Start The Music: Accessible Festivals Are A Reality

the Accessible Festivals team

It’s summer, which also means it’s Music Festival Season, and last week a coworker at the LightHouse sent me a Salon.com article which I read with great interest. It was called: “‘You are not welcome here’: At concerts and music festivals, fans with disabilities are too often shut out, endangered and ignored.”.

As a blind/low vision person who makes music, wrote about it for a living, and has attended dozens of music festivals, I was eager to compare my own experience of concert-going with the author of the piece. As it turns out, she is a good enough writer, with optimism for an inclusive future, but the overall tone of the piece (most notably the title) greatly misrepresents the reality of the situation, and discredits how far musical events have come in the 25 years since the passage of the ADA.

The last several years in particular have seen tons of progress in the accessibility of music festivals, and if you read further, you may be convinced that, even if you’re completely blind, there is a place for you on the polo fields of Coachella, the ferris wheel of Treasure Island, or the foggy enclaves of Outside Lands.

First, it’s important to dispel the misattributions that support the Salon.com article. In the story, the author details several circumstances in which she was discriminated against as a disabled concert-goer: a parking attendant refused her a handicapped spot, an usher scowled and denied her an elevator, and so on. These instances are certainly regrettable, but to be bluntly honest, the problem does not actually seem to be with the venues themselves — which were equipped with said facilities — but are in fact caused by a lack of communication between humans.

If you have a so-called “invisible” disability, such problems will plague you not just at concerts and music festivals but literally everywhere you go — unless you come prepared with a communication device. Even if it’s just a little 10-second speech, well-rehearsed and easy to understand, you need to have a believable way of informing people of your situation. As blind and visually impaired individuals, we are fortunate to have the white cane, which accomplishes all of this crucial communication in a single sighted glance. And in all my experience at music festivals around the country, I have not only never been treated poorly with the cane, but I’d even argue that my experience was even better than most.

But it’s not just about blind people having a particular advantage. Austin Whitney, a law student at UC Berkeley and paraplegic since 2007, founded Accessible Festivals in 2014 specifically to ensure that people with disabilities — any disability you can imagine — are accommodated appropriately at music festivals in America and all over the world. Whitney first worked as a consultant, starting with Goldenvoice (who put on events such as Coachella and Hangout Fest), and eventually realized that his skills were not only useful, but in high demand. Now he works year-round in addition to attending law school, and employs dozens of people at individual events across the country, particularly in summer months.

Talking to Whitney, he says that the range of disability that he and his team can accommodate is only expanding. “It’s everything from 18 year olds with a temporary disability like a broken leg to 90 year olds with an air tank,” he said. Other disabilities also include dietary considerations, physical and mental differences, as well as deafness and visual disabilities. “90% of my work is just problem solving,” Whitney says, “It’s just talking to people one-on-one. What are the problems, how can we mitigate them, how can we make this work for you?”

By all measures, Whitney’s work has been a success. In the years since he’s started attending festivals, things have changed dramatically. In 2008, for instance, he and his wheelchair had to be carried, by his friends, separately down the bleachers of an entire football stadium in order to make it into the general admission area for the Electric Daisy Carnival Festival. Last year, Whitney went back to EDC and employed seventeen people to serve 200 attendees with disabilities — almost double the previous year’s number. Word, he says, spreads fast.

Accessible Festivals is not only trying to make sure festivals meet basic legal requirements, but ensure that the events are actually comfortable and enjoyable for disabled patrons in new and creative ways. “You can have an ADA compliant festival, but it doesn’t mean it’s very welcoming to people with disabilities,” he points out.

For people with visual disabilities or blindness, Whitney admits he’s still learning what the best accommodations are, but has come up with some great new solutions as of late to improve the blind experience of festivals to a great degree. The first of these is braille set times — because even though much of that info is available on smartphones, large music festivals tend to be black holes for cell reception, and nothing beats a hard copy when your iPhone battery is dead.

Whitney and his team have also started to offer blind and low vision festival-goers personal orientation tours of the festival grounds, in order to get them familiar and comfortable as the venue fills up and the lights get low. As soon as the gates open, Whitney or another employee will happily take a blind patron around the area, show them where everything is, and even go so far as to explore all the food options and talk about menus, maybe even meeting certain vendors, before the herds of people arrive later in the day. In the crashing din of a festival environment, often our usual methods of listening and talking can reak down, which could make an advance orientation particularly valuable. This, in my own opinion, is a great accommodation; It’s something that even your sighted friends might not think to do for you.

Whitney says it’s all about being a creative problem solver and not being intimidated by new situations. Recently, when a low vision girl and her boyfriend could not get close enough for her to appreciate any of Taylor Swift’s dance moves, Whitney recruited two of his staff and two more festival security employees equipped with flashlights to escort the two, VIP-style, to the front row. It’s not a typical accommodation, but as someone who’s toughed it out at lots of inaccessible festivals — riding on peoples backs and all — Whitney says it was a service he was happy to provide.

In all, Accessible Festivals will have a presence at 35 music festivals in 2015, and odds are there’s one near you. Whitney doesn’t want anyone with a disability to be scared anymore, even if things prove to be more difficult than they should be. “Festivals are making an effort,” he says, “Go out to them — I’ve been to a lot of festivals where my disability wasn’t accommodated but I still had a good time. Sometimes you just have to go with a good attitude. Some bull—- might happen, but I don’t look back on any of them as negative experiences.”

Questions, comments or feedback? Leave a comment below, or email Will Butler at wbutler@lighthouse-sf.org.