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Barlow grad starts nonprofit Half Access to help make concert venues open to all

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Cassie Wilson, founder of nonprofit Half Access, in Gresham as the city sets up for the Gresham Arts Festival.Cassie Wilson was just a teenager, and not quite a year out of Barlow High School, when she decided something had to be done about the lack of access for people with disabilities to live music venues. So the passionate rock music fan founded a nonprofit to do just that.

Half Access is a nonprofit organization dedicated to making live music accessible to all.

"Half Access came out of being frustrated because venues are only half accessible and they are literally half-assing accessibility," Wilson says with her infectious laugh.

The vivacious Gresham native says many venues can get handicapped folks in the door, but there may be no safe place for people in wheelchairs or with other barriers to view a concert, or there may be difficulties with the restrooms and other amenities.

"There was not enough awareness that they had to be accessible beyond just getting inside," she says.

Wilson would email and call ahead to unfamiliar venues to make sure she could get in and get around with her wheelchair before she shelled out for a ticket. Some of the venues did not even answer her queries.

Even when an establishment is considered accessible, people using wheelchairs sometimes have to use a back alley entrance among garbage cans or be sent to the concert floor in a freight elevator.

COURTESY PHOTO: CASSIE WILSON - This was Wilsons view at a 2017 concert that prompted her to start Half Access, which works to make live music venues more accessible to all music fans.

Historic barriers

Many of the all-age venues that feature the cutting-edge rock Wilson loves are historic structures built before buildings were required to be accessible.

"They're complying with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) but they are not accessible," she says.

One of Half Access' big efforts thus far is compiling a database with specific information about how easy it is for people with disabilities to get around and enjoy live music venues around the world.

"Our database provides accessibility info on any and all venues to help prepare disabled folks on what to expect before arriving at a show," the Half Access website says.

Half Access will use the information gathered to work with the establishments to make their shows friendly for people with varied abilities.

"There are a lot of things venues can do that are easy and inexpensive," she explains.

"We want to encourage venues to get on a path to becoming more accessible," she says, pointing out that it's also good business. "They are losing (out) on disabled people's money."

Half Access is also raising awareness among musicians, who might want to press the venues to improve accessibility for their fans. Wilson says the musicians are supportive of her efforts.

"We're connecting with like-minded organizations in music" to expand Half Access' reach and effectiveness, she says.

She admits to feeling a tiny bit conflicted about the work.

"It was difficult because all I want to do is love and support these all-ages venues," she says.

For example

Want to go hear Leo Kottke in October at the Aladdin Theater, 3017 S.E. Milwaukie Ave. in Portland? By checking the Half Access website, folks can learn there is one accessible parking spot in the Aladdin's small parking lot.

They can find out that disabled patrons are allowed in first for the general admission shows, which often produce a rush to grab good seats, a rush that could be frustrating or even dangerous for a disabled person.

The Aladdin's Half Access entry also reveals that there are no stairs in the major parts of the venue and there is a designated accessible seating area. Half Access notes there is one accessible restroom, but a key is needed to use it.

Wilson initially funded Half Access with a $10,000 grant from a big award she won from Hopeless Records called the SubCity Award. Thousands of people applied for the award by answering the question "how would you use this money to change the world?"

COURTESY PHOTO: CASSIE WILSON - Cassie Wilson holds her SubCity award. Next to her is Dan Campbell, vocalist for the band The Wonder Years, who was the ambassador for the grant. Interviewing them is Stevie James from Alternative Press.

She won the award in 2017 and flew to Cleveland to pick it up, her first ever plane flight.

Now, Half Access relies on donations to build the database and fund the efforts.

The Boring resident graduated from Barlow High School in 2016 and in June 2019 from Mt. Hood Community College. She is taking a break from her education to give Half Access more of her time. But, she plans on attending Portland State University to finish her degree, majoring in marketing.

She hopes to use that degree and her experience to work in the music industry.

Wilson thought she might want to become a social worker and have a career in disability rights. But, she says, "I'll be an accessibility advocate anywhere and everywhere I go, so I don't have to specifically do that. I can combine my passion for music and do both. Half Access is like my dream job."

While attending Mt. Hood Community College, Wilson worked on the college newspaper "The Advocate."

She puts her interviewing and writing skills to good use on the Half Access website with lively blog entries of interviews with concert goers and musicians who live with different disabilities and other topics.

And, Wilson's music world just wildly expanded. She turned 21 at the end of July and will now be able to attend concerts in clubs and halls that only admit people ages 21 and older.

"I'll be able to get into a whole lot more venues," she says excitedly.

For more information, to make a donation or check out a venue's accessibility, visit the Half Access website at halfaccess.org.


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