Download Festival: do accessibility and heavy metal mix?

The sun is finally starting to shine! Is summer on its way? It’s time, therefore, to start thinking about festivals. So we thought we’d speak to Mark Carew. He’s a 23-year-old Psychology PhD student from Canterbury, who last year went to Download Festival, and here tells us about his experience of the disabled viewing platform. 

Navigating through the mud, moshing with heavy metal fans and the craziness of a festival is hard enough without bringing along a little thing like cerebral palsy as well. That’s why accessibility is of paramount importance to disabled music lovers like me who attend these events. However, my experience of a disabled viewing platform at Download Festival 2012 caused me to question whether accessibility is the only thing needed.

Download Festival 2012 - Disability accessWe arrived early in the morning and most of my friends made a beeline for the most popular bands. However, being more of a curious sort, I wandered around and saw some of the smaller acts with a similarly minded partner in crime.

We decided to go to the main viewing platform in mid-afternoon so I could rest, but I found that my friend was denied entry as she did not have the right sort of ticket. It turned out that she needed a carer/PA ticket, even though this is strictly inaccurate given that her level of care stretches to buying me the occasional cup of coffee! The steward suggested she could stand on the other side of the railing and talk to me through it, the thought of which made us both feel very uncomfortable.

While disabled people do sometimes need extra care, this can often be provided by a friend or family member. I was really surprised that the platform didn’t operate under a simple +1 policy to reflect this.

Nevertheless, I found myself sitting next to the railing in prime position to talk with my friend on the other side and receive a pint through the bars each time she made a trip into the thronging masses.

Each time she was away, I wondered about the festival experience people were having on the platform and how closely it matched that of the able-bodied revellers below us. Sure, I could see the bands (even though the platform was situated quite far back from the stage) but were we enjoying the same atmosphere as others?

Looking around at others on the platform, I saw a young man slip a hand into his pocket and pull out a can of cider, thus adhering to the age old festival motto of: “if it’s banned make sure you bring it along.” However, after a couple of swigs, a steward noticed this and removed his can. Yet, drinking personal supplies of alcohol (and worse!) was going on unregulated in the arena.

Moreover, the atmosphere was strangely subdued compared to the crowds below; except for a few pockets of headbanging resistance. Initially, I couldn’t fathom why. There I was surrounded by grizzled metal fans with viper tattoos and crazy biker thread. These guys evidently knew how to have a good time. Yet, there seemed to be an unspoken expectation that the disabled viewing platform wasn’t somewhere where people could really party.

Download Festival 2012A glance over my shoulder afforded me the sight of the V.I.P viewing platform for customers of a popular phone company. A towering behemoth compared to our area, it was surrounded by queues. People were waiting to get on not because they had the accessibility needs but out of choice.

Then it hit me. Our little viewing platform wasn’t considered a cool place to be; especially given that it was situated so far away from the main stage and in the shadow of the bigger platform just behind us.

In considering the needs of disabled visitors, I got the impression that Download Festival focused solely on accessibility. In doing so, they had forgotten the very reason why we attend these events: to have fun.

I think that’s why our steward hadn’t wondered if his advice to us might not be offensive. His primary concern was that I was looked after by a carer, not that I had a truly memorable time with a friend.

As such, I found the festival both fun and fully accessible but certainly different for me attending as a disabled person. Apart from the unfortunate physical segregation from my friend, I also felt psychologically isolated from the festival goers below.

I am not sure whether my experience is a common one or what can be done to better balance the dual needs of accessibility and enjoyment.

Perhaps, in addition to accessibility, organisers could consider ways to best replicate the festival spirit in disabled-only areas. Of course, the onus is also on disabled attendees to take advantage of the festival atmosphere and really let our hair down!

By Mark Carew

Check out…

Reading Festival: how accessible is it?
Gilbey Films: showcasing disabled access.
Wing walking with Duchenne: realising a dream.

Let us know about your experiences at festivals by emailing us at, tweeting us at @DHorizons or messaging us on Facebook.

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