London on crutches – thoughts on the (in)accessibility of festivals – Emma Webster

Muddy tents © Emma Webster 2015

Back at the beginning of October I tore my calf muscle playing badminton – I have been on crutches ever since, although my leg is getting stronger daily. Whilst at no point wishing to suggest that I could understand what it is like to be chronically disabled, it has given me a small insight into mobility issues at festival about which I was previously less cognisant.

The EFG London Jazz Festival (LFJ) is predominantly venue-based – some of the fringe Streets events take place in the open air, but most, if not all, of the LJF events are indoors and most are seated. One of the things audience members have told me is that they like the variety of the Festival, in that it spans some of the largest venues in London to some of the smallest. While the larger, Arts Council-funded venues have to have an equality action plan, smaller venues do not generally have to abide by such rules and hence accessibility, or the lack thereof, may be an issue.

Firstly, small live music venues can be difficult to get into for people with mobility issues – two of the venues I have attended so far are downstairs and there are no lifts, which might make them wheelchair inaccessible. One is down a spiral staircase, which means holding on with one hand on the bannister at all times, therefore it could be inaccessible for those requiring two crutches. It seems perhaps that the ‘mythic’ jazz venue – the small, dark, smoky basement cellar – was just not built with accessibility issues in mind and it is probably difficult for such venues to adapt. They were probably built at a time when accessibility issues were not on the agenda, installing a lift (or similar) is no doubt a very expensive proposition, and some of the buildings may even be listed.

Secondly, getting around London is hard work at the best of times but even more so when mobility is restricted. Getting to London can be tricky as well. Due to a fatality on the line, my train from Oxford to London was cancelled at Didcot, and I then had to change at Reading and Guildford as well, ending up in Waterloo, which made for an awkward trip to the Barbican. Added to this the fact that I had a wheelie bag and was on crutches and by the time I got to the Barbican and was faced with a set of steep stairs, I was ready to weep, although, luckily, at this point, a kind man offered to carry my luggage upstairs.

One thing I have found on crutches is that people have generally been kind, and will give up their seats on the tube (although seeming less keen on buses?!). With a festival as spread out as the LJF, there is inevitably a fair amount of travelling to get from one event to the next – a combination of buses, taxis, and the Tube is one way to do it, but I have also pounded the pavements far more than my legs would thank me for. Festivals can be hard work, and, as one audience member said to me, once you’ve made your decision about which gig to go to, the distances involved mean that you are pretty much wedded to that location for the evening.

Thirdly, standing gigs are uncomfortable as my legs get tired very quickly – LJF gigs are mostly seated only, however, so this has not really been a problem so far. As the UK population is aging and the average age for live music audiences creeps ever upward, however, so too promoters and venues may need to be more mindful of audiences who are not as sprightly as they perhaps once were. As one venue owner/promoter once told me, he now ensures that for certain gigs, for which he knows there will be an older demographic, there are always chairs around the edge of the room to enable the audience to take the weight off their feet.

Finally, while urban festivals can present certain mobility issues, outdoor festivals may cause their own difficulties, such as uneven ground or lack of disabled toilets, particularly when combined with bad weather. tents I was carrying out audience research at one outdoor festival in 2012 and the site was a muddy, smelly quagmire. I went to the disabled camping area and spoke with a few people there. It had not occurred to me until that point that the wheelchair users were pretty much stuck where they were in such conditions; there was little hope of getting into the festival arena as there was not enough trackway for them to be able to get around. There have definitely been improvements at festivals in recent years, however, such as viewing platforms and accessible booking systems.

(Obviously there are a whole slew of other accessibility issues upon which I have not even begun to touch, but I just wanted to highlight some of the issues about which I have had direct or indirect personal experience.)

One of the drivers of these improvements has been Access Is Everything, an Arts Council England-funded charity which works directly with venues, festivals, artists and audiences, to improve Deaf and disabled people’s access to live music. One of the ways they do this to get venues and festivals to sign up to the Charter of Best Practice, which has three stages – Bronze, Silver, and Gold; each stage details the criteria for improvements and advises on how to achieve them. Over 90 venues and festivals have already signed up, including (from the LJF’s 2015 programme) the Roundhouse, Royal Albert Hall, Barbican, O2 Empire Shepherd’s Bush, Cecil Sharp House, Kings Place, Wigmore Hall, and The Albany. It would be great to see even more LJF venues on the Charter list for the 2016 programme but whether all the basement venues of London will ever be fully accessible to all remains to be seen.

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