When it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities at outdoors music festivals, Accessible Festivals is setting the standard.
As the weather starts to heat up around the country, so do outdoor music festivals.
However, for some music lovers with a spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D), attending such events may seem a bit daunting. Huge crowds, rugged venue terrain and availability of clean restrooms are only a few challenges one might face.
That’s where Accessible Festivals steps in.
Austin Whitney founded the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization two years ago with his business partner Oren Shani.
Whitney became paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident in 2007. Six months later, he wanted to attend his first outdoor music festival.
“It was a real crapshoot whether the event would be accessible,” Whitney says. “I had Woodstock in my mind — ‘Huge crowds. Are there going to be clean restrooms? Am I going to be able to see the stage?’ The terrain was awful, and I had friends who had to carry me down the stairs. Awful memories.”
After attending and working at outdoor music festivals for several years, Whitney discovered that many festival organizers and promoters didn’t truly consider accessibility issues, didn’t know what to do to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or had no ADA-trained staff or compliance department in the first place.
A very full platform of guest with disabilities and their companions at Escape: All Hallows' Ever electronic dance music festival in 2014. Photos courtesy of Austin Whitney
During that time, he also attended law school at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law and in 2012 began directing ADA compliance operations at various events.
His legal background, love of music and personal approach are the catalysts behind Accessible Festivals’ growth. The nonprofit is scheduled to provide services at 60 events across the country this year.
“I am really hoping in the next couple of years to make it so that no one really has to think about that [whether an event will accessible] anymore,” Whitney says. “It should all be welcoming and accessible to people with disabilities.”
Accessible Festivals works with three of the nation’s largest festival producers and has been involved with such concert events as Coachella (Indio, Calif.), Big Barrel Country Music Festival (Dover, Del.), The Peach Music Festival (Scranton, Pa.), Oregon Jamboree Music Festival (Sweet Home, Ore.) and many more.
Whitney supplies a team of about 10 staff and volunteers who are trained in ADA law and works with each event producer for several months to find solutions to accessibility challenges. Rental companies hired by the event producers supply the barricades and other needed equipment, but the organization also accepts donations for operation expenses.
Earlier this year, Accessible Festivals ran an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to acquire wheelchair-accessible golf carts to transport patrons from parking lots or nearby campsites to the festival venue. That campaign raised $2,740.
Some other areas they coordinate are raised viewing platforms, barricaded areas with private restrooms, electrical outlets for charging wheelchairs and using medical equipment, ADA camping areas close to restrooms and showers, parking, pickup and drop-off areas close to the entrance and visual and auditory assistance.
“I worked for a couple of different people, and often it was a good event if no one used the word ‘lawsuit,’” Whitney says. “No one in the industry had a legal background. So I thought, ‘We can do better. How can we make this event welcoming?’ We focus on the human connection and work with people who just get it.”
Still, even the best-laid plans can go awry.
Whitney says the group tries to plan ahead as best they can for inclement weather, but Mother Nature can sometimes really put a damper on the fun.
“At an event [in 2015] it rained so hard all week, we lost the ability to run our carts around a miles-long venue,” he says. “You can prepare and have lots of plywood on hand, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re stuck in multiple days of downpour.”
Hector Benitez, from California, uses a manual wheelchair and has attended events with Accessible Festivals since 2013. He estimates he goes to about eight festivals each year and says having an accessible platform with restrooms close by makes all the difference.
“It’s really difficult to get to so many different stages, and it’s really hard to see past people,” Benitez says. “I’m eye-level to people’s butts, so in order for me to see the stage, I have to go right up to the front and people can be really rude. They just stare at you and don’t move. What they [Accessible Festivals’ staff] do is build stages so you’re above the people and you can see everything that goes on. You’re at the perfect spot all the time, and they’re very considerate of what you need.”
Not only have staff members attended to Benitez’s needs but also to the needs of the friends who attend the festivals with him. If there’s a long distance to push his chair or a steep, rocky hill to climb, an accessible cart or tram is made available to escort the posse to the next stage
“It made me feel way more comfortable,” Benitez says. “You don’t have to worry about people bumping into you or you hurting people most of all. I don’t want people bumping into me because my chair’s super sharp in the front. So it makes it so much easier not to worry about that and just have fun.”
Coleman Hampton, from California, who has spinal muscular atrophy and uses an electric wheelchair, has been involved with Accessible Festivals both as a patron and as
“Almost every festival I’ve been to has had some sort of ADA compliance, but Accessible Festivals really provides the most complete rendition,” Hampton says through email. “They’re far from perfect, but they’re definitely above the rest.”
Hampton volunteered at the ADA booth for one festival, where he helped check people in and introduced people to different services the organization was offering.
“The most disappointing part was seeing and dealing with people who were trying to take advantage of our services who probably didn’t really need the help,” he says. “At one point, we had a gentleman demand an ADA wristband just because he wanted to ‘feel like a VIP.’ Those types of situations are
Whitney says he found out quickly that there was a part of the larger live event scene that also was underserved in the ADA compliance department.
He was involved with accessibility for Pope Francis’ visit to the United States last September and has also consulted on a traveling exhibit for Cirque du Soleil.
Accessible Festivals has several large, non-music festival events on the calendar for this year, too, including live events for the city of Baltimore.
“I really love music festivals, and it’s a world I knew,” Whitney says. “It wasn’t our intention [to do non-festival events], but the need is there. I thought I’d really have to convince the producers, but they want to make their events enjoyable by anyone. It just takes a decent skill set.”
Accessibility is slowly becoming a priority for event producers, and a result of that new emphasis is Accessible Festivals’ rapid, national growth.
“It seems like almost every weekend, someone says, ‘This event has changed my life,’” Whitney says. “I feel good getting on a plane coming home after hearing that from someone. We get to know people, the guests we’re serving. If we can tell that most people had a good time, we can ride off into the wind.”
For more information on Accessible Festivals, visit accessiblefestivals.com.