Accessibility of Festivals
Summer is gradually turning into fall. Kids are heading back to school and everyone is planning for the colder months ahead. We take with us memories of fun summer times in the sun! Many of these times include attending in festivals, concerts and other forms of public entertainment or exhibition.
Living in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, I am fortunate to be in the home of a host of amazing festivals and urban experiences. These were even more plentiful this year as Canada celebrates its 150th birthday! These events share many characteristics with those held in communities around the globe: they attract big crowds, accommodate people on a first come first serve basis (unless you have a handy VIP ticket for a price) and are generally very visual experiences.
But do the organizers behind these fabulous experiences consider the diverse needs of the audience including visual accessibility? Is consideration given for a combination of accessibility features like platforms throughout, options for priority access to the experience, level surface, appropriate signage (or audio alternatives)? Let’s consider a few examples.
This summer Ottawa had the benefit of hosting La Machine, an urban animation experience where a giant spider and fire breathing dragon roam the streets over several days stopping at various points for combat scenes with musical backdrops. The scenes were quite impressive and drew crowds in the tens of thousands.
Let’s look at this first of its kind event in North America from the perspective of visual accessibility. Since the animated machines are quite large and travel along numerous routes along the city there are plenty of opportunities to get at the front edge of the crowd for a good view or get up close while they are at rest and on display in the evening. When it comes to the performance scenes however the common challenge of finding space close enough to see with low vision becomes a challenge. Get there early, elbow your way through the crowd or hope for some accommodation from fellow audience members are your main options. In some cases, elevated platforms are provided to accommodate wheelchairs however these are located far to the rear of the crowd. Instead, could a more equitable experience be provided by spreading these accessible spaces around the venue, allowing for improved viewing by anyone requiring accommodation?
Next let’s consider the variety of outdoor concerts. I will make a quick distinction between public concerts such as Canada Day celebrations where government has more opportunity to intervene for accessibility and private concerts or festivals that have an admission price.. Both types of festivals have the three common characteristics noted above (crowds, priority, visual experience)
Public festivals are generally available free of charge and often organized by government or community associations. Public funding is provided that carries with a greater accountability to taxpayers. Canada Day celebrations or other national holiday events, outdoor theatre in the park are good examples. There is typically a greater opportunity and even in some situation more regulated requirement to consider accessibility as part of the festival operations. In many cases these types of festivals tend to be located on public grounds, already more accessible with level surfaces, public services such as washroom and connection to public transit.
Private festivals are generally those associated with a ticket purchase or entry fee and organized by private business and not-for-profit associations. Music festivals and food festivals are common examples. Well-run private festivals can feature many of the benefits of public festivals however accessibility considerations are more discretionary. Venues can often be much more crowded, lack fixed accessible infrastructure (i.e. ramps and accessible washrooms) and are often not on major transit lines. Ottawa’s Blues Festival and City Folk Festival are two examples for consideration. They are urban festivals, held on public lands within the city where level surface is available, signage is well done, accessible infrastructure services are available and they are served but public transit. Concurrently, crowd management has been an issue at times and no priority access to performances for visual limitations is provided. Wheelchair platforms are again usually placed at the back of venues.
Lastly I will describe Mosaicanada, an outdoor garden sculpture park built for the bi-centennial celebrations. This is a more mellow experience, free to access and taking place throughout the summer allowing ample time to plan a visit suited to ability and crowd levels. Since the garden was built in an already existing park it already had in place paved and packed grit footpaths and central access to public transit. Sculptures were generally quite large with descriptive plaques. Print on these panels was of decent size but could have been improved with better contrast. While they provided description in English and French, Braille was not available. An audio guide however had been developed for the exhibition and free, daily guided tours were provided. Overall I feel this exhibition did well in providing options and design features to accommodate accessibility.
Festivals and public events are a critical component to vibrant cities and community participation. These events engage all aspects of the community and thus need to be accessible and adapted to the needs of those diverse communities. Making these experiences accessible to those will low vision or other accessibility need can only serve to improve the experience for the general public.
Trained in town planning, an avid traveler and legally blind myself I write on issues and opportunities is see along my travels that could improve our cities from a visual perspective.