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Half Access, full plate: Cassie Wilson is changing the conversation about accessibility and music

In late August, Liam Gallagher played a hometown show in the United Kingdom, as a Gallagher does. Longtime fan Michael Reynolds, who is wheelchair-bound, moved from the accessible seating section to the middle of the pit. During “Wonderwall,” audience members lifted him up so he’d be able to see and Gallagher later tweeted that the activity was “biblical behaviour.”

But why does giving a fan in a wheelchair a clear view of the stage have to be a biblical act?

Boring, Oregon, resident Cassie Wilson has dedicated much of the last few years to raising awareness so disabled fans don’t have to be lifted during “Wonderwall” — or any song for that matter. Wilson was born with a form of dwarfism that causes her bones to twist and that has, after many surgeries, left her with limited mobility and the need for a wheelchair.

It’s fitting then that the accessibility activist shares a birth week with the Americans with Disabilities Act — a law that has defined her work for better or worse. She’s spent the last few years addressing ableism in the music industry, specifically examining the accommodations offered at venues for fans with both physical and hidden disabilities (those that might not be detected easily by another person). Wilson’s nonprofit, Half Access, launched on Sept. 1 as a 501 (c)(3) and resource for disabled music fans with a comprehensive database and venue submission form. It aims to start a conversation between fans, bands, venues and other music professionals about how to better accommodate those who are differently abled.

“When I started asking for spots to be and I realized they didn’t exist, and I realized venues weren’t going to make a spot for me, I had to make a spot for myself and a spot for other people,” Wilson said of the organization’s genesis.

But for Wilson, the road to all of this work was winding.

Cassie Wilson is changing the conversation about accessibility in music venues with her nonprofit Half Access. (Kristina Dawn/Split Tooth Media)

As Wilson tells it, she grew up “technically nowhere” because her house is on the edge of the town. Her parents aren’t necessarily big music fans, so her entry into music fandom was listening to Top 40 and country radio in the car with them. One of her first favorite artists was Taylor Swift. From there she discovered One Direction, the emo band Real Friends, Portland acts like Glacier Veins and more.

She says she always wanted to work in the music business, but didn’t know how that would manifest. While at Sam Barlow High School, Wilson wrote scholarship essays about wanting to make music more accessible for those with disabilities. Ableism was a foreign concept for her at the time. She didn’t learn the term until she started researching it with a friend for a project. “It’s left out of conversations so much that I didn’t know it was a word until two years ago, and I’m disabled,” Wilson said. “I should know this stuff.” Her work ensures others do too. As Wilson started going to more shows and meeting people in the music community, that sense of knowledge about ableism and how it works grew. She would attend shows with friends, bracing herself for crowd surfers and other hazards.

After a particularly intensive spine surgery for scoliosis, she needed to be careful regarding her safety — especially in crowded spaces where people could land on her. She started asking venues about spaces where she could attend concerts safely and also see the stage. Wilson discovered that these spaces often don’t exist or don’t provide her the same experience or vantage point as other concertgoers — even though she paid the same ticket price.

Read our On The Bus series about traveling with Glacier Veins

“The worst is when I’m sitting at the back of a show and I can’t see, and the band is on the stage talking about how everyone is welcome,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Sorry you can’t see me back here, but…’” Wilson says she doesn’t want to rag on bands, venues and promoters — instead she aims to work with them and fans to address the issues.

Entering venues can be complicated for physically disabled people, and the experiences don’t often simplify once inside. Many punk and rock clubs are old buildings and run on smaller budgets than publicly funded arts venues and concert halls, which complicates ADA compliance. Wilson says she understands that music venues might not have the money to make big changes, but they too often use “a lack of funds” as an excuse to not do anything, even when small changes can be made to benefit fans and artists. She added that bands also have a responsibility in playing accessible venues and displaying information about accessibility on tour promotional material.

“When they list off forms of discrimination, ableism is left off all the time even though it affects all of those communities,” Wilson said. “It is so intersectional. “

When a venue doesn’t have information about accessibility on its website or lacks clear details about ADA seating, fans can turn to a database that Wilson created as the central component of Half Access. Anyone can submit information, so when bands are booking shows or fans are looking to buy tickets, they know what to expect.

Shortly after she conceived the idea, she applied for the first-ever Hopeless Records Sub City grant — which aims to connect fans and bands with existing nonprofits for music-related campaigns. Wilson, who had started the nonprofit only a few weeks earlier and was using a Google form to collect information about venues, quickly polished the website. She sent in her application and forgot about it. Then one day she was declared a finalist.

Wilson participated in a conference call interview with members of the Hopeless Records team. Dan Campbell from pop-punk band The Wonder Years was the only person on the call whom she had met previously, and Wilson said that knowing he was on the call made her feel a little more sane. They strategized and brainstormed ideas with Wilson, and then the call ended.

“After that, I felt like I probably [wouldn’t] get it because their ideas were so good,” she said. “I thought, if anything, [that] I got such great takeaways.”

She won.

A week later, she was on a plane (for the first time in her life) headed for the Alternative Press Awards in Cleveland. Since then, Wilson has been busy forming Half Access into an official nonprofit with a functioning board of directors, redesigning its website and immersing the nonprofit in local and national music communities — including partnerships with the booking company Take Warning Presents and other groups.

“I’m still in shock. It’s been over a year and I still haven’t fully processed that the whole thing happened,” Wilson said.

She has worked on Half Access for the last year while going to shows, working toward her associate degree in business and serving as an editor at Mt. Hood Community College’s student newspaper, Advocate. Last month she retired Sick Snaps, the music criticism website she founded, in order to focus on her other work.

Wilson is an active presence in the Portland music scene — volunteering with fellow nonprofit Friends of Noise in its efforts to create an accessible, all-ages music space, making connections with bands and promoters, as well as being a member of Willamette Week’s 200 scene influencers that vote on the publication’s Best New Bands features.

She’s also a 20 year-old who tweets about getting her wisdom teeth removed and writes extensively about seeing Harry Styles live. Journaling is one way Wilson organizes her thoughts, and during downtime she recharges by watching Netflix.

She said that although her nonprofit work can be tiring, she loves the music scene, the bands and people in it too much to just stop — too much to not expect something better from it.

“If I’m sitting in the back and I can’t see, why should I even be there?” Wilson said. “Obviously there are different ways to experience the show. Listening to it is cool, too. You’re still in the room. You can still feel the energy, but if you don’t feel welcome, it really puts a damper on things.”

On the day Half Access launched, Wilson tweeted, “I’m just sitting in my room eating oatmeal tearing up about how much I love the music community.” Cassie Wilson may be tired of attending inaccessible shows, but she’s only just getting started on making a place for herself and others — one venue at a time.

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Sararosa Davies is a culture journalist and poet hailing from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Currently, she's a student at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication where she’s the arts editor at the Daily Emerald. She loves weird theatre and hummus, but only when it’s pronounced right.