Creating Arts Festivals for Everyone by Shay Erlich

Arts festivals across Canada are increasingly more receptive to considering accessibility in their offerings. However, these efforts are non-standardized across the industry, leaving large disparities between festivals regarding which access features have been considered, by whom and for whom. As an attempt to offer some guidance to those festival planners, the following is my perspective on actions that festivals (both performance and visual art focused) could take in the short and long term to increase festival accessibility for artists, patrons, and members of the press.

1. Consider Disabled People as Essential Members of the Festival Community

Disabled people represent approximately 20-25% of the Canadian population. This means that planning for disability is no longer catering to a minute group of citizens, but rather a substantial subset of the population who deserve consideration in every aspect of public event planning. While many festivals such as the Toronto Fringe Festival and Summerworks Festival have made good efforts to plan for increasing audience accessibility, too many festivals remain inaccessible to disabled artists and disabled members of the press.

Recently, a Toronto-based festival specifically solicited press coverage from a disability publication, but was unwilling to ensure that their press launch could be made accessible to the reporter the publication assigned (that was me). Instead, the festival took over a week to confirm that the shuttle buses would be inaccessible and the remarks would not have ASL interpretation.

It should be assumed that disabled people exist in every category of the festival community from festival administration staff, volunteers, artists, audience members/patrons, and members of the press. When festivals come to recognize that disabled people are already part of these communities rather than a group that they could reach out to in the future, the impetus for planning a festival which considers accessibility in every facet of its programming from the initiation of programming becomes clear.

2. Recognize Disabled People as Experts on Accessibility and Accommodation

In recognition that coordinating accessibility is important and a time-consuming task, many festivals have begun to budget for hiring accessibility coordinators to manage their accessibility processes. However, in reviewing recent postings for such positions, it has become clear that festivals are not prepared to hire disabled accessibility coordinators. Many organizations have not considered that this position requires an attached subset of funding to ensure that disabled people are able to be hired into these roles.

Assassinating Thomson at the Glenbow Museum, with Bruce Horak and an ASL interpreter. (courtesy: Inside Out / Falanafoto)

It is very clear to me as a disabled patron when the accessibility coordinator who has been hired is a non-disabled person. A recent experience with a prominent festival in Toronto demonstrates this disparity. I was commissioned to write a review of a performance that had spoken text and no ASL interpretation. The festival had advertised that neck loops would be available for hard of hearing patrons. I had requested information weeks in advance of the performance to determine if T-coil neck loops that function with hearing aids would be available or only a standard headset neck loop was available; however, this information was not provided. Upon arrival at the venue, there were only standard headset neck loops. This resulted in a review of a performance largely based on not being able to hear any of the text.

The nuance in the types of accommodations being provided are important and largely overwhelm the experience of non-disabled accessibility coordinators. And, much like similar roles that relate to marginalized experiences, the use of non-disabled people in roles which dictate and control access for disabled people is simply bad form. Disabled people are the experts in accessibility and accommodation. No amount of experience working with the community is a substitute for living the experience yourself.

3. Planning for Accessibility Must Occur Concurrently with Overall Festival Planning

The festival planning cycle is predictable. We recognize that the planning for the next festival begins shortly after the current festival winds down. There is a brief period to reflect on the successes and failures of the last year’s efforts, and then planning begins anew. Larger festivals may plan for multiple cycles of the festival concurrently, seeking out performers for festivals over a year in advance. It is critical that accessibility planning be interwoven into overall festival planning.

Accessibility planning is not a last minute add-on that can be accomplished in the six weeks prior to the festival. At that point, decisions about venues, timing, artists, and major dates have been determined, and an accessibility coordinator can only scramble to figure out how to make do. While it would be ideal to have an accessibility coordinator be a part of the core festival planning team, this situation could be helped greatly by festival organizers asking themselves one simple question with every major decision that they make: “How does this decision impact disabled people?”

4. Prioritizing Universal Accessibility over Accessibility for Disability Related Content

Universal accessibility is the concept that events ought to be designed with the greatest amount of accessibility possible planned as the baseline. All festivals should at a minimum plan for a baseline that includes accessible venues for all performances, and venues that are accessible for performers/artists. Additionally, all festivals should provide a minimum level of funding set aside to subsidize companion tickets (and ideally tickets for disabled patrons in general), and provide some programming with ASL Interpretation and audio description (Including touch tours where they would be beneficial). All performances should additionally be encouraged to produce one showing as a relaxed performance which often has reduced lighting changes/levels, reduced sound levels, alternate seating arrangements, and opportunities for the audience to come and go as necessary to meet their needs. In some cases, the show content is altered to create a shorter show or to cut a scene that may be too overstimulating for audience members with sensory sensitivities. In general, and particularly in instances where the show content has been altered, relaxed performances should not be the only opportunity for disabled audiences to see the show.

One festival that in my experience provided a great example of universal accessibility is Next Fest in Edmonton. Every show was housed in an accessible venue for both performers and patrons, and physical barriers that remained were identified and mitigated as best as possible. Additionally, each show was ASL interpreted a minimum of once. Even at the wrap party, as a hard of hearing performer, most of the festival staff knew enough ASL to have small talk conversations over the roaring din of the party. It was a refreshing experience in being thought about as a disabled performer, and not feeling like I needed to leave a part of myself at the door to participate.

When choosing where to spend limited accessibility dollars, festivals should focus on ensuring that disabled patrons have choices and are able to participate in main festival content, as well as ensuring that disabled artists are able to fully participate in the festival. Too often accommodation measures are only brought in for performances related to disability, and disabled people are left out of the more mainstream conversations happening within performance art. Additionally, full participation in launch parties and wrap parties is an essential component of the artistic experience. Too often artists experience isolation in their work and these gatherings are important to both reduce isolation and provide opportunities to network with other presenters, artists, and influencers in the artistic community. These are the places where artists can receive tips on which festivals to apply to in the future or develop plans for future collaborations. They are an essential component of the festival experience, and excluding disabled artists sends the message that while their work may be valued, they are not valued as whole and contributing members of the festival community.

5. Ensuring that Information Relating to Accessibility is Central and Accurate

Doing the work to make a festival accessible is only as useful as the work is publicized. If people aren’t aware that particular accessibility features are available, they won’t come. It is important to recognize how hard disabled people have to work on a daily basis to determine if they are able to participate in essential activities of daily living. They may not have the energy left to do research on their own to seek out what accessibility their leisure activities may offer.

Additionally, if a performer doesn’t know if they will be able to participate fully in a festival as an artist, they may not even bother applying. It is crucial that information about accessibility be provided at every opportunity, including calls for artists, public facing promotions, and industry communications such as press releases. It is equally important that this information be accurate and not over-promise accessibility that fails to materialize. When a venue or festival states that it is accessible, there is nothing worse than showing up and finding dangerous ramps or washroom access that requires a key-activated lift. These are details that have the potential to ruin someone’s experience with the festival in such a way that they will not return. Working with disabled accessibility consultants and disabled accessibility coordinators throughout the festival planning process is a key way to ensure that information provided is accurate and that there will be no unwelcome surprises for patrons or performers.

Youth Assembly at PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Vancouver (photo: Tim Matheson)

Overall, making festivals more accessible for everyone can be challenging and time consuming; however, in an era where arts festivals live and die on attendance, it is foolhardy to ignore the subset of disabled Canadians as audience members and performers. In an age where we are more aware than ever of the importance of communities telling their own stories and exploring their own unique art forms, we risk further perpetuating the isolation and siloing that disabled artists (and the disability arts industry that supports them) have historically experienced. Festivals are an opportunity for us to be exposed to a wide variety of art from nearby and afar in a concentrated period of time. Ensuring that disabled people are included in every facet of them only seeks to further our unending journey to grapple with the wide expanse of human diversity in all its forms.