators, that people think life is now “easier” for those with disabilities, but in reality, at least for me, this wasn’t the case.

I got tired of not being able to go to a certain place because of inaccessibility. The whole idea of me just “dealing with it” started to really wear on me, and I got angry. Those with disabilities seemed to be stripped of certain feelings/experiences which can be romance, sexuality, and even anger. The angry disabled person makes others uncomfortable, and it should. Why should I have to just deal with it, or forego experiences because of this inaccessible world? While many might think “well you have friends that could help you,” it isn’t that easy. While I feel comfortable most of the time asking for help in inaccessible places, sometimes I don’t and just because I feel comfortable doesn’t mean everyone else with a disability does. Our experiences and disabilities are all different. I needed to own my disability and realize it as oppression. I don’t buy into the whole “my disability doesn’t own me” idea. This is a real oppression that needed to be recognized in my life.

If there’s one thing I have learned from underground bands is that I can advocate for myself. Instead of being angry, maybe I should call out the venue publicly and that be the end of it, but I wanted to do more. Information is power and if I could provide information on certain venues and their accessibility or inaccessibility, maybe it would help not only those with disabilities, but bands, patrons, and even the venues themselves to see who they are really leaving out at these places. I created a website containing detailed information about each venue I know in the Washington, D.C. area. This website, called “Is This Venue Accessible?,” would become a resource whenever needed. I tried to include little things that only my personal experience as someone with a disability would grasp such as: height of stairs, how sturdy are the railings, and if there are bathrooms on all floors.

While I don’t expect venues to change overnight (or even at all, especially the smaller places/DIY venues) I do believe this resource will make people think of accessibility issues they never thought of before. I hope that this site might put pressure on venues to rethink and retool accessibility in their establishments. If a bigger band or artist refuses to play their due to the lack of accessibility and the venue, it becomes a business decision. There is no one size fits all answer for accessibility. Just because I use a walker doesn’t mean what’s accessible for me is going to be accessible for someone who has a visual impairment. My disability is physical and easy to see, but that’s not true for everyone.

My dream is to have this expand beyond just the D.C. metro area. The response has been great with many people offering to help with accessible web design and even putting this all into a searchable database. Accessibility is something that still seems to be ignored. We need to start rethinking how we view disability and what it means to have a disability. In the end it’s simple: accessibility is inclusion and if we are excluding one, we are excluding all.