Love music festivals, but hate inaccessibility of outdoor venues – have a look at an initiative by a young musician turned music festival promoter in the UK passionate about creating “wholly accessible” venues.
When Paul Belk took a break after the first year of a music degree at Newcastle University in 2005 to go backpacking in Asia, he was a fit, athletic 20-year-old. His ambition was to be a drummer and he played in a number of bands in his hometown of South Shields in Tyneside. However, within weeks of arriving in Thailand, Belk was in hospital in a coma with a prognosis of a 2% chance of living. It transpired that his drink had been spiked in a bar and, after slipping into unconsciousness, his brain had been starved of oxygen. When Belk came out of the coma, while his cognitive functions were intact, he needed to use a wheelchair and moved into Chase Park rehabilitation centre, in Gateshead.
Belk says the festival is “for the whole community and it gives us an opportunity to increase wider understanding around accessibility issues”. He insists that the last thing he ever expected was to become a campaigner, but that finding a way to combine his love of music with accessibility has been “inspiring”. Belk committed to putting accessibility on the agenda, starting with making Chase Park the first music festival fully accessible to persons with a disability. Problems at most music festivals include accessibility to stage areas when, for example, poor weather creates muddy conditions that make it difficult to use a wheelchair. At Chase Park, Whickham, which held its inaugural free one-day festival August 2011, special raised track ways were used. This allows people to get to the stage area whatever the weather. In addition, there was a drop-off point that aids access to the stage and to specialised mobility equipment should it be needed.
By tapping into contacts he had in the music scene across the north-east of England, developing relationships with local charities, and forging links with groups campaigning for greater access to mainstream festivals, Belk found a vocation he could channel his energies into.
“There’s nothing else like this out there,” he says. Beyond Chase Park, Belk believes more could be done to make mainstream festivals accessible. He acknowledges that there is clear evidence of efforts being made by mainstream events organisers, including those that provide disabled campsites that have their own entrances. But, he says, it remains a challenge to introduce widespread changes at non-disabled events.
“A lot has been done already but there could be more; for example to help people with complex disabilities,” says Belk. “I’m hoping Chase Park will show them what the gold standard should be.”