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02 May 2016

Coachella/Stagecoach 2016: As the Festivals Grow, So Does the Job of Austin Whitney and the Americans With Disabilities Act Team

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Austin Whitney (pictured with Ophelia): "I wanted to help promoters build events that people with disabilities could enjoy, and not have anxiety when they purchase a ticket." Austin Whitney (pictured with Ophelia): "I wanted to help promoters build events that people with disabilities could enjoy, and not have anxiety when they purchase a ticket."

In 2013, I covered Coachella and Stagecoach for the first time for the Coachella Valley Independent—but I had concerns about doing so. In the fall of 2011, I suffered a serious back injury. As a result, I am unable to stand or sit for long periods of time.

Thankfully, while on site during Coachella in 2013, I discovered the services of Goldenvoice’s ADA department, which is in charge of accommodating guests with various disabilities. Three years later, the department is doing an ever-better job of doing so.

If you’ve attended either Coachella or Stagecoach, you may have seen Austin Whitney, of Accessible Festivals. Austin, in his wheel chair, is seemingly everywhere, and always with his service dog, Ophelia.

When I went to meet Whitney at one of the ADA platforms near the Mane Stage on Saturday evening during Stagecoach, he was handling an issue with an ADA wristband holder—with a smile on his face. As we went to find a place to chat, he talked to me about being from Berkeley, Calif., and about how seeing Rancid perform at Coachella was a highlight for him. As we made our way through the grounds, many people screamed his name—and a whole lot of people asked if they could pet Ophelia.

“I was in a car accident when I was 18,” Whitney said. “It severed my spinal cord and paralyzed me from the waist down. That really changed my life dramatically. At the time, my world was turned upside down. I had been very active in sports before that, and all my friends went off to college. My whole college plan was messed up. I was going to go to the University of Michigan, and there was no way after an injury like that.”

Despite the injury, he was determined to attend Coachella in 2008, because Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, was performing.

“It was the greatest show I ever saw in my life,” Whitney said. “At that show, it was one of the first places I found myself smiling. I was consumed by self-pity and hopelessness, and I felt that my life was over. Sitting in that crowd, enjoying that show, I didn’t think about my disability, and I didn’t think about this anxiety that consumed me about my future. I was living in the moment and being happy.

“I started going to a decent amount of music festivals after that. Having that to look forward to every two months throughout the season gave me something to look forward to when I needed something to look forward to during the first one to two years that were the roughest.”

His experiences led him to start working with festival promoters. He wanted to see them go above and beyond the legal requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act and focus on creating a truly enjoyable experience for those who had disabilities. He worked with Goldenvoice in 2011 and 2012, and he returned in 2016.

“(The year) 2011 was my first year at Coachella, and I started working for different promoters, and it kind of dawned on me: There’s a lot that could be done in terms of accommodations and people with disabilities. Other people I had been working with, they weren’t taking them into mind. I started law school at UC Berkeley at that time, and I was the only kind of person who had a legal background with that. The legal stuff doesn’t really matter: What I aim to do is really welcome people with disabilities and go beyond what’s considered ADA-compliant. It’s a very low bar with restrooms, parking and all of that stuff. I wanted to help promoters build events that people with disabilities could enjoy, and not have anxiety when they purchase a ticket.”

The department has to handle some complex and sensitive issues.

“We help everything between a 15-year-old with a broken foot to a 90-year-old with every conceivable health condition and an oxygen tank. We help folks who are hard of hearing, those who are deaf, those who are blind, those who are in wheelchairs, and (those with) various ailments and diseases. We deal with cancer and complications that come from illness, including skin conditions. Pregnancy isn’t a disability, but our services are helpful to a lot of folks, including those with late-term pregnancy; we put that under our umbrella and have a lot of patrons who are pregnant and offer our platforms to them—especially to those who go to Coachella because there are no chairs allowed.”

Whitney said Coachella and Stagecoach attendees noticed that the ADA team was a lot larger this year.

“It’s almost twice the size of the team we had last year,” he said. “These are people who love their job. One of the core elements of how we operate is to connect with people on a very human to human level—and that’s how you diffuse situations when they do arise. We also gave twice the amount of shuttle rides each weekend than were done last year. We have more carts going; I have eight or nine carts going right now. I have more people here to dedicate to what needs to get done.”

Whitney also added LED signs at each platform, making it easier for patrons to spot them. Doppler Labs was onsite offering patrons who are hard of hearing a pair of earplugs that can take in audio and be controlled with smartphones. Whitney said his team was offering guided tours to those with visual disabilities to help them make a mental map of the festival. A dietician was onsite to help those with dietary disabilities navigate among the food vendors. Finally, the department had a hotline phone number set up for the first time, which rang directly to Whitney or members of his staff—which took 160 calls a day.

At one point during Coachella, I watched as Whitney helped deal with chaos just before Ice Cube’s second-weekend performance. Both ADA platforms at the Coachella Stage were full—yet there was a huge line of attendees with ADA wristbands

“That was pretty crazy!” Whitney recalled. “We had 35 people who wanted to get on that platform before Ice Cube when Disclosure was performing. It was already pretty full—and then I had 35 people in line. If we didn’t help people get up there, they weren’t going to see the show.

“I know what it’s like if you can’t stand. If we can help, we will. If that means companions having to give up their seats and stand up, so be it. We got everyone on there, and that was a highlight for me and a personal accomplishment. I got awarded for that too, so it was great.”

Whitney said Goldenvoice has been supportive regarding those with disabilities, and he thinks things will improve even more during future festivals. He conceded there’s a lot of work left to do.

“Right now, we still have capacity issues on the platforms, and it’s crazy out there,” he said. “We have to work on viewing areas. We have the screens with the monitors with American Sign Language, but it has to be dialed in a lot more. I put a lot of attention during weekend 1 and 2 of Coachella doing disability-etiquette-training for security guards, and a huge amount of time is spent fixing mistakes out there with the security staff. They don’t need to be disability experts, but they need to understand when to reach out to us. Those are probably the big (changes) that we’re going to see. Also, (we’re working on) locking down our systems a little bit more and figuring out more innovative ways to get information out there for those with disabilities, whether that’s through social media or the packages with the wristbands that get sent out. After this event, I’ll do a full debrief with my staff to see what we can improve on.”

What advice does Whitney offer to those who are disabled and want to come to Coachella or Stagecoach?

Go to a music festival,” Whitney said with enthusiasm. “I’ve seen some folks who have more serious medical conditions than I can comprehend. I can find a solution to almost any accessibility issue if I know in advance. It’s a little more difficult if they just show up onsite. But if somebody has a specific concern, reach out to us. I’m fairly reachable by phone or e-mail, and this is what I do all the time. I can figure out a solution if there is a concern. I wouldn’t let someone’s disability stop them from experiencing something awesome like that Ice Cube show.” 

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