Reflections on festival access for people with disabilities
I have been asked to write about my experience both as a volunteer and as just a plain old festival-goer with a disability. Some of you may know that I have a type of multiple sclerosis or MS that has stolen my ability to walk. I rely on a rather large mobility scooter to get around and do most things. Although the world has come a long way over the years it still has a surprisingly long way to go when it comes to accessibility. I hope that those who read this piece don’t take it as a negative or a slam against the festival but rather an opportunity to view things through my somewhat unique perspective and make positive changes going forward.
Before I go any farther though, let me say that my experience at the 2018 Calgary Folk Music Festival (CFMF) was an incredibly positive and exciting one. I enjoyed every minute of my experience.
CFMF 2018 was very accommodating.
As a volunteer with a disability, I found that the festival’s volunteer coordinators were very understanding and incredibly accommodating. When I came out for my first pre-festival volunteer orientation, I was met with a level of enthusiasm that put me at ease right away. I was hesitant at first – not sure that they would fully understand my limitations, but as I spoke with them and discussed what I was able to offer, they quickly accepted me and found volunteer opportunities that I thought would work well for me.
When it comes to the festival itself, of course it is outdoors, and that presents some limitations for a volunteer such as me. Anytime I have to operate my scooter on grass or hills it uses up significantly more battery power, especially in a park as large as Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park. I quickly found out there weren’t any convenient options for charging my scooter, which left me with very limited power to continue enjoying the festiva
The accessible seating location, which was raised up off the ground and covered, was very well thought out and appreciated. However, again a location to charge our devices was needed. A place to charge both a wheelchair and a cell phone is especially needed as we rely on our cell phones for many things, such as keeping in contact with caregivers and requesting services such as Handi-bus that need to be able to reach us in case of emergency or in case of changes to our travel times. Being able to plug in while we enjoy a show takes a load of worry off our minds and reduces anxiety greatly.
Of course an outdoor festival is going to use a lot of portable toilets and hand washing stations. However there never seems to be enough accessible portables. Approaching a long line of portable washrooms there would be a couple dozen portable units but only one accessible one. I understand that the vast majority of festival-goers are able-bodied and do not require the accessible units. However this does not stop people from using them because of the extra room they afford for backpacks, strollers and whatever else someone might not want to leave unattended. Also when somebody disabled does use the washroom it often takes significantly more time that someone who is able-bodied, so providing more accessible units would be great.
Hand washing stations
The hand washing stations that the CFMF provides are a very welcome touch. Who doesn’t like to wash after using a portable washroom. However every hand washing station was foot operated. You had to press a button or a pedal with your foot to power the pump that made the water flow from the tap. This of course is a problem for somebody in a wheelchair or a power device who likely doesn’t have the use of their feet or legs. I would like to see something easier to operate in the future when it comes to the hand washing stations.
It’s amazing how something as small as a tiny lip or ledge can become a huge obstacle for somebody using a mobility device. A small one or two inch step up might as well be a ten foot wall when using a scooter or a wheelchair. There were a few locations where a floor was constructed yet a ramp over the threshold was not present. The hospitality tent, where we were sent for our meals while on shift, was one such location. As I entered the main tent to pick up my food, everything was fine, but as I moved to the back area where the tables were, there was an area for getting drinks and desserts that again had a slight step up to the floor that had no ramp. I could not access this area. The same went for the company selling coffee. Again a floor with no ramp meant I had to rely on others to complete my transaction and order for me as I couldn’t access the location.
Again I want to reiterate that I really enjoyed my experience at CFMF 2018, and I hope to return as a volunteer again next year. I only mention these things because, unless you find yourself in a situation where you yourself are disabled in some way, it is very difficult to see things from the perspective of a disabled person. I hope this piece can help make all festivals bigger and better for everyone involved. My biggest suggestion would be that festival planning be done with somebody on the board who is disabled and can speak directly to concerns such as these.
Thank you very much Calgary Folk Music Festival for a great 2018. I can’t wait for next year’s 40th anniversary!