How one grassroots festival is leading the industry in accessibility and inclusivity.

Posted 7 months ago by Emma Clark

Many Australians love a festival and people with disability have as much right as anyone else to enjoy those community events that bring together like minded people with a shared passion. But often people with disability have to miss out because the event or the venue doesn’t cater to their additional needs.

The Ability Fest event in Melbourne last month shined a light on how other festivals and public events could do more to accommodate people with a disability or those with additional needs.

The event is founded on its accessibility and inclusivity features, such as elevated viewing platforms, accessible bathrooms, pathways and flooring, and Auslan interpreters. It makes for an event that all music-fans can enjoy equally, and without barriers for those with additional needs.

But the success of the festival has highlighted how other events lack the wealth of accommodations available to make all members of our community feel welcome.

Only recently the MCG faced criticism after two attendees requiring access to a wheelchair bay were turned away due to the space being utilised by TV broadcast teams at an AFL match. After tweets about the issue went viral the MCG and AFL addressed concerns by promising that no accessible spaces would be reallocated to media for the remainder of the season.

Similarly, actor and disability advocate Chloe Hayden drew attention to her experience at the Harry Styles concert in February this year, criticising Marvel Stadium for a myriad of oversights relating to disability inclusion, but specifically denying her access to their highly promoted sensory room due to, in Chloe’s words, her “not looking disabled enough.”

It seems these experiences are not uncommon for people living with a disability, with many choosing to simply not attend events in anticipation of being discriminated against. Ability Fest was an opportunity for many to feel included and considered.

Talking Disability spoke to attendee David, who is hearing impaired, and for whom Ability Fest was his first-ever music festival. “It was amazing, a really great experience” David said, “I reflect on my memories of the event from time to time and it has opened my eyes to what’s possible. I’ve shared my enthusiasm for the event with lots of people and I hope it keeps going.”

David’s favourite artist was Altar Boy, and there were several features of the event that made his experience of the band’s performance all the more memorable. “The Auslan Interpreters were amazing, I mean for me without them the event would not be accessible at all” David says. “But we also got to try these special vests, through which the music was blasting, so I could feel the beat and the vibrations through my body and the floor which was so immersive” he continues. “That was incredible, and my number one feature of the event.”

The use of Auslan interpreters for music and entertainment events is increasing, albeit it still remains in the minority. Melbourne International Comedy Festival has hosted many comedy events that feature interpreters, including those by festival draw cards Adam Hills, Dave Hughes and Cal Wilson.

The Adelaide Fringe Festival is not only the biggest arts festival in the Southern Hemisphere, but one committed to championing inclusivity for all abilities. Through their Adelaide Fringe Foundation they are committed to making as many events as possible accessible to those with disabilities via the use of Auslan interpreters, audio description technology and by improvising wheelchair access in venues.

Comedian Tom Ballard kept accessibility at the forefront when planning his 2023 shows at the Adelaide Fringe, putting on an additional show at a different, more accessible venue to ensure all of his fans could attend and “everyone can come along and check it out and all laugh together”.

Whilst incredible work is being done by our Australian comedy festivals, disability inclusivity goes beyond accommodations for wheelchair users or the hearing impaired.

Ability Fest catered to an impressively wide variety of needs including those who used service animals. Monique attended Ability Fest with her assistance dog Louie, and they were able to enjoy the event thanks to features such as the assistance dog area. “The assistance dog area was near the entrance of the festival, it had fresh water which was super useful, and fake grass for the dogs to toilet on. It was a big relief for me to be able to use that area because it meant I didn’t need to unpack my bag to get water out for Louie” she says.

woman sitting with golden retriever on grass.

For Monique it was her first music festival too, she chose to attend after recently turning 18 and wanting to participate in something fun in the community. The accessible features of Ability Fest allowed her to do so. “We explored the festival using the ramps and flooring, and used the golf carts available to get a ride to different parts of the event site” says Monique.

Ability Fest and its accessible features demonstrate that making community events such as music festivals inclusive to all abilities is not something that is prohibitive to success. Both David and Monique hope that other events and festivals will take a leaf out of Ability Fest’s book and implement some of the inclusive features.

“Other events can definitely learn from Ability Fest. I think they should be able to deliver the same sort of accessible things such as Auslan Interpreters and wheelchair accessible spaces” says David. “Everyone who has a disability has different needs to access events and Ability Fest was able to do that. So hopefully other events will be inspired by Ability Fest and take on the high standards it provided to all of us in the disabled community.”

“Having features like assistance dog areas with clean fresh water, Auslan interpreters or multiple sensory rooms to meet the demand would be great at other events” Monique agrees.

The continued success of Ability Fest, and the positive attendee feedback, proves there is an appetite and audience for inclusive events. People with disabilities want to enjoy live music and other community events and that with some modest considerations, all events can be made inclusive and accessible for all. David, Monique and other Ability Fest attendees have high hopes for the future.