A Wheelchair User's Guide to Navigating (and Having a Dope Time) at a Massive Music Festival
Get ready for a bumpy ride!
Photo by Mira Born, via VICE
In the United States, the UK, and Ireland, huge efforts are being made to make music venues accessible for people with disabilities but when it comes to outdoor music festivals, it's a different beast altogether. You have three main obstacles; the weather, huge crowds and uneven surfaces. You need more than biceps of steel or, if a pal is helping with the pushing, calves of pure metal. You'll need to be as sharp as a fucking tack and to have the will power of an elk to overcome any challenges.
I've been using a wheelchair for the last four years and, in that time, I've gone to music festivals in Ireland, Spain, France, Scotland and England. I've yet to venture Stateside to sample their goodies, however, after some thorough investigation, it would appear that the only differences between festivals in America and Europe are the weather and the fact that Americans have designated drinking areas. Oh, what joys you're missing out on. At our festivals, the booze and torrential rain flow in equal measures.
Most people have seen the photo of the guy in a wheelchair crowd surfing at a concert but, as aspirational as that is, it's not a regular occurrence. People will stop you for high-fives and to say "It's amazing that you're here and not cooped up at home, weeping," and other than a side dish of patronizing pats on the head, people are generally very helpful at festivals. If you're heading to a music festival and just so happen to use a wheelchair, let me be your guide.
No waiting in line for you
One of the greatest things about having a disability is that you get to skip the line. Honestly, it makes me feel like Mariah Carey. While everybody else on two legs has to wait in line at the ticket exchange, the bag and security check, the line for the over-21 wristband (you poor Americans), the line for the bar, the line for food and the line for the bathrooms, we roll on by, cackling like Jack Nicholson.
People mistake your disability for innocence
Take advantage of the innocence that is associated with having a disability. The amount of times that I have just waltzed through bag search with dozens of forbidden items in my possession is astonishing. I'll be the lunatic brandishing umbrellas, swigging from a bottle of smuggled-in booze and reveling in many other banned items, like aerosols and tweezers, in the middle of Hot Chip's umpteenth set of the day.
Nothing can prepare you for the porta-potties
Like in the real world, people will use the wheelchair porta-potties to take a private dump. At a festival, where toilet paper and running water are valued commodities, things can get messy—especially by day three—and can turn to anarchy quite quickly. If you are using a wheelchair bathroom at a festival and you don't actually need to, remember, people in wheelchairs cannot hover to avoid the amounted feces and piss of others like you can. Respect the wheelchair porta-potty and aim wisely.
If you're in a wheelchair or have limited mobility, abuse your right to skip the line for the accessible porta-john. Confidently stride by the people who are using it for a quick bang or bump and declare "THIS IS MY PISS POT" and slam the door in their faces. Generally, people are quite understanding and will offer their spot in line. They are the good souls.
Find your own viewing point
At most festivals, the accessible viewing platform is usually at the very back. While it's great that this exists, it removes you from a lot of the action and the majority of the time, you're allowed bring just one person up there with you. What person goes to a festival with just one friend? Music festivals are a group activity and you can't be separated from the pack. To have the best experience outside of the viewing platforms, you have three options:
1) You can go up to the left or right side of the stage. You will have the best view here but one of your eardrums will be annihilated by the sound system. If you stay to the side instead of dead centre, you won't be crushed. Luckily, you have a metal frame and the security team close by to protect you from being completely battered.
2) You can hang out in the middle of the crowd where it's not too packed and give yourself breathing room. You may not have a great view here but you'll be part of the crowd and you'll have lots of dancing space which is tremendously important.
3) Find a hill and own it.
Get ready for a bumpy ride
When you attend music festivals, you're really testing out how you fare in the great outdoors but with added food trucks. The smaller front wheels on a wheelchair don't bode very well when it comes to rough ground, but there's ways around this. Have a buddy on hand to bulldoze you along, invest in a FreeWheel, or, if you can really splurge, a 4x4 off-road wheelchair. The FreeWheel will make a festival 60 percent easier because it lifts the front of your chair up like a wheelbarrow and you can just plough on through rocks, rubble and uneven ground without tipping out. The 4x4 will turn you into Indiana Jones.
In Europe, Ireland, and the UK especially, wet weather brings on a different sort of hell: mud. Altered or modified wheelchairs will be helpful here but you'll need muscle and determination too. When it rains almost every single day in Ireland and the UK, how come festival organisers haven't come up with a way to navigate through mud?
The mecca of festivals, Glastonbury, places down white tiles on a lot of the busier walking routes which are ideal but others rely on wood chippings or hay to soak up the water and mud. When it's bucketing down, only the tiles will do the job. When it comes to dodgy weather and you're knee-deep in mud and other unidentifiable substances, you will need to rely on other people for help. Befriend the security team and see if you can take shortcuts through the crew and VIP areas.
There is no reason why someone in a wheelchair shouldn't go to a music festival. Elements of it end up being like a workout, but once you develop a battle plan with your mates and you're ready for some rough and tumble, all will be well.