Behind The Scene: Advocating for accessibility with James Cassar and Cassie Wilson - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Behind The Scene is a new series which attempts to bring focus to the overlooked aspects of the Philadelphia music community. This is a collection of features on subjects whose stories are seldom told but whose contributions allow the Philadelphia music scene to thrive. 

20 years ago, in a backyard an hour outside of Detroit, a child stands rapt as an endearingly sloppy cover band cuts through a rainy evening with the familiar opening riff to blink-182’s “All The Small Things.” A few decades later and over five hundred miles away, after a year of shuttered venues, cancelled tours, and abandoned albums cycles, that person sits frustrated in the back of a concert on a cushioned loveseat, torsos and bobbing heads obscuring their view of Philly indie rockers Kississippi. Years before that, in Virginia Beach during the summer of 2012, as the simmering July heat reverbates off an endless sea pavement, a young adult is knocked to the ground by a crowd surfer, one’s worst fears of what can happen at a concert confirmed, crushed beneath a brash lack of consideration. That rainy day outside Detroit might have been far from their mind, their move to Philadelphia still years in the future, but for James Cassar, it’s all the same story, and it ends with them getting back to their feet with the help of those around them, shedding the weight of the fall, ready to stand up for what they love. 

Cassar was born in September of 1994 in Michigan, but it wasn’t long before their parents were alerted to some severe complications. Blood had entered their brain, leading doctors to declare they would never walk or talk. As things progressed into early childhood, this diagnosis proved false, but only after navigating a “dense forest” of treatment, therapy, and procedures. From an early age, Cassar embraced music. The story is not an unfamiliar one; mixtapes for girls, lyrics strewn along the margins of notebooks, high school bands, performances in front of their bedroom mirror. Influenced largely by their older sister, Cassar gravitated toward pop-punk, embracing bands like blink-182, Green Day and Paramore. Despite their physical limitations — and the worried protests of their parents — they were able to attend a handful of concerts in high school, though they kept mostly to arena shows (Muse) or outdoor concerts (Tegan and Sara), so as to avoid the issues that come with crowded, closed-in environments. 

This changed in 2012 when Cassar left for college, attending the University Of Virginia. There they began to test the rougher waters, attending the kind of house shows where the DIY punk scene they love lives and breathes. Seated shows in large corporate auditoriums are one thing but — as anyone who has ever braved the creaky, beer-stained steps of a West-Philly basement knows — house shows are a different story. The American Disability Act (ADA) is not perfect and you can probably find venues in every major city that don’t do all they can for those with limited mobility (we’ll touch on that later), but they still have certain bars they have to reach. House shows are not held to the same — or really any — standard when it comes to safety, inclusivity, or accessibility, and that’s a problem for those like Cassar, who desperately want to be a part of the scene those venues serve

I would be so stoked if I never had to go to a house show again,” says Cassar now, years after they were a regular at house shows all over Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia. “But unfortunately, the bands I like often play house shows, so I get fomo.” To combat this, Cassar would make mental notes of things like staircases, railings, and entrances, keeping tabs of what venues they might have to avoid in the future. This created what amounted to a kind of concert calculus, placing their desire to see a particular show against the potential negative impact of the venue in question. Still, despite all this, going to concerts, even house shows, was better than the alternative.

“Live music changed my life when I first went to shows,” Cassar tells me early on during one of our conversations. “It’s a whole new dimension to the experience of being a music fan and caring about this.” You can tell it’s not the first time they’ve shared this notion, but it’s one they want me to understand. Cassar was a music lover, a true obsessive fanatic, long before they regularly went to shows. They didn’t know if they’d ever be able to participate in the way others could, but once they did, they realized it was invaluable, an experience everyone should be allowed and encouraged to have, no matter their physical or mental obstacles. It was this, perhaps, that led Cassar to share their experiences so vocally. 

In 2014, Cassar wrote a piece for the underground music blog Property Of Zach titled “Don’t Let Me Cave In: The Music Scene As Seen Through Cerebral Palsy”. It was a comprehensive account of what they saw as both the positive and negative aspects of the music scene they loved, discussing the acceptance, and lack thereof, they had experienced throughout their time attending shows. Evidently, it struck a nerve, as Cassar received tons of positive feedback to the piece. Apparently, they weren’t the only one dealing with accessibility issues, even if they were one of the first to share their story. This led directly to a gig writing a column titled “Disability In Music” for the Alternative Press, a bastion of pop-punk music. 

One notable piece took aim at show attendees who Cassar felt lacked compassion for those around them. Some people took them to mean they wanted to do away completely with things like crowd surfing, mosh pits and the like, but that wasn’t their intention, they simply wanted people to understand how their experiences differ from those with disabilities. “The idea of when your fun starts to make my life harder, take a second, pause, have some awareness,” Cassar says now of the kind of “safe spaces” they envisioned at the time. “We are all trying to get lost in the music, but disabled people always have to be aware and looking out for themselves.”

More than anything these pieces, and the reaction they engendered, displayed a need for both visibility and education. Just like Cassar, one of my first concerts was the Warped Tour. This was probably 2008 or so, sophomore year of high school. I was excited, a bit nervous, impressionable, young. I thought alot about how my long, curly helmet of hair might look as it dried in the summer humidity. I worried how my garish Say Anything shirt might go over with the far more hardcore fans. What I didn’t worry about was whether I would be safe, whether I would get hurt. I didn’t think for a second of stairs, ramps, bathrooms, seating, or anything like that. And I definitely didn’t think about the people who had to think about those things. I was ignorant and oblivious and I would remain so for a very long time. If it wasn’t for people like Cassar I, and many more like me, might have remained oblivious. 

Alternatively, for disabled people, reading Cassar was a breath of fresh air filling a gaping void. “James was the first and only person I ever saw talking about accessibility in the music industry,” says Cassie Wilson, disability activist and founder of Half/Access, an online database tracking venue accessibility. “That was pretty life-changing for me because seeing yourself represented is huge.”

Visibility and representation are key in removing these blinders but information is priceless. For disabled people, concerts can be difficult, but without the necessary information, they can be almost impossibly trying. One thing that popped up again and again from those I talked to was the idea that the concert itself is just one part of the equation. During a recent panel discussion hosted by Half/Access, Valerie Kraft, who has a condition called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome making it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time, discussed the importance of properly accumulating energy throughout the week leading to a concert. Cassar agreed, stressing how a full-time job can make it difficult to control and manage their body’s exertion in the days before a show. 

“When I put a show on my calendar, it is a big deal because I don’t go to every show,” says Cassar. There’s also the mental toll a week of worrying about a concert can take. Wilson bemoans the stress she experiences for something that is supposed to be exciting but for whatever reason, whether that be lack of information on general anxiety about the night, is unduly taxing. 

Then, of course, there is the night of the concert. Even if you are able to get to the show without any issues — which considering inclement weather, shotty public transportation and Philadelphia’s uneven sidewalks is no guarantee — there are dozens of hurdles disabled attendees might face. For Eric Tobin, Executive Vice President of A&R at Hopeless Records and Sub City, the issue can be as simple as requesting the help you need, especially when the venue seems ignorant of what that might be. “I think there’s a mental training that says, ‘hey I just have to make this work the best I can and not bother anybody with it,’” said Tobin during the Half/Access panel. Wilson agrees, admitting she would often resist her instinct to request assistance because she was never offered much to begin with. Most people, disabled and otherwise, don’t want to be the cause of problems for others. The issue, though, is that when you make disabled individuals feel like their basic rights as ticket holders and attendees are a hassle for the venue staff, you are inarguably hindering their overall experience, dissuading them from attending concerts at all. 

For Cassar, these issues have a way of removing them from the experience altogether – the Kississippi concert at PhilaMOCA from earlier this year being a perfect example. Cassar wants to make it clear they have no specific gripe with PhilaMOCA, who have had well-documented difficulties of their own, but as they took in the concert from the back of the venue on a loveseat well below stage level, they couldn’t help but feel ostracized from the rest of the audience enjoying the show. It has a way, they say, of putting into question whether all the stress of attending a concert is worth it at all. “If the days leading up to the event are already jam packed with preparing and making sure I’m okay to go and then I get there and I can’t fully enjoy it and I can’t really see what’s going on, why am I there?” Cassar asks.  “It’s a boxing match between being fully present in the moment and realizing there are things around you to remind you you’re not able to be fully present in some of these spaces.”

Thankfully, there are people out there working to lessen the stress that accumulates in the days leading up to a concert and help remove the barriers to enjoyment once you’re there. Which brings us back to Cassie Wilson and Half/Access. Wilson has never been shy about advocating for herself, but the constant need to ask for help and information alerted her to a desperate need for something better, so she created it. Half/Access is a massive crowdsourced database of venues from all over the world working, in part, to help disabled people know what to expect from a venue before arriving, removing the mystery that can often keep some from attending at all. “I decided to take the frustration I was feeling and turn it into something productive because it didn’t seem, at the time, like anyone was going to do anything about it,” says Wilson. 

In a perfect world, Half/Access wouldn’t be necessary at all. Most venues, especially established corporate ones like Fillmore Philly, The Met, and Franklin Music Hall, do make efforts at accessibility. But it is often difficult or impossible to track down this information on their websites. Rather than including the information on each ticket page, they can be buried in Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) sections or tucked away in informational pages deep within the site. 

For example, Fillmore Philly, a 2,500 capacity venue in Fishtown, has one paragraph of information on their FAQ page concerning A.D.A. accessibility in which they state that they offer ADA seating and “accommodations (as needed)”. That is, essentially, all the information you are given.  When I reached out for more information, as the site requests you do, my emails went unanswered. Half/Access, on the other hand, offers details such as, “It’s flat to get from the street to the venue” and, “there are stairs and an elevator to the balcony and it has seating in both stadium style seats and barstools with tables.” Is this an overwhelming wealth of information? Are there still questions and concerns a disabled person might have before attending a concert at the Fillmore? Sure, but the very fact that you can find more information on this crowdsourced site than the official webpage of a venue run by LiveNation, a global, billion dollar company, is an obvious issue. 

This might be why some are taking control at a more grassroots level. Home Outgrown Presents, a local concert promotion company, has been an advocate for creating the kind of safe spaces Cassar and company find essential. They put a premium on information above all else, including accessibility information on each of their concert posters, webpages, or announcements. “It was something we were pretty aware of since the beginning,” says founder Mel Grinberg, who cites her friendship with Cassar as particularly enlightening in this regard. “We wanted to create a safe concert environment for people.” This can seem like the bare minimum, but anything that will allow for disabled people, or anyone for that matter, to feel considered and thought of is invaluable in creating an inclusive environment. 

It’s about 45 minutes into my second conversation with Cassar that I find them, if only momentarily, at a loss for words. This is a person who knows what they want to say and how they want to say it and has, to this point, given me far more than I could hope for in the way of information. The hesitation, it turns out, is not in the telling, but in the telling again. “Every couple years someone asks me these questions,” they tell me, not dismissively, but tinged with a bit of frustration, to be sure. “Have we changed? Have things got better? I don’t know.” So in an all-powerful world, one where interviews, discussions, and round-table panels were quickly enacted into sweeping change, what would Cassar change once and for all?

Cassar sees three factors as essential to creating an inclusive concert environment; information, flexibility, accessibility. In their view, the recent trend of professionally-done livestreams — such as Catbite’s album release party at PhilaMOCA from this summer — hits squarely on those last two goals. While live streams are not a new technology, over the last two years they’ve had an outsized role in the music industry. To Cassar, this has been a welcome development, and one that needs to stick around long after COVID allows for the concert industry to return to “normal.” During COVID, live streaming allowed musicians to perform for people who, for health and safety reasons, could not attend live performances. The parallel between what music fans experienced during COVID and what disabled fans experience all the time are obvious. 

“Live streaming allows for these considerations in the days leading up to a show to be a nonfactor,” explains Cassar. “Just in case things don’t go to plan, you still have an option to see the show.” Above all else, live streaming proves that accessibility for everyone is attainable, even if it took something like COVID for the general public to see its benefits.

When discussing how best to disseminate the information necessary for disabled people attending shows, Cassar proposes an overhaul to websites presentation. They realize many venues in Philadelphia – Johnny Brenda’s, First Unitarian Church, etc. – simply cannot change certain things about the structure of their buildings, but communicating those hurdles is half the battle. Cassar sees website consistency as a huge factor, envisioning a kind of widget in which pictures, building specifics, contact information, and printable maps are easily readable and accessible, allowing people to make decisions about attending shows with all the necessary information, rather than bits and pieces sourced from all over the web. “You can’t have a desert of information because you are affecting so many more people than you even know,” says Cassar. “You need to make sure people have information they need before they ask.”

I like to think I know a thing or two about concerts. Though I’ve never been a promoter or run a house show, I’ve been to, at this point, hundreds of concerts in the Philly area. Six months ago, I would have been confident I had all the tools to run one of the best venues in the city. I would have been dead wrong. It’s here we might find the root cause of so many accessibility issues. Inclusivity, as a concept, is all well and good, but the best way to ensure you make things as inclusive as possible is to include disabled people in the decision making from the outset. Cassar sees every reopening, remodel or new venue as a chance to bring disabled people into the room, consult them, and find a way to see things from their perspective. If you are an able-bodied person, you are going to design your venue from an able-bodied perspective, despite even the best intentions. I can do dozens of interviews, I can read, I can listen, but I will never know what is needed as well as those who have first-hand experience. 

One of the initial inspirations for this series was to identify the ways in which the music industry can come back stronger than before. Concerts are making a comeback, but I think we’d be remiss not to take a second to consider whether a return to the old “normal” is truly what we want. We all saw the hole live music left in our community, but when I talk to people like Cassar and Wilson, I see there has always been a hole. There is nothing quite like live music; a dark room brought to life, a rush of endorphins, a pulsing momentary release. It is the connective tissue of a music community but, as we’ve seen, it relies on everyone playing their part. I think about a person like Cassar – who’s refused to be excluded, who’s chosen to not only fill that void but invite others in with them– and it’s encouraging, to be sure. But I also see those who might not be so lucky, those unable to clear the hurdles, those left out. 

Accessibility can sound like a buzzword, but it isn’t: it’s people like Wilson and Kraft and Tobin and Cassar and millions of individual stories. We all want to get to the gig, but I think it’s time the gig met some of us halfway. 

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