Access Interview – Josh Rosenberg on Festival Accessibility

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July, 2019
AUTHOR: Half Access Board of Directors
Category: Interviews

Josh Rosenberg, 24, graduated from UMass Lowell in spring 2017 with a bachelor’s of music in music business. This year marks the first year he has been able to work only in the festival and live music industry, specializing in accessibility, without any side jobs. He’s worked at about 20 different festivals, some just once and some each year over the past four years.

Josh at Hangout Fest.

When did you start going to shows and getting more involved in music?

I’ve been involved in music my entire life, playing guitar and drums since I was a little kid. I’ve played music independently, in school, and in bands since then. My parents raised my brother and me with a very eclectic knowledge of music, and I started going to concerts when I was 10 or 11 years old. The first “real” concerts I remember going to were Hot Stove Cool Music (a concert at Fenway Park where a few bands played along with some of the Red Sox players at the time) and a Boston and Styx concert at our Massachusetts amphitheater.

What led to you specializing in accessibility?

Before I worked with accessibility, I didn’t really know it existed. During my junior year of college, after working as a beer vendor at the second and third years of Boston Calling Music Fest, I became interested in working more in the festival world. At that point, I didn’t know much about the industry or the specific jobs that were involved, so I was just looking for any opportunities I could find.

One of my classmates had worked with my current coworker, Zack, at Firefly the summer before, and put me in contact with him. That summer, I volunteered doing accessibility at Firefly 2016, and immediately fell in love with the work. I worked with accessibility programs at three other festivals that summer, and since then it has been my main focus.

What are the biggest barriers to accessibility at festivals?

Festivals are unique because every event has different requirements and different challenges. The terrain could be paved, grass, gravel, or a combination of almost anything. The sizes of the venues vary greatly. The crowd sizes and attitudes vary greatly. Each event has its own barriers to accessibility.

One of the most common barriers we see is the terrain, whether it is a main pathway that is loose gravel; the festival actually takes place on the side of a mountain; the entire venue is on a sandy beach; or the main field is grass, and after a rainstorm it becomes very muddy. We’ve worked with it all, and we figure it out as we go. Each terrain presents its own challenges, but there is always a way to make it accessible.

Outside of that, for some festivals, the biggest barrier is budget. Accessibility programs can get expensive after accounting for staff, building viewing platforms, hiring interpreters, renting a wheelchair-accessible golf cart, etc. Especially for some of the smaller events that we have worked with, a big part of the initial conversation is cost. Just as I didn’t know anything about it before I worked in it, many festival organizers just don’t realize how important and integral the program is and what it takes to make it great, not just passable.

Can you share a bit about the similarities and differences between traditional venue accessibility and festival venue accessibility?

I don’t have as much experience with traditional venue accessibility, but I know it is much more standard and regulated. The ADA outlines specific measurements and requirements for permanent venues, including accessible pathways, seating, and restrooms.

Festivals, because they are temporary, don’t have as strict regulations. Some of these specifics can still be applied (e.g., ramp ratios, requirements for an accessible pathway, etc.). There are also requirements that cover certain areas for non-permanent areas—for example, a required number of ADA compliant porta-potties for each group of porta-potties—but many accommodations are not specifically required because of the nature of the event.

Good examples are actually a couple of festivals we have worked at before that take place partially in a permanent amphitheater. Camp Bisco and The Peach take place on Montage Mountain in Pennsylvania. These are unique not only because they are on a mountain but because part of the festival venue is a permanent amphitheater. In the amphitheater, because it is a permanent structure, there are existing accessible seating, pathway, and restroom accommodations. However, more than half of the venue is not in the amphitheater, so the accommodations do not already exist. In those areas, compliant restrooms, pathways, and viewing areas are added to make the entire venue accessible.

Have festivals been receptive to the work you do?

Festivals are almost always receptive to the work we do. A big reason many festivals look for someone with experience to take over their accessibility program is legal responsibility. This is mostly helpful to us, but it can also be a curse in disguise, because we work to accommodate more than just the legal requirements. Most festivals, once they decide to create a full program, want it to be as comprehensive as possible, within budget. That means we can cover legal requirements, but we can also push for more accessibility and consideration for the entire venue and event. Some events will look to make the minimum legal requirements work. With these, we make sure our presence on site is as helpful as possible to the guests, and we try to expand the program after the first year.

Have you seen accessibility improve over time from a logistical standpoint?

I really haven’t been doing this long enough to see a huge change. The biggest thing going on in the festival world is the big jump in popularity of this type of event over the last decade. It means that new festivals are popping up everywhere. I think the best improvement is really just awareness. Just like I wasn’t really aware of what went into making a festival accessible before I was immersed in it, I think many events had overlooked the importance of these programs. Now, especially with so much press about festivals throughout the year, positive stories about festival accessibility and more communication with the festival community have pushed more events toward better programs.

What should more festivals/events be thinking about when it comes to accessibility?

A big thing more festivals and events need to understand is that making your event accessible is not just making sure a wheelchair can get from one end to the other. Not all disabilities are visually identifiable! While the biggest part of most of our programs is still providing wheelchair and mobility accommodations, that is not the only thing to think about. Our goal is to give everyone an equal opportunity to enjoy the event. This includes more-common situations like someone who is deaf or hard of hearing needing an interpreter, or someone who is blind wanting a guided tour and a less-crowded space to be. This also includes less-common situations, like someone with PTSD asking what performances will have fireworks or other pyrotechnics, or a new mother who needs a private area to breastfeed or pump. Our job is to listen to anyone who is looking for accommodations and to figure out the best solution possible.

What is the best part of what you do?

The best part of what I do is definitely all of the connections I make with guests. Every event is different, but at music festivals, we all have a love for music in common. There are some weekends when I will meet 50 people, and I will never see any of them again. Then, there are some weekends when I will meet someone I continue to see at events year after year. I’ve learned so much about accessibility but also music, different parts of the country, and so much else through the people I meet at festivals.

What is the most challenging part of what you do?

I’m not actually sure what to say. Each event has its own challenges, but I think at this point, the hardest part is job security. Two coworkers and myself started our own company this year to provide these services directly through events, rather than contracting through someone else. The music festival industry is ever changing, so it’s as if each weekend is a new job. I spend a lot of time off at home trying to fill empty weekends in my schedule. That being said, even though this year has been exhausting and very busy, it has been an amazing learning experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Do you have any advice for those interested in accessibility services work?

Try it! Coming from someone who didn’t really know it existed until I was working in it, if you already know you’re interested in it, find a way to get involved. It’s amazing. There is so much to learn because every person’s situation is unique, and the best way to learn is from experience. Whether you are interested in festivals, accessible recreation, or just making your city/workplace/favorite park more accessible, find someone involved and reach out. In addition to that, just do the best you can to consider accessibility in your everyday life.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experiences with coordinating accessibility?

More than a work experience, the last few years have been a learning experience for me. I want to encourage every event, and everyone in their day-to-day life, to try to be aware of accessibility.

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