Punk's Ethos of Inclusivity Leaves Out One Major Group
How lack of accessibility at punk venues leaves people with disabilities out of the scene.
JORTSFEST founder Maria Sotnikova and co-organizer Carter Sutherland. Photo by Bryce Center
Before Jeff Rosenstock's performance at the Villain last November, 22-year-old Karley Gabriel, a grad student, felt the usual things that would prevent her from attending the much-anticipated show in Brooklyn: It will start with an aching or stiffening joint, like her wrist or her knee. Or, she'll have difficulty forming words or remembering simple things. These symptoms signal an oncoming flare of Gabriel's lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease where the body's immune system basically attacks its own tissues and organs and will leave her bedridden for a day, typically.
"Definitely don't want to go in a mosh pit when you're in that condition," she says, her voice still punctuated with bubbly laughter, undeterred by the gravity of the subject.
Gabriel's friend since high school, Gary DiFiore, 23-years-old and an undergraduate student, previously had a weakened immune system from AML leukemia, a form of cancer that rapidly progresses and affects bone marrow and a group of white blood cells called myeloid cells. He was diagnosed at 18 and essentially had the immune system of a baby. During this period, he had to avoid crowded spaces and wear a surgical mask if he did venture outside his hospital room. At one point, he contracted pneumonia while his immune system was run down. He's better now, though. DiFiore managed to see Rosenstock play that night and jokes that Gabriel's condition is similar to how he feels after gets in the mosh pit.
The mosh pit itself is only one hazard at punk shows, but other perils lie ahead for fans like Gabriel and DiFiore, who both have invisible disabilities. Steps leading to the entrance. The stage or bathrooms located on a different floor. Lack of seating separate from the bar. These are just a few of the hindrances that pose a risk for people with disabilities who want to enjoy the experience, just like everybody else.
In recent years, the punk scene has been outspoken about the inclusivity of its shows. Artists including Jeff Rosenstock and Camp Cope have been especially vocal regarding creating a safe environment for fans of all identities along with expressing their intolerance of sexual harassment and assault at shows.
Rosenstock took to Twitter in 2015 after a woman tweeted about being groped by multiple men at his show in Austin:
The Australian trio Camp Cope launched the #ItTakesOne campaign to band together musicians and concertgoers to call out sexual harassment when they see it. The campaign's video features a roll call of notable artists, including Courtney Barnett and Jen Cloher, The Bennies, and Chris Farren. Despite these strides in the scene, the lack of accessibility at many venues deters fans from attending or being a part of the community to the fullest extent, an experience that is completely counter to the punk ethos of inclusivity.
The Americans with Disabilities Act governs how buildings, like venues, should be designed, constructed, or altered to make them accessible. Accessible building elements include an accessible entrance, an accessible route to the altered area, at least one accessible restroom for each sex or a single unisex restroom, accessible telephones, accessible drinking fountains, and additional accessible elements such as parking, structure, and alarms. But, when the cost is more than 20 percent of the cost of the main rooms' cost of alterations, then changes must be made to fullest extent possible. In other words, if something is too expensive to alter in a preexisting structure, then a contractor doesn't have to make it fully accessible.
Where it gets dicey is when non-commercial structures (i.e. houses) do not have to comply with these standards. Lots of punk acts perform at house shows to keep in line with the DIY ideology, but houses are not usually built with wide entrances or other accessible aspects in mind.
But, if artists don't have the privilege to turn down playing an inaccessible venue, what should they do? One solution for artists playing an inaccessible space is to advertise it as such on Facebook events and other flyers.
Singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson has had fans approach her, including DiFiore, who need some extra help at shows. In these cases, Stevenson coordinates with venue staff to work out accommodations for these fans. "When you're not living with a disability or you don't know someone who is, for a lot of people, myself included, you don't really understand just how many things people miss out on," Stevenson writes in an email. "It's just about awareness. It's about being open to learning from someone else's experience and trying to do what you can to help them. Being aware of how easy it is to take seemingly simple things for granted, like getting from your vehicle into a building, using a public bathroom, or just being in a crowd of people, whatever it may be."
New Yorker Valerie Gritsch, 27 and a graduate student with a shock of green hair, doesn't bother with less accessible venues such as dive bars. She also works with Xtra Mile Recordings as part of its fan engagement and street teams, which has signed acts including Against Me! and Gritsch's personal favorite, Frank Turner. So, Gritsch goes to shows and festivals in the US and the UK often. Her current diagnosis includes fibromyalgia—a condition characterized by a lot of musculoskeletal pain—and chronic fatigue syndrome. After a laminectomy, a surgery that shaves down part of the spine to relieve pressure, and physical therapy, Gritsch now regularly uses a cane, making her disability more visible. She was previously hesitant to use her cane due to the social stigma, which is felt by those with less visible disabilities, too. "People knew who I was because I went to all the shows, and it was really fucking embarrassing to be walking around with a cane," she admits. But even with her cane, Gritsch says she still gets the 20 Questions treatment from security staff who think she's trying to take advantage of the venue, even though she doesn't legally have to prove that she actually has a disability. "Why would I want to pretend that I can't have the fun that everyone else is having?" she says. Her experiences have gradually gotten better, including her November visit to the PlayStation Theater to see Good Charlotte where she watched from a raised platform right by the stage. "I felt like I could still feed off the energy of the crowd, and it was great because that isn't always the case."
Maria Sotnikova, a 29-year-old urban planner in Atlanta, is paving the way to make the scene more accessible for fans like Gritsch who enjoy attending music festivals, too. Sotnikova first immersed herself into the scene when she was in high school and living in the suburbs. "I needed an escape," she explains. "I didn't feel like I fit in. I wanted to find my place where I felt comfortable." Because Sotnikova was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as an infant, she has always used a power chair to get around. Going to shows for her means navigating around chairs, trying to see the stage, and fighting back against security who give her a hard time. Sometimes, venue staff will tell her that she is a fire hazard and has to move. Still, she gravitates toward the front row. "I enjoy being in the pit," she says. "I'm always the person in the front row because A) I'm really short and B) I have a steel cage around me so you can't fuck with me."
Sotnikova co-founded JORTSFEST, an annual Atlanta music and art festival every August, in 2013. The festival usually brings in around 10 to 13 acts and has attracted an average of 300 attendees. The motto of JORTSFEST shapes its atmosphere: "Always free. Always all ages. Always accessible." The shows are always hosted in a space that is a no-step entry, or, if there is a step, a portable ramp is available, and there is always a bathroom on the main level. Plus, the festival is always within walking distance of a train station.
Atlanta punk outfit Mutual Jerk, which formed in 2014, played its first JORTSFEST last year. "A reason we wanted to play JORTSFEST was because a lot of the shows that we play are at bars," bassist Sam Camirand says. "They're not all ages. There's a lot of barriers to access in terms of physical barriers." So, when opportunities arise to play an entirely accessible venue, the band takes them. But, Camirand admits, those chances are hard to come by. "As a band, that's something that we recognize and something we consider every time we play a show. We think about the space that we're in. We think about the people that are peopling it. We're all people without disabilities, so all of our lived experiences are situated in what we're experiencing in our own privileges." One of the more powerful aspects of being on the bill, Sam says, was being able to interact with other artists and activists that they would have never have met at other shows.
As venues and festivals are still grappling with the topic of accessibility, Sean Gray, disability advocate and frontman of DC punk band Birth (Defects), has curated the website Is This Venue Accessible since 2014. Gray was born with cerebral palsy and uses a walker, and he has been active in the punk and hardcore scenes—including running record labels and booking shows—for nearly two decades. The purpose of the user-generated site, which has details on venues in 26 cities and six countries, is not about changing venues. It's about getting the information out there so concert-goers are aware of what they're getting into before buying a ticket or showing up at a club. For example, the 9:30 Club in DC is accessible via an outside ramp and the bathrooms are on the ground floor, but the Subterranean in Chicago lacks an elevator and the concerts are hosted on the second level.
Gray put it best at a talk he gave in 2016 with journalist Annie Zaleski during SXSW. Everyone has attended a show that changed their life, right? Think about it this way: "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."
What Gray is getting at is that accessibility is more than a physical space. It's way bigger than that. It's about access to all aspects of life, and that sure as hell includes music. Concerts are a communal experience that should unite people of all identities and abilities instead of excluding.
Like Gray, Talli Osborne, 36, is a fixture in the punk scene and well-known in the Toronto community. And she's kind of hard to miss. Her septum is pierced, and silver hoops line her ears. Both sides of her head are shaved, and the remaining hair is dyed a striking fuchsia. She's also three feet tall and doesn't have arms. You might have already heard of Osborne if you're a fan of the LA punk rock band NOFX. Their song "She's Nubs"? Yep, they're talking about her. Osborne was first drawn to punk after hearing a NOFX song in 9th grade. "I don't know what it was," she says. "It was just the fastness and hilarious lyrics. Just really awesome."
Osborne opened for NOFX when she sang in her project, The Talliband. (Their music is still available on MySpace.) As part of The Talliband, Osborne played in many of Toronto's popular venues, which were never accessible: there are always stairs up to the stage. She still managed, though. "I am a very lucky girl where I worked hard to be able to master stairs," she says. "I don't really take no for an answer. There hasn't been a stage that I haven't been able to get on."
As a concert-goer, the experience is actually worse. At her height, it's difficult to see the stage, and the venue can get really crowded really fast. "I'll push my way through; sometimes I'll have someone lift me up on a speaker or a bar," she says. But some venues are better than others. One place in Toronto, Rebel, formerly Sound Academy, has a designated area for patrons with disabilities.
More often than not, though, Osborne, now a full-time motivational speaker, is used to it. "This world isn't made for someone like me," she says. "I feel like I'm not expecting venues to be accessible. I kind of just have to deal with it when I get there. That's the mentality I have. I'm not saying it's a good thing; it's just a reality of life for someone like me."
For people like Osborne, Gabriel, DiFiore, Gritsch, and Sotnikova, bars, houses, and concert halls just aren't built with fans with disabilities in mind. All they want to do is catch a show. "It's the best thing in the world," DiFiore says. "Nothing makes me happier. And everyone should get a chance to go to a show." And not being able to get into the venue or see the stage? Well, that's not punk at all.
Taylor Ysteboe is probably standing behind a tall dude at the punk gig. Follow her on Twitter.