Music festivals are more popular than they have ever been, but access to them for people with learning disabilities still needs to be improved; Mary O’Hara reports:
With the festival season in full swing there are a couple of questions very much on the minds of disabled music-lovers: just how good is access to these events and what is being done to make it better?
While hundreds of thousands of people across the country are excitedly dusting off camping gear and heading for venues in fields and farms the issue of whether the spectrum of disabilities is catered for is increasingly coming to the fore.
Ruth Rosselson, 42, has been an avid music festival-goer since her late teens so when she was diagnosed with palendromic
rheumatism just under a decade ago she wondered if she’d be able to keep going. Rosselson’s symptoms, which include fatigue and muscle pain, range from mild to severe and she never knows when an attack might occur but she has remained determined to attend the festivals she did as a non-disabled person. As a result, she has become highly attuned to what kind of disabled access is available across a range of festivals.
But while some things have improved over the years, she argues that a lot more needs to be done to take into account the different types of disability including “invisible” disabilities and those with complex needs. “Disability includes such a wide range of conditions and this is central to understanding the whole issue,” Rosselson explains. “Lots of people still think about access as about wheelchairs but it’s so much more than that. A better understanding of the diversity of disability is vital to making sure appropriate facilities are available.”
Thanks largely to the efforts of trailblazing campaigners from the mid-1990s onwards, promoters have upped their game considerably on disabled access to festivals, gradually coming round to the idea of making sites – and indeed many permanent music venues – more accessible with the result that attendance by disabled people has been rising steadily. From providing specially adapted toilets – including, in some cases, ones specific to people with learning disabilities – to campsites equipped with tracks for wheelchairs, to ‘viewing platforms’ so disabled festivalgoers are guaranteed a view of the stages, to ticketing schemes that mean care assistants receive free tickets, in many ways the festival experience has been transformed.
Educating the music industry
Someone who has witnessed first-hand the reshaping of music festivals over the years is Suzanne Bull, chief executive of Attitude is Everything, a charity that supports the music industry to make live music events more accessible.
"Back in the 1990s when the Disability Discrimination Act first came in the music industry was less quick to pick up [on] obligations [under the Act] but when they were approached about improving access they responded very positively,” Bull says. Progress was possible because activists were “educating” the industry but also “working in partnership” with them buoyed by demand from disabled music-lovers who felt more needed to be done to ensure festivals were genuinely accessible.
“The biggest change over the years has been the growing numbers of disabled people at music festivals. The music industry is now actively coming to us for help.”
Since 2000, Attitude is Everything has worked with the music industry including promoters, artists and audiences to improve deaf and disabled people’s access to live music in general – with some notable successes including working specifically with festivals to ensure on-site disabled stewards and facilitating feedback from attendees.
After beginning to work closely with the Glastonbury Festival in 2007 the numbers of disabled people attending more than trebled between 2007 and 2011 from 195 to 700, says Bull.
Meanwhile, the number of disabled people going to the Reading and Leeds Festival has risen by 25% due to a partnership with promoters, Festival Republic, she adds.
Bull says that while the progress has been “incredible” there is still a way to go including encouraging access for people with learning disabilities whose needs are not the same as for those with physical impairments.
“The issues are different,” she says. “With learning disability it can be about someone being overwhelmed in crowds. It’s about having the rightsupport staff available so everyone can enjoy the experience.”
Paul Richards, co-founder and trustee of the charity Stay Up Late (http://stayuplate.org/), which promotes active social lives for people with learning disabilities, and specifically going to see live music, says now is the time to open up opportunities at festivals and beyond.
Based in Brighton, Stay Up Late began as an awareness campaign but has since morphed into a stand-alone organisation that helps people “stay out late… and
enjoy music,” Richards says. One of its recent innovations, ‘Gig Buddies’, makes it easier for people with learning disabilities go to live gigs by recruiting
volunteers to accompany them.
Richards says a major challenge for people with learning disabilities at live gigs is that audiences “might not always be accepting” but he says some festival
environments could be ideal because those attending might be more laid back and tolerant. To start the ball rolling the charity will have two participants volunteering at Glastonbury this summer to support people on site who have a learning disability.
“We would absolutely love to see Gig Buddies at festivals around the country at some point,” adds Richards. “I’d love to see a ‘Festival Buddies.’”
Alistair McDonald, an organiser of Chase Park Music Festival, a small ‘inclusive’ festival that caters for people with all kinds of disabilities as well as the wider
community and held in Whickham in the northeast of England, says mainstream festivals should be challenged to do more including encouraging more disabled performers and considering complex needs. “There have been great gains but it has to be said that most of the people attending mainstream festivals are not people with complex disabilities,” he says.
McDonald adds that while Chase Park actively fosters participation by people with complex needs and learning disabilities, this group remains largely excluded from the bigger mainstream events. “I still don’t think this is on the radar of many festival organisers.” Talk to festival promoters – many of which now have dedicated teams working on disabled access – and they are all proud of their achievements to date and appear keen to push progress further.
Sally Blake, access co-ordinator at Live Nation, which runs a number of festivals including the Wireless Festival in London, says the changes in the time she has been in the job have been “truly incredible”. But ensuring campsites are appropriately equipped and that access to stages is improving is “only part” of the picture, she suggests. Blake adds that promoters are increasingly cognisant that they must provide a good service “right from the start” from when tickets are booked meaning better staff training for engaging with disabled customers and take different disabilities into account.
Sharon Reuban, head of guest liaison at Festival Republic, which runs the Reading & Leeds Festival and Latitude in Suffolk, agrees adding that a crucial part of improvements have been “driven” by direct feedback from disabled festivalgoers themselves. Customer satisfaction is high, she says: “What we have learned s how vital it is to listen to our customers. We try to take it all on board… it is central to our planning.”
According to campaigners there is another dimension to festival access that needs to be taken into account this year and for the foreseeable future – affordability. Festival tickets rarely come cheap but with disabled people bearing the brunt of many of the Government’s welfare changes worries abound that many will be shut out from going not by physical access issues but by a shortage of cash.
Bull says that while smaller ‘grass roots’ festivals are often cheaper than big name events and are a good alternative there are growing concerns about many disabled people being unable to access mainstream events. “This is an issue that needs to be addressed.”
McDonald agrees. He cautions against complacency saying the stakes are higher than people might think. There is a risk of “a divide” opening up between people who can afford to go to festivals and those who cannot, he says. “It’s as if some arriers are being kicked down only for some to get bigger. There is a risk of increased marginalisation.”
A ‘State of Access Report’, published by Attitude is Everything in 2011, was the first attempt at a comprehensive assessment of accessibility at live music venues. Another is due to be published in November. The report can be accessed at: http://www.attitudeiseverything.org.uk/resources/publications/state-ofaccess-report/
For more information on the Chase Park Music Festival go to: http://www.keirogroup.co.uk/chase-park-music-festivalFor more features like this click here to subscribe to Learning Disability Today magazine