Disabled Access at Music Festivals in the UK

This was originally published on DisabledGo, which is now AccessAble. This article does not seem to be online since that change so I am reproducing it here. 

The sun is shining, there are clouds in the sky… where better to be than in a remote field, veggie burger in hand, listening to live music in the open air? 

Whether you prefer the vastness of a huge event like Glastonbury or somewhere more intimate, there are festivals to suit every mood and preference. Campaigns like Attitude is Everything and Stay Up Late work hard to ensure that Deaf and disabled people can attend live music events, but what are festivals really like for disabled attendees? Is accessibility provision good or will you be stranded without the ability to charge your chair or get up close to the acts?

Katharine, from East Sussex, attended GuilFest last year. She told me that, as a wheelchair user, she often feels that “wheelchairs are an afterthought”. Being aware of the potential difficulties, Katharine telephoned in advance to get an idea of what to expect, but found that, sometimes, the promises made do not materialise:

“GuilFest had built two wheelchair platforms, the one for their main stage was lovely and right by accessible toilet facilities. However, the act I had gone to see was on the second stage. 

“I had been assured there would be a platform for that stage too. There was; it was raised about 5 inches from the ground and miles from the stage. We found someone to complain to and they put the wheelchairs in front of the barrier when relevant act came on. 

“So, that was an unusually good experience.” 

This year, at Glastonbury Festival, there was a Disability Field, which offered somewhere to charge up electric wheelchairs, as well as alternative therapies and information and support.

Outsiders, a charity with a presence in Glastonbury’s Disability Field, reported that, “Over a number of years, Outsiders has received regular feedback from disabled festival goers – many of whom see the support that the Disability Field offers as the only way that they manage to attend the festival.” 

Accessing the wider events, fields and stages still caused problems for many, however.

There are some common themes: these events often take place in large fields, sometimes on steep hills, which can present barriers to participation in themselves. Manoeuvring across grass can be difficult – moreso if it becomes mud over the course of rainy days and lots of trampling! There will be crowds of people, which some disabled people find difficult to manage, and music will be loud, with few truly quiet areas to escape.

Every event is different, though, so we’ve pulled together the accessibility information for a range of upcoming music festivals this summer. 

I was pleased to find that many of the festivals I have been looking at are making a real effort at improving accessibility and making information easily available. So, while the landscapes may be tricky to navigate, positive steps are being taken, for example:

  • V Festival and Bestival provide charging points for electric wheelchair and scooter users
  • Almost all of the festivals have viewing platforms for wheelchair users and other disabled people who cannot be in a crowd; only Bestival doesn’t have any platforms while some, such as Tramlines, don’t provide them for all stages
  • Reading Festival, V Festival and Bestival have separate, accessible campsites for disabled attendees
  • Festival No 6 and Kendal Calling have information provided in different formats on their websites
  • Each of the nine festivals offers a free ticket for a disabled person’s carer or PA to attend.

Some events go further still, for instance V Festival offers secure refrigerators to store medication and has a Changing Places toilet. 

Gerry Bucke from Chartwell – a specialist insurance provider and advocate for the disabled community – believes that these advances will make festival season far more open to disabled music fans. 

“The improvements to festival accessibility this summer show that the organisers have an interest in attracting disabled fans to their events. Attitude is Everything found that events following their best-practice guidelines had a boost of 59% in disabled ticket sales over just 12 months, which shows that this makes business sense, too!”

There is still a way to go. None of these nine festivals offers BSL interpreters or live captioning, although some do install hearing-aid loop systems, and many do not warn of impending strobe lighting. Wheelchair charging points – described to me as ‘essential’ by numerous people during my research – are only rarely provided, and site shuttle buses, to help people with limited mobility to get around, could benefit a lot of these events.

Progress in accessibility is great, but many of us are impatient for more.