What makes Eaglewood special

At the heart of almost every folk festival I’ve attended is the idea that all are welcome. In practice, though, making everyone welcome can be a tough goal to attain, for various reasons.

On the basis of programming alone, some folks will feel welcome and some less so.

And actually making a festival fit for families, or the elderly, means thinking about everything from safety & comfort, to volume of sound, to flatness of terrain.

Welcoming people with disabilities requires yet another level of contemplation and commitment from festival organizers, staff and volunteers.

The outdoor venues favoured by many festivals are really challenging for many people with disabilities (and for those who work to be accommodating.)

Remote locations not served by public transit may also feature grassy hillsides or gravel paths unsuited to wheelchairs. Standard issue porta-potties, tents and seating that able-bodied folks easily manage may be simply off-limits for the blind, or those with mobility issues.

For that matter, without a sign language interpreter, music itself may not be accessible, as is the case for deaf people.

And yet people of all walks – or wheels, or walkers – of life are seeking the sense of inclusion, the opportunity to enjoy diverse music, food and crafts, and the exposure to alternative lifestyles that festivals often offer.

Thankfully, many festivals do take the accessibility issue seriously. This is where Eaglewood Folk Festival, for example, shines. Eaglewood’s programming is similar to that of other, similarly-sized Ontario festivals, and its location is in typically rural Pefferlaw, on the south side of Lake Simcoe. But Eaglewood, (held annually at the resort of the same name), is made for folks who might have a hard time enjoying many outdoor festivals.  It’s even accessible by municipal transit, as the Eaglewood accessibility page notes.

Eaglewood offers the advantage of paved, mostly level paths to every stage, and facilities meant to be accessible for those with special needs. Beyond making the music and crafts accessible, privately-owned Eaglewood Resort also offers swimming, cottages, interaction with animals, and even campfires for folks who might not otherwise get the chance.

It’s not perfect, and it’s probably not ideal for everyone. Though there have been sign-language interpreters in the past, this year the cost was deemed prohibitive given the small number of deaf attendees. And Eaglewood’s organizers regretted not being able to supply Braille programs this year due to a shipping issue.

What was evident, however, was more folks in wheelchairs, more people with physical and intellectual disabilities, and more care workers per capita than I have ever seen at any festival. (Attendants are admitted free.)

Their collective enjoyment truly added something special to the atmosphere, for everyone. And at a festival that’s also very kid-friendly, both in programming and facilities, that includes children. Having kids and adults alike interact in a truly inclusive atmosphere is really a treat.

Hanging out at a campfire with someone like Al Reeves, who is wheelchair bound, and has been attending Eaglewood since before the festival began, gives a new appreciation for what a folk festival can do. It’s not just about appreciating music. It’s about bringing people together – as many different people as possible. Each person’s story enriches the experience of the festival itself. And Eaglewood weaves many extraordinary stories together, with evident pride.

Eaglewood, like many festivals, has had its challenges, including up-and-down attendance. The music programming was top-notch this year, featuring the likes of Ken Whiteley, Rita Chiarelli, Luke Doucet & Melissa McClelland. The sound was good and the volunteers were terrific. The weather was kind and numbers looked solid, which bodes well for the future.

There’s much that could be done to build on the good work done by the dedicated, perpetually smiling volunteers and organizers. There are some fine crafts folk, but more vendors would be a plus. More diversity and healthier options from food vendors would be a particularly welcome addition (two vendors were apparently unable to make the event this year due to last-minute issues.)

Visually, the grounds are variable: from pretty, wooded areas, to open fields with views of disused trailers under hydro towers. And a mandate to focus on Aboriginal creativity and culture seemed to get less emphasis this year, than last. These are areas of potential improvement.

But in one department, Eaglewood gets top marks: welcoming folks with special needs. That’s a factor that improves the festival for everyone, and it’s what makes Eaglewood special.

Photos courtesy Mike Bourgeault. More Eaglewood photos can be found in Mike Bourgeault’s Photostream on Flickr.

Disclosure: David Newland was paid to host and perform at Eaglewood Folk Festival in 2011 and 2010.

Is your local festival doing a great job on accessibility? Do you see ways festivals can improve? Please leave your comments!

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  1. avatar
    rosemary 10 September, 2011 at 01:12

    lovely reading david, thanks. i’m glad you’re letting folks know how special eaglewood is.

    though i haven’t been able to attend for the past several years, i’ve always felt a special connection to the festival. i was a friend (and regular visiting nurse) to darrell murphy, a hardworking, bright spirit who put heart and soul into supporting the festival and promoting accessibility at the site (and who was himself quadriplegic). he encouraged me to attend and volunteer one year, and once i did, i was hooked. unfortunately darrell was ill during my last festival visit, and passed shortly thereafter. i hope to make it back to eaglewood again one day – maybe next year. for darrell. :}

  2. avatar
    David Newland 10 September, 2011 at 09:12

    Thanks Rosemary. Darrell Murphy is thoughtfully remembered with the Darrell Murphy Acoustic Stage. Nice to hear the story behnd the man.

  3. avatar
    Denise Sheedy 10 September, 2011 at 11:29

    David, you have captured one of the elements that makes Eaglewood such a remarkable festival. The diversity of the audience and inclusion of all folks is very special and definitely adds to the “good vibes” at Eaglewood. Yeah, our food vendors were less than spectacular this year. Two food vendors did not show up…informing me on Friday morning of obstacles preventing them from coming. Next year will be better…a committee is already in place to address the vendor situation. But, we will never have a huge number of vendors because of limited electricity capacity. Note: Generators are not allowed because the noise interferes with the enjoyment of the music.

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