Music festivals are slowly making progress towards being accessible to disabled people - but is it happening fast enough? Alice Mander shares her experience at this year's Laneway and offers some suggestions for improving accessibility.
OPINION: Sometimes I want to scream, "Disabled people like to party too!" Or, maybe more accurately, "Disabled people want to join the throngs of people at St Jerome's Laneway Festival too!"
St Jerome's Laneway Festival 2019 was a scorching day with a diverse line-up from "our dumb friend Courtney Barnett" (a quote from the equally cool Camp Cope) to brilliant headliner Florence and the Machine. The food was great, the craft beer was characteristically expensive, and the now famous banana gang was surreal.
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But we've seen enough reviews of New Zealand's summer festivals. I'm here to deliver something different - an accessibility review.
As a fresh faced 18-year-old, I attended Bay Dreams in 2018 which I found to be pleasantly accessible - probably due to the venue being a flat stadium - though unpleasantly drunken. I do love music, and I do like to get a little silly, yet I am no festival junkie.
I think part of the reason festivals aren't really my 'thing' is that it is terrifying attending an event and having no indication of how it will be for someone with access needs. So, hopefully this will be part of a flow of more information about big events like these to ease the minds of those wanting to attend, but unsure whether they'll be able to actually manage it.
Before I start, I should say that, although I have Muscular Dystrophy I'm still able to walk around and stand, so while I'll try my best to give an objective judgement, I can't talk on behalf of all the disabled community.
Laneway's website states that "Albert Park has full wheelchair access". Despite this, entry into the festival is from Wellesley St which I assume would entail navigating a relatively long and crowded incline to get into the festival and to the main stage at Princes St. The website could have clarified that it is possible to gain closer access via Princes St to avoid this.
I attempted to contact Laneway to request this, however, found that they were as difficult to contact as the failed, fabled Fyre Festival was when they began deleting negative comments on their Instagram page. I tried their Australian email, their New Zealand email, and finally resulted in sliding into their DMs on Instagram like a desperate teenage boy. And, yes, I double messaged. After receiving, "We'll get back to you soon!" both via email and Instagram they stopped replying to my messages entirely.
It was less than a week to the event and I still had not sorted out this issue. This, especially, is an area that needs improvement. If Laneway's new "thing" is about the sense of safety of its patrons - I applaud them for the creation of 0800 Laneway - then this must include the peace of mind of those with access needs leading up to the event.
As mentioned, not knowing whether you will be able to manage an event like this can leave a person wrought with anxiety and stress which may consequently put them off attending the event altogether. Who knows if I may have been able to manage the main entrance? The point is, I didn't know, and I needed peace of mind that there were other options.
To give them their due, the woman I was finally put into contact with was incredibly helpful and friendly. I met her on Princes St on the day, and she let me and my two friends - both excited to be getting special entry - into the festival via the VIP section behind the main stage. At one point I even saw the lead singer from Camp Cope. I clenched my friend's arm and thanked the gods for making me disabled purely for that moment.
I was also pleased to find that Albert Park is not bad in terms of being a wheelchair and disability friendly venue. There were actually concrete paths and it was easy enough to find ways to avoid the slight inclines, especially as most of the festival was situated around Princes St and the flat area of the park.
I also saw a few other keen festival goers with disabilities - something I didn't see at the booze infested 2018 Bay Dreams which was mainly packed with drunk 18 year olds running around mindlessly. There's something to be said about the diverse crowd Laneway attracts, even in terms of age - shoutout to the mums and dads attending!
Sadly, I couldn't get through this article without mentioning the one thing that was worse than the piss-poor sound system at the Princes Street Stage - the Portaloos. Toilets at festivals are probably the origin for the "Men Can't Aim When Drunk" truism and you will definitely have to wash your shoes after standing in them.
Of all the portaloos I could see into there were none that were accessible. After the event, I did however find a map which confirms that there were accessible toilets at one place in the venue, which is great! Regardless, there should be more signs or information directing people with access needs to these areas. Like myself, not everyone obviously needs facilities such as these at first glance, and more information on this would be helpful.
It would also save people like me from struggling to use a SheWee to go to the toilet because I can't sit down in a portaloo (still a good alternative, ladies). TMI? Sure, but so is standing in some guy's piss.
Albert Park is a much-loved venue because of its wide open spaces, with apparently plenty of areas to sit down. But those wide-open spaces don't mean jack if you can't actually sit on the ground. Sure, there are park benches around, but these are sporadic and exposed to sun. In comparison, Bay Dreams had had a shaded chill-out area with tables and chairs, and not just in the VIP section; this is something I'd recommend for Laneway. Again, if I didn't just stumble across it, it's probably an indicator that we need more signage please.
By the end of the event my feet were literally killing me, and my legs felt so much like jelly that I was rude to my mum when I got home. Apologies in retrospect, Mum.
I also wonder what the view for people in wheelchairs would be like. Is there some system which would allow people who need to sit to be in the security space between the mosh pit and the stage? Or is there some way they can be up higher? If not, there absolutely should be.
These small changes won't make any difference to your rational-minded average festival goer but could make all the difference for a person in a wheelchair or one who can't stand in crowds for too long.
Perhaps festivals should consult people with disabilities, or those with more knowledge of making events accessible, for example Kylee Black, who organised the Soul Lounge at Festival One, in order to tackle these problems head-on.
But there's always simple fixes any festival can make, whether providing more information for people with access needs before and during the event, or telling security guards not to doubt the authenticity of people when they say they have a disability and are waiting for someone to take them through the VIP area.
Ultimately though, Laneway was pretty great. You can see why it has a reputation for being safer, friendlier, and more inclusive than other festivals. And, once I did get in contact with them, they did give me the help that I requested.
People with disabilities are so often put off events like this because of access issues and social stigmatization, and this is something that shouldn't still be happening. If you have a disability but want to attend one of these festivals, you totally can. All it takes is a bit of proactivity, research, and harassing of the organisers. Great friends who make sure you're safe and comfortable are always a plus as well.
Laneway's access motto, which I'm sure is the same as most, seems to be, "We aim to make the festival as accessible as the venue allows".
This isn't enough. Event organisers need to stop shirking responsibility and get to a point where they can confidently say, "The festival is accessible because we made it that way."
Alice Mander is a guest writer for The Spinoff