Accessibility: The Missing Festival Conversation

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As the weather turns nicer and festival season approaches, many concerts move into the great outdoors. Festivals are seen as a time when people can come together, but does everyone have the equal access they seem to? In closed venues, people are often very aware of accessibility issues—ramps, washroom access, and so on—but with outdoor festivals, accessibility is usually an afterthought, if it’s a thought at all. With these events, there’s often an assumption that an outdoor venue is already accessible because of the open space and terrain. However, accessibility is a multi-layered issue, and the pressure to accommodate is becoming increasingly important.

Currently, festivals in the city seem to rely on the outdoor aspect of the venue for accessibility.

A field is a flat surface, and there are places for wheelchairs. At first glance this seems like a decent accommodation, but the reality is that there are many forms of disability, many of them invisible. For example, mental health issues could cause problems with large crowds, chronic pain could make it difficult to stand for long periods, and allergies can put you on high alert in an open field. These are all areas in which accommodations could be beneficial to an audience, and there seems to be very little room to discuss this sort of matter.

There are so many questions to answer: How are we doing as a community? Are festivals planning around accessibility? And can we be better?

In researching this article, I sent messages to several local festival organizers, hoping to get some answers to these questions.

Many seemed initially enthused with the idea of talking about these issues. But actually sitting down to discuss the inner workings of accessibility accommodation proved to be more challenging. In the end, I got no responses back locally, and had to look outside of Peterborough. My theory is that there’s a taboo surrounding accessibility, which can be frustrating, and can create barriers to moving forward on these issues. This is still a sensitive topic, and that may have been a hindrance in getting responses.

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With no responses, I searched the web, to find out what local festivals were saying publicly about accessibility, but again found very little information.  I did have one surprising find when looking at other festivals. Coachella, while being problematic in many respects, such as being culturally appropriative, is one of the few outdoor festivals that offers accessibility information on their website, including physical accessibility material as well as special parking. The fact that this was even mentioned is important, especially since so many other festivals don’t mention accessibility at all.

The fact that Coachella has this sort of webpage but other festivals like the Peterborough Folk Festival and Musicfest do not, is an interesting anomaly. While I have seen people with accessibility issues attend both festivals, I am left wondering how accessible these festivals truly are for people. It’s  important to make sure that as many people as possible can attend an event in comfort and safety.

With this in mind, I encourage others to discuss how festivals are doing, to check in and investigate. I hope that those with accessibility issues can speak up and be heard about their own concerns. Hopefully as a community we can come together and figure out solutions and accommodations in order to be as inclusive as possible.


Illustration by B Mroz.

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