Accessibility is the New Punk Rock Transcript

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So I'm a musician from Minnesota and I've been playing a long time and I've had the good fortune of getting to know a few people that toured for a living, they kind of made it, they're from my hometown and they toured nationally and internationally and I got to know them. And I always thought it sounded so fun, such a cool thing to just tour all over and travel and play your music. And I had talked to one of them one day, an older guy, and I was like, "You know, is it fun? Do you like it?" And he's, I was like, "because it would be fun to try that some day and he's like, "No, man. Touring is a grind. You have a good job, you teach fiddle, just don't try touring, it's a grind. It's pretty hard." And I was like okay, well, whatever.

And then in 2016, I entered National Public Radio's Tiny Desk Contest and much to my complete surprise, I won out of 6100 submissions, so, yeah. Thanks.

So because of that huge opportunity, my husband and I decided that we would try touring, we would try our hand at it. We sold our house and we bought a van and we quit our jobs and we hit the road. And we've been touring basically full time for two and a half years. I perform and he does everything else, basically.

And so I think the first day I realized that touring was a grind was the time I found myself in a bathroom stall 10 minutes before the show started while I was putting on makeup and eating beef jerky. And I was like, "Oh. I think I get what he means. This is really weird. What am I doing in here?" And so, but I didn't really think about how touring would be harder with a disability, so I went on a co-bill tour not long after we started, with another artist and she'd been on the road for 10 years and so after our two weeks together, she wrote a post on Facebook that really made me think. And she said, "I thought touring was hard, it's long drives and you don't get a lot of sleep and sometimes no one shows up and sometimes you make $12," which is true, I have done that myself. "But I never thought about how hard it would be if you couldn't get into the venue. And what Gaelynn and her husband are doing is just monumentally more difficult than anything I ever imagined."

And I started thinking about it because we walk into a venue and often the stage doesn't have a ramp, even though my stage plot says Gaelynn Lea is in an electric wheelchair, ramps are required, but no one listens to stage plots. And so, I get there and there's no ramp and then a lot of times I can't get in the green room because it's in the basement or upstairs and sometimes I can't even use the bathroom and once in a great while, I actually have to be carried into the venue, my whole wheelchair, it's 300 pounds. And so it's like walking into an obstacle course every time we go to a new venue. And I hadn't really given that a lot of thought, but it explained why I wanted to sleep for like a week every time we got home. And so, but I figured at least I was doing what I loved. I love performing and I love music and I love meeting people and I love traveling. And so I thought, well, this is just the way it is right now in our society, but at least I get to do what I love.

And later I met another artist. Her name is Kalyn Heffernan. She is the rapper in the hip hop group, Wheelchair Sports Camp. And Kalyn, she's awesome and we have the same disability, and she told me how she was booked at a pretty big festival and she was really excited to play. It was their first year and she ended up getting put in a venue on the second floor that didn't have an elevator. And because she was pretty well known in the disability community, a bunch of people in wheelchairs had shown up to see her play and they couldn't get in and they were pretty upset so she played a few songs outside of the venue before their show started and then she went upstairs and did the show.

She said the next day, they got a lot of angry emails from those fans that had wanted to see her play and couldn't get into the venue. And I asked her, kind of naively, "Well, isn't that a little bit overreacting? You didn't pick the venue. It was the festival that put you there." And she's like, "I don't really think so. I mean, it kind of sucks if you're a disabled performer and someone wants to see you and you can't even get into their show. What kind of example is that?" And I started thinking and I was like, whoa, I had thought about how hard it was for me, but I didn't think about what if somebody showed up and couldn't even get into my show. How terrible would that feel? It hadn't happened yet. And so, every time I ended up having to play at a venue that wasn't really accessible after that, it just felt gross. I felt increasingly hypocritical and disgusting because I am an advocate, right? And I don't really think that it's cool that places aren't accessible in 2019.

And so eventually there was a last straw. And that last straw came at a venue in Boston, a well-respected folk venue that's in the basement. And I was excited to play there, but I felt gross that it wasn't accessible, but I was like, well, I'm just starting out my career. Someday maybe I'll be able to just play accessible places. So I did the show. At that particular show, a fan of mine, he had supported a Kickstarter, donated a lot of money to help me make my last album, his prize was to get to have dinner with me before the show at this venue. He also, as a bonus prize, got to lift my chair down an entire flight of stairs and then back up to get it out. And it was... that day I was like this is dangerous for him, it's dangerous for my chair, it's dangerous for me and it also just is a bad example of advocacy. So I'm like I'm done playing inaccessible venues. And on top of it, I'm done getting lifted up onto the stage. If a venue doesn't have a ramp, I'm playing on the floor from now on. Because if things haven't changed in 30 years, which is how long the Americans with Disabilities Act has been around... I mean, think about that, right?

Yeah. I know. So, I mean, what has changed in music in the last 30 years, every piece of technology, there's auto tune, there's amazing light shows, but we haven't managed to build a wooden ramp in front of the stage yet? That's not okay. So I decided that was my new policy. I was really excited about it. I talked to my booking agent. I was like, "I'm only going to play accessible places." Well, you make a statement like that and the universe has to be like, "Ha. Ha. See what you really think when it comes down to it." So about a week later I get a call from him and he's really nervous, my booking agent, he's like, "I just found out the place you're supposed to play in Detroit is not accessible. There's 12 stairs to get in. I know you really want to do this now. What should I do? Should we cancel the show?"

So I thought, well, where could I play that's accessible, that is still possibly available 12 days out and that would be willing to work with an actual venue to put on a show together? And I realized, churches. Of course, churches have sound systems, they have acoustics. They're usually accessible, so I said, "Hey, man." I called this guy up, the owner of the venue and I was like, "I know this is really weird and super last minute, but can we maybe move the show to a church? And you guys co-host it and you tell all your guests to come to the church instead and we'll see how it goes?" And he thought about it for a while and he's like, "Well, I have never done anything like that before, but I will try it and we'll see what happens." So he located a church, it went well and that was when I realized that this kind of thing was possible. So churches might not seem like the most hard rock place to play or whatever, but I think about punk when I think about this. I think punk is going against the establishment, it's going against the grain. It's DIY, it's freedom, right? So I decided accessibility is the new punk rock. That is my motto for life right now.

And so I had a gig in San Francisco and it was at an office space because the promoter couldn't find an accessible venue, but he was a great promoter. He did an awesome job. He sold it out. There were 100 people that came to this show in San Francisco. And I'm kind of milling around in the office space, because there's no green room in an office space, before the show starts and I notice that a lot of people in wheelchairs are coming in the door and people with other disabilities and we're kind of like waving and smiling and I'm thinking, "Wow, this is so cool. I don't think I've ever seen this many people with disabilities at my shows before." And I do the show and it's awesome and I look out into the crowd and I would say about 25% of the audience had a disability that day. And the reason that that number stands out to me is that's the estimated amount of people in the US with a disability. 25%. And it shouldn't be so remarkable that we see them in a show. This should be every show, right?

Just last week, I did South By Southwest and I did an event...

Oh, thanks.

I did an event in Austin, Texas and these two moms brought their little girls. They're both in wheelchairs. They're eight years old and four years old and one of them has the same disability as I do and we were talking after the show. I got to meet them and I asked the eight year old, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And she said, "I want to play the trumpet." And I can't wait to see what she does and I hope that it's a lot easier for her to do it than it is for me right now.

So I am lucky that on the road I get to meet other disability advocates and other disabled artists. And we don't all face the same barriers because we're not the same. We don't all even agree on the best way to go about making change and that's okay. But we all have one common goal which is that we want to see the world become a more accessible place. And the truth of the matter is is that we don't have to be the only people fighting for this. Whether you're a performer, disabled or not, whether you are into heavy metal or bluegrass or jazz or folk or country, I want us all to unite so that the world can see the truth that accessibility is the new punk rock.

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