In 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act (subsequently amended by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005) allegedly heralded a new beginning for persons with disabilities. The Acts laid down a statutory framework within which obligations were placed on many bodies and organisations to be mindful of the multiplicity of needs that must be taken into account when planning events of a public nature.

In 2003, for the first time, the Directors of the Big Green Gathering endeavoured to address this question. The needs of people with Disabilities had for some time been endeavoured to be addressed by a number organisations putting on outdoor festivals. For example, the Glastonbury Festival has for several years had a dedicated camping area and viewing platforms in the main arenas.

The Directors therefore recruited a team of volunteers, set aside a dedicated camping area and gave a budget to maintain and run the area for the duration of the festival. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, this did not work. The days prior to the festival saw the heaviest rainfall in many years, leaving the site waterlogged and muddy. It was extremely difficult for anyone to get around the site and virtually impossible for anyone with mobility problems or in a wheelchair.

The Festival site lay fallow for the next year to give the land an opportunity to recover. Subsequent to this, in the run up to the 2005 Festival, the Directors decided that in addition to merely fulfilling the provisions of the Act, they would endeavour to surpass these provisions and attempt to make the Big Green Gathering 2005 a beacon in terms of its provisions for Disabled People.

A dedicated team of volunteers was recruited with two co-ordinators. All the volunteers had experience of Disability or working with people with Disabilities. The initial point of reference was extensive consultation with Disabled people who had been at previous Big Green Gatherings or other Festivals to look at the needs.

In the interim, whilst this process was taking place, extensive drainage work and work on laying new paths across the site was taking place in order to ensure that should the weather be as bad as in 2003, the site should not become waterlogged and would remain accessible throughout.

The Needs

  • Clean, plentiful wide access toilets on the site
  • Safe Secure level Camping
  • Wide Access Showers
  • Wheelchair battery charging points
  • Central Information Point
  • Somewhere safe and dry in the event of extreme weather conditions

The Directors selected the flattest piece of land on the farm site, adjacent to the farm house and near to welfare and other services for the provision. They also agreed to provide a marquee for shelter/information/ with electricity for wheelchair battery charging. Eventually, after a great deal of difficulty, wheel-chair accessible showers were sourced, and the site was surveyed to ensure that all areas of the Festival had wide access toilets.

As tickets went on sale, the telephone numbers and contact address of the co-ordinators of the provision were made available to people applying for concessionary tickets. Immediately there was a vast amount of interest, and the co-ordinators were inundated with queries from many people with a plethora of different needs and questions.
The Festival was open to the public from Wednesday 3rd August to Sunday 7th. The Volunteer Crew for the field, which by this time had been named the Green Access Mobility Area (GAMA), as everyone wanted to get away from the connotations of the “Disabled Field”, arrived on site from the previous Saturday and began to attempt to create an acceptable and welcoming space within the Festival.

By Wednesday, as the general public arrived at the festival, the GAMA Field had been transformed. It was fenced. It was laid out in designated camping areas for each tent/vehicle, with clearly marked wheelchair access lanes. Tents were to be erected so that they were entered from the access lanes. They were also to be erected in such a fashion to ensure that guy ropes did not protrude into the access lanes causing a hazard to the visually impaired or to users of walking sticks. Cars were parked in such a fashion as to ensure easy evacuation of the site should this be necessary, and a risk assessment decision was taken not to have individual campfires on the site.

Two communal fire pits and seating were built adjacent to the marquee, which meant that this provision could be constantly monitored. The marquee was decorated and an information point and access to tea and coffee provided. The latter was extremely welcome. Three wide access toilets had been installed as had an easy access shower with constant hot water.

As people arrived on the site, they were greeted, offered tea or coffee, and then give assistance with parking, erection of tents, site maps and general information about the site, access, the location of wide access toilets throughout the rest of the festival site and information about the availability of electric points for charging wheelchair batteries/ All of this information was most welcomed by the majority of people who had chosen to camp with us.

At this stage, a very interesting and positive phenomenon arose. Several people had arrived with families and friends who were camping on other parts of the Festival, for example in the travellers camping area. They had thought that they would probably not be able to camp with their friends because of limited access to facilities. However, on learning that we intended to keep the facilities of the GAMA field such as access to battery charging, showers etc. open until the festival closed around 1 a.m. each morning, they decided that they were confident enough to camp elsewhere. As a consequence, one of our busiest times was between 1 and 2 a.m. when people who were camping with friends or family went to bed and sent their wheelchairs over to the GAMA field to be recharged. A similar situation arose in the morning when friends or family members came to the GAMA field to collect the fully charged wheelchairs to take them back to where the owners were camping. One wheelchair user commented that this was the first Festival that she had ever been to where she had this freedom. Another young man expressed the view that this was the first time that he had been at a Festival where he could stay out until everything finished at night secure in the knowledge that when he got up next morning his wheelchair would be safe and he had no worries about his batteries running out of electricity.

People were also extremely impressed that the GAMA field had accessible hot showers. One man, a regular festival goer, had been unable to camp for many years at festivals as he needed accessible showers on a daily basis. As consequence he had only been able to come to Festivals on a daily basis. On seeing the showers and the toilets on the site, he sent his family home to get their camping equipment and for the first time in many years was able to fully enjoy the Festival experience.
Several members volunteer group of the GAMA field were experienced youth workers adept at running a variety of creative craft workshops. They had designed a programme of daily workshops based around construction, painting, costume making and jewellery making. In spite of the availability of a great deal of activity elsewhere in the Festival, these proved to be extremely popular. They culminated on the Sunday, when a brightly dressed and colourful procession together with a horse drawn cart left the GAMA field and went up to the children’s field to participate in the procession and end of festival party. A great time was had by all.

One dilemma highlighted by a number of people who had attended previous Big Green Gatherings was the fact that after dark people with limited mobility have very little to do mainly because of the difficulty of the terrain of what is in essence a working farm and the lack of lighting. As a consequence, the volunteers decided that they would ask bands performing at the festival if they would be prepared to perform in the GAMA marquee. The response was splendid.
On the first evening, we had a performance of deaf poetry followed by a band “The Don Bradmans”. One woman commented later that she had been feeling extremely isolated from the festival. Her carers finished at 10 p.m. and she was alone in her tent. She said that she was upset that she couldn’t go to the festival and said “then suddenly the Festival came to me!” This happened every night at the Festival and many people who had not been dancing at night for a long time were able to do so. Families with children also appreciated the fact that they could do this. The evening performances were a great success, as were the camp fires and outside seating where people sat up to the early hours enjoying themselves.

Another great asset to the GAMA field was the access to horse drawn taxis across the site. Two women who suffered from M.E. were unable to walk any distance without feeling excessively tired. The volunteers were able to book a horse drawn taxi exclusively for their use for most of the day. The taxi took them all over the Festival site, where they were able to shop, dine and see all that the Festival had to offer. Both commented that this day out made the Festival for them both.
One perennial problem encountered at Festivals and highlighted in consultation prior to the Big Green Gathering was the general state of wide access toilets, which are often used by those who could use other facilities. As a consequence, they very quickly become unusable. In order to avoid this, the volunteer group set up a rota of “Toilet Fairies” who inspected every wide access toilet on the site every hour throughout the day, and if they needed emptying or cleaning liaised with the toilet company to ensure that this was done. This worked extremely well and was much appreciated and commented on by many people.

The above are just a small number of examples of how the provisions of the GAMA field enhanced the Festival going experience for a great many people.
On the last day of the Festival a meeting was held in the Marquee where everyone who had camped in the GAMA field or who had used the facilities was invited to comment on what had happened and to suggest improvements for future events. The feedback was extremely positive with the general overriding feeling that what had been attempted was unique in Festival provision and was extremely appreciated by all concerned. Many friendships and contacts had been made and overall the Big Green Gathering 2005 had been a most positive experience for people who had in the past had difficulties in enjoying festivals to the full.

A great many comments were made about future provisions for the GAMA field. These included more access to Signers (we had two), more seating on the festival site so that people who had difficulty walking could rest frequently, better tracking on the main pathways, more consideration to access needs in venues and cafes and consideration of relocation of the GAMA field to a more central location. A large number of offers of help for the next Big Green Gathering were received including Massage Workshops, D.J. Workshops for the Deaf run by a young woman with profound hearing difficulties, Shiatsu and many other things. Addresses and contact numbers were exchanged and the whole meeting finished a happy and positive note.

We are all convinced that what we have endeavoured to achieve at this year’s Big Green Gathering will be better next time and will become a permanent fixture both at the Big Green and other festivals.

Notes

  • The age range of the GAMA field went from 3 months old (a baby with brain damage who was cared for in gama by his parents.); to an 80 year old couple, the husband was deaf and the wife could not walk. They felt happy and safe within the gama field, and know they would be cared for in any emergency .
  • Attendance Numbers – 2005 – there were 79 disabled vehicle passes issued (based on production of the disability blue badge). There were approx. 300 people camping in the gama area – disabled adults, disabled children, their carers and their families. There were also other people with disabilities (approx) around 30) who were camped in other areas of the festival but linked in with gama and used their facilities – eg wheelchair battery recharging, accessible showers, information and support

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