Like most 20-year-old music fans, Boring, Oregon’s Cassie Wilson is counting down the days until her 21st birthday — the day she can finally go to most concerts.
But for Wilson, who loves pop-star Harry Styles and Portland dream-pop group Glacier Veins, age isn’t the only barrier to seeing live music. She was born with a form of dwarfism, needing multiple surgeries on her legs and back. This leaves her wheelchair-bound during strenuous activities like concerts.
For most of her concert-going life, Wilson would attend shows in non-accessible spots and brace herself for crowd surfers and other hazards that concert audiences bring. After a particularly intensive back surgery, Wilson started to care more for her own safety at shows, so she sought out ADA designated spaces. But she found a discrepancy between her experiences at venues and the experiences of those who don’t need accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities act.
In 2016, Wilson founded the nonprofit Half Access, which aims to start a conversation between music venues, audience members and bands about accessibility at concert venues.
During a September show at Lola’s Room, where she was tabling for Half Access, Wilson needed to go to the bathroom. A friend asked her if she needed help opening the door. Wilson chuckled and said she’d return if she couldn’t. She knows how accessible the Crystal Ballroom is, but others might not. Half Access aims to alleviate that problem with an online database where anyone can submit and find information about venues.
Entries in Half Access have information about ADA areas and ticketing, elevators and stairs and sometimes more. Most rock and punk venues have different accommodation processes at shows due to the unique nature of each building and the needs of the patrons they serve.
Jimi Biron, music director of McMenamins, says that the Crystal Ballroom, despite the venue’s old age, does well with accessibility. The building, which contains two performance spaces, the Crystal Ballroom and the smaller Lola’s Room, has a functioning elevator that goes to all floors. In the main ballroom, the venue has the “the moat” — which normally functions as a barrier between the 21+ area and all-ages area — to allow easy movement of wheelchairs to the ADA area and through the crowd.
Wilson loves the venue’s elevator. “They are super accommodating. It’s easy to go to shows there, not stressful,” she says of the venue. Often those who will need accommodations at the show contact the Crystal Ballroom beforehand, but those who show up day of are also accommodated on the fly, according to Biron.
Blaine Peters, general manager of the Aladdin Theater, says it’s a little harder for the Aladdin Theater to accommodate those who buy tickets on the day of the show because of the venue’s seating layout. But the Aladdin tries its best to accommodate those with physical needs. Peters notes that other accommodations — like a sign language interpreter — might be harder to make day of than those with more physical needs.
The Aladdin has early access for disabled fans, so that they can navigate the venue safely and without a crowd of people inhibiting their movement. “What we do is about 10 minutes before doors, we send our security out to the front. Obviously, there are certain folks you can tell, but we also make a call for anyone with ADA needs,” Peters said. “This is the only place I’ve ever seen it, but other people may handle it in a similar way with early access. It’s so quick and there’s generally a small percentage of people that actually come to shows, and so many of our shows there might be nobody.”
Among venues around town that Wilson feels comfortable at, The Hawthorne Theatre and Crystal Ballroom stand out. They are both places where she can have a stress-free concert experience.
Since there are stairs up to the front of the Hawthorne, Wilson has to enter through an elevator in the back. The area near the elevator had a large bump that was hard for Wilson to get over, but after she voiced her concern, the venue paved it over. “They’ve kind of observed, asked questions and listened to my input,” Wilson said of the Hawthorne.
And ultimately, that’s what she’s doing with Half Access: starting a conversation so more venues will really consider what it means to be accessible and why that matters to music fans.
“It literally feels like home to me and I feel like that’s what a lot of people feel like at shows, and that was often missing for me because if I can hardly even get inside of a venue, it’s like putting up ‘You’re not welcome’ signs pretty much in my face every time I go [there].” Wilson said.
“To just feel welcome from the second you get to a show makes forgetting the outside world for a few hours so much easier.”