Why Download Festival 2022 will be the most accessible ever

Ahead of the first full-capacity Download in three years, organisers have announced a host of site improvements to ensure that festival-goers with disabilities will get the most from rock’s biggest weekend. We sit down with accessibility representative Katie Hester to get the inside track…

Why Download Festival 2022 will be the most accessible ever
Sam Law

Heavy music is for everyone. As uncontroversial as that sentiment is, it’s not always easy to enact, especially when you’re trying to fashion a hospitable space for people with disabilities amongst the mud and madness of the UK’s biggest rock festival. Thanks to accessibility rep Katie Hester and her enthusiastic teammates, however, Download Festival continues to blaze a trail for major event accessibility in live music.

Amongst the host of all-round improvements announced last week – including bold environmental initiatives and significantly-reduced walking distances around site – perhaps most significant was the relocation of the festival village onto waterproof hardstanding just 350 metres from the accessible campsite, meaning that attendees with mobility impairments will be able to easily traverse back and forth from the heart of festivities without having to queue for a shuttle bus. Moreover, the accessible campervan space has moved to a more convenient location, with 42 per cent higher capacity, simultaneously opening more space in the regular accessible camp.

Sitting down to chat with Katie, it’s clear this isn’t just the culmination of three years’ hard work over the festival’s COVID-enforced absence. It’s part of a genuine change in the music industry to make events like these truly all-inclusive. “In recent years, people have come to understand that accessibility isn’t just about putting up a ramp,” she smiles, determinedly. “It’s a much, much bigger process…”

What are the main barriers to festival-goers with disabilities that you’ve sought to address for Download?
“One of the main types of barrier is those for people with mobility impairments, who struggle getting around. Our accessible campsite is now all on hardstanding, and we’ve taken out the campervans, giving them their own even bigger space. We’ve now got 100 campervan spaces available, which is amazing, having worked to make the capacity higher and higher every year. In the arena, we’ll be working with Performance Interpreting for what I believe is the third year, who’ll have British Sign Language [BSL] interpreters on the main and second stage platforms. Over the last couple of years, with certain TV shows [and movies] having come out, I think people are more aware of how the deaf community is affected by music. Beyond that, the Festival Village will be entirely on hardstanding, just 350 metres from the campsite. Where previously wheelchairs would get caught in the loose earth and long grass, now that won’t be an issue. We’ll be able to get to the arena without being covered in mud, which is exciting!”

What kind of initiatives have you put in place for blind and autistic festival-goers?
“We’ve work closely with [deaf and disabled people’s charity] Attitude Is Everything – currently holding the Gold Award within their charter – and we’ve been talking a lot about additional provisions in their new charter. We’re not sure if we’ll be able to get anything put in place this year in terms of things like sensory rooms, but we will be looking at doing that in the future. We do, however, provide free PA [Personal Assistant] tickets for anyone with any kind of access requirements so that, when they submit their documentation, they can have someone with them free of charge who knows their needs and will be able to help them navigate the crowd, get out of the arena, or ask for help if they become overwhelmed. Plus, we’ve got a campsite full of volunteers ready to help out and muck in where needs be.”

How much of a logistical effort is it to accommodate people’s needs at a mixed greenfield/gravel/hardstanding site like Donington Park?
“Because we have the hardstanding, we really are trying to use it to the fullness of its capabilities. Hardstanding is the best that we can offer from an accessibility perspective. Of course, it’s logistically impossible to have the whole event on hardstanding. But now, in terms of customers with accessibility requirements, that it’s only really the arena that’s got a little bit of gravel and grass shows what a fantastic job Download have done in using what they’ve got to ensure it’s as fun as possible for everyone attending.”

Is the weather forecast even more of a headache for you than the other organisers?
“Yeah, unfortunately it is. A lot of our customers feel the cold and wet a lot more than the average festival-goer, so they have to pack a lot more clothes, make sure they’re dry and have a change. And don’t even get me started on mud… A lot of the things that you would typically put down to help with the mud – straw, woodchips – are terrible for wheelchairs because of how they get stuck in the wheels, so we have to make sure that whatever we do to tackle that without impacting the enjoyment of the weekend for accessible customers. In the end, though, it is an outdoor event, and there’s nothing that we can do about the actual rain [or shine]!”

Studies have shown staggering percentages of of people with disabilities being put off attending major events because of accessibility concerns. How important is it to get the message out that it’ll be okay to come along?
“It’s vital. Access doesn’t start when you get onto that field and into the festival, it starts way before with the preparation and getting the information out there. Twenty-two per cent of the population have some kind of disability and only three-to-five per cent of those are in wheelchairs. A lot of people think that if an event is wheelchair-accessible, it’s fully accessible. As fantastic as that is, it’s a very small part of what we do. Making sure that we get the word out about that is crucial. Countless customers call us up and say, ‘I’ve got this disability and I’m not sure if you can help…’ but once we have a little chat with them and explain what provisions are available, they’re like, ‘That’s fantastic! I wasn’t even aware!’ Having as many people talking about it as possible is crucial to getting everyone coming out and celebrating together.”

On that note, how important to accessibility is the engagement of the broader festival population, from fans to bands?
“When you have the bands – those people at the very top – making sure that the event is accessible, it’s going to reach everyone that’s interested in coming. And the better the engagement with the fans, the better it is for everyone. It’s always amazing to see one of my customers right down the front in the mosh-pit and you go down to say, ‘Are you okay? You’ve got the viewing platform if you need it…’ and they tell us they’d rather be down there in the thick of it. We call that a Golden Circle, where everyone takes care of everyone else. It’s the most beautiful thing, to see everyone together, able to enjoy the experience regardless of their differences.”

One of the most iconic images in modern metal is the photo of the fan in a wheelchair being crowdsurfed across a massive crowd. Does it feel like metal really is more inclusive than other subcultures?
“I’ve been to a lot of festivals over the years and Download is special. There are a lot of stigmas about heavy music, and a lot of people have reserved judgement a little bit, but being involved in the crowd and the community, I can say it is one of the most inclusive places I’ve ever been – with some of the best camaraderie. Everyone is so welcoming and considerate of each other, ensuring that everyone else is having a good time. I’ve never experienced anything like it at any of the many other events I’ve been to over the years. Download is very unique.”

What further progress would you like to see made, in terms of access, in the coming years?
“That’s a good question. Because we’re such a unique team that combines the customer-facing [team] with elements of production, we have a unique live feedback where fans can tell us what they really like, or what they think we should change, and we have the ability to directly implement what’s being asked for. Also, working with Attitude Is Everything, and knowing that they also have their ear to the ground, we’re very happy with how things are going. We’re doing everything that our customers want and need to make sure that they have the best experience that they can. Plus, it comes from all of the teams rather than just the Access team. We’re involved with marketing, sponsorship and we have regular meetings with Melvin, the Managing Director. It’s on everybody’s minds. Even in the few years that I’ve been involved, we’ve gone from shouting from the rooftops to ensure accessibility isn’t forgotten to having our questions be the very first ones addressed.”

Download Festival takes place at Donington Park on June 10-12. Get your tickets now.

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