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An autism-friendly music festival

Simon Turner, parent of an autistic teenager, discusses why, and how, they organised A Different World Festival, an autism-friendly music festival in Reading which takes place on August 6 2016.

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Author: Simon Turner

A different kind of music festival

Everyone should be able to have as many life experiences as possible, and these days going to a music festival has almost become a rite of passage.  Sadly there is a large part of the population that misses out on these life experiences due to having an additional need.  As a society we need to look to change this and make the inaccessible accessible.  So we started with a music festival……

How it began

It was inspired by our 15 year old son with autism.  We live in Reading and every year there is the Reading Festival.  A couple of years ago my son’s favourite artist was playing and he commented that he wished he could go, but with a capacity of over 90,000 people, booming music and the general hustle and bustle of such an event, he knew it wasn’t possible. Fast forward a few weeks and on a train back from London (having been to see another type of live music event) we began to ruminate about relaxed theatre performances, and the seed of a more relaxed type of music festival was sown. 

Aims

Our aim is simple:  To organise a music festival that is fully accessible for anyone with an additional need, be it a physical disability, learning disability or otherwise.

What we did

We needed to look at the problems with mainstream festivals and what prevented people with disabilities from going.  Obviously every person has something different that they will struggle with, but from our son’s point of view it was:

  • loud music
  • too many lights
  • too many people in a tight space
  • no quiet areas. 

We looked at all of this and took the steps below to make it more ‘user friendly’:

  • music not uncomfortably loud
  • no flashing lights or pyrotechnics – just soft on stage lighting
  • plenty of room to move enabling people to bring chairs/blankets to sit on
  • flat even ground for wheelchair users
  • chillout/sensory area away from the music for quiet time
  • Festival Friends – easily identifiable individuals (who will have a special needs background) dotted around the site to help or recognise anyone that may need help
  • a dog stop for assistance dogs

Overcoming problems

Our main problem has been funding or lack of it!!  Despite applying to several trusts and organisations, those that didn’t just ignore us said no!  We had cancelled the festival at some point as we felt we were not getting anywhere.   We continued to look at funding options and then a spark of interest!  I had put an application in with our local council to be part of their Year of Culture.  Every month throughout 2016 different cultural events are being held. 

We applied to be part of August – festival month.  After a bit of tussling about the fact they wanted us to change the venue (we said no), then saying they would only offer us half of what we’d applied for (soon sorted that!) we not only got some money from them to pay for our stage but also the council have told us what a fantastic idea it is and want to run it in partnership with us an annual event.   However at the time of writing our ticket sales still need a bit of a boost!

Positives and going forward

We have been on an amazing path in getting this festival off the ground.  We have met and spoken to some fantastic people.  The feedback from the disability community has been more than we could have hoped for, with many people saying they have been waiting for an event like this. We have several groups who want to make it a day-out and bring a large group of people.

The artists/musicians that are performing are all well aware of our audience and have been very gracious in not charging us for their performances.  One of our musicians said ‘it’s important to get your music out to everyone’.  We continue to get emails from bands asking to be on the bill.

The future

Our aim, and indeed our dream, is to turn this into an annual event, learning as we go and listening to our festival goers so we can continually improve the event for years to come.

Further information

A Different World Festival, Facebook

Date added: 16 June 2016