Austin Whitney is the founder and CEO of Accessible Festivals, a nonprofit company specializing in services for handicapped guests at music festivals and other large events. Whitney and his team were hired by Latitude 38 Entertainment to provide accessibility services for BottleRock 2016. I spoke with Whitney, along with Latitude 38’s Micah Malan, on the closing day of the festival.
“There’s a big misconception in the disabled community that festivals aren’t accessible,” Whitney said. “I was in a car accident nine years ago that put me in a wheelchair, and at that time my picture of a rock festival was Woodstock — a sea of people. How would I see the stage? How would I use the restrooms? I think that’s the conception that most people have if they’ve never been to one.”
Whitney’s organization is the largest of its kind in the country, providing services this year to 45 music festivals. They have also worked with large non-festival events such as Cirque du Soleil and Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia in 2015.
“This is a passion project for me,” Whitney said. “I just graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law two weeks ago. I thought I was going to go into corporate law, but along the way I found something I just really fell in love with, and this is what I do.”
Whitney and his team began working with Malan and Latitude 38 six months before the festival, developing an accessibility approach for the site and setting up an informational website for handicapped fans. The design of the festival’s layout and structures incorporated essential accessibility elements from the start.
“This event has more elevator lifts than any other festival in the country,” Whitney said. “On the Sky Deck we have three very large lifts to get from ground level to the top. We have a lift at the Platinum Lounge and two lifts at the VIP structure. These guys (Latitude 38) really care. We may run into small oversights, but major things are taken care of. When they put in a big new piece of infrastructure, accessibility is on their radar from day one. They have been very supportive of us.
“We have to make sure that the music festival environment is compliant with California building codes and federal regulations about accessible parking, accessible restrooms and so forth. That’s straight legal compliance, but that’s a very low threshold. That’s not the goal.
“Our goal is to create events that are welcoming to people with disabilities, and this event does it particularly well. We are pretty close to 300 disabled guests this weekend, which in our line of work is a lot. And you figure that each has a companion, and we have to provide seating for them.
“We have 17 acts being sign-interpreted, which is more than any show I’ve ever done. There’s a very large deaf population at this festival. We also have a number of folks with visual disabilities, who have been provided guided tours throughout the weekend. And we have lots of service animals that we’ve checked into the event.”
It turns out that accessibility services are also available for pregnant BottleRockers. “Women in the last trimester of pregnancy can really benefit from the services we offer,” Whitney said. “For example, we have raised platforms with seats on them where somebody can sit and see over the crowd and not have to worry about being bumped. Of course, pregnancy is not a disability, it’s part of normal life. The philosophy behind our program is that we just want to help people.”
Malan, who, like Whitney, is in a wheelchair, talked about the improvements to the food court at the festival. “It’s a massive piece of land,” he said, “and when we first got here it was like a field of speed bumps, one after another in different directions, like there’d been land mines or something.
“So they went in and flattened it out and got an appropriate surface over it. I thought it was incredible that they cared enough to get in there and take care of that. I don’t know how much it cost, I don’t know how many days it took, but it was a major improvement.”
Whitney’s overall assessment of BottleRock was glowing. “This is a pretty accessible event for many reasons,” he said. “It’s a very flat site, the weather’s really great, it’s pretty condensed. There are a lot of festivals out there where you have severe weather, or they’re huge and you spend your whole time rolling from one end to the other. This is not that.
“This is beautiful Napa, you can get between any of the stages pretty quickly, the accommodations are there for folks. If you have a mobility disability, it is just about as comfortable as any music festival that exists.”