We have attended Bluesfest several times (Tragically Hip, Crowded House, The Killers, Cypress Hill! to name a few) and have always enjoyed it. The last time we went, I was living with ALS and it was difficult with the crowds, parking etc. I noticed the wheelchair section, however, it was off to the side, people are penned in like cattle and are only allowed one friend (they call it companion). Instead, I wanted a way to make Dave Matthews a special experience.
I learned about a VIP section, where you pay double the ticket price, however, have room to move around and have your own bar and bathrooms. So I called Bluesfest directly and asked about wheelchair accessibility in the VIP zone. The person on the phone informed me that although the reserved seating section is not accessible, the "standing room" part is, and that they would have staff who would find me a spot where I could see the stage. I thought great, freedom to move around, allowed to have more than one friend and a VIP experience, perfect!
Travis had a friend who upgraded her festival pass so she could join us in the VIP section, and I had a friend I was hoping to say hello to in general admission.
We made our way to the VIP Tent and explained our situation to the people at the gates, they gave us both accessible wristbands as well as VIP wristbands and stated that there was a wheelchair platform in the VIP zone and assured me having another friend was no problem. They let us know that the platform was first come first serve and that if I wanted to save my place, not to leave.
We found a spot, staff brought over two chairs for Travis and our friend, and chatted happily for TWO hours (mindful of the fact I was told not to leave, I didn't want to lose our spot), waiting for the concert to begin.
As soon as Dave Matthews started performing a staff member approached us and told my friend that she couldn't be there as I was only allowed 1 companion. We explained that we had called ahead of time, Bluesfest staff at the VIP gates told us where to go and that staff on the platform brought over chairs and we had no problem for the past two hours. Of course, there was plenty of room on the platform behind us for more wheelchairs. She stated that she needed my friend's chair for another wheelchair companion. Travis took her aside to explain our situation further and found another chair for the other person! She told Travis that despite what other staff told us, she had been there for 15 years so she was right. As soon as another wheelchair came on the platform, she told my friend she had to leave. I wasn't about to have her attend alone when she spent extra money to be with us, so the three of us left the platform to go on the grass in front of it.
We noticed cocktail style tables and stools where some very boisterous, drunken festival attendees were and Travis asked if we could use one of their stools. As soon as they saw me, they generously put us in front of them to make sure I could see. Point being, drunken people were much kinder than the staff!
Now we are at about the 4th song and another staff member in a grey shirt approaches us claiming to be the head of accessibility issues. I thought to myself "what great service, someone noticed what happened and is coming to fix the situation", so I tell her what happened, and with a blank stare she states "I'm not sure about any of that, but I noticed your wheelchair and you aren't supposed to be in the VIP zone". Caught off guard, we stare blankly at her, and she states "your husband doesn't have the wristband". Travis lifts his wrist and shows her both his wristbands. "Well, I need to see your tickets". Ummm, okay so you are telling us you think we snuck out of the wheelchair section to be in the VIP zone, and I guess stole some wristbands??? I show her my tickets and ask her about what we've been through. "I can't do anything about that, write a letter" she states. She leaves, and I break into tears, embarrassed, and publicly shamed!
I've said it before and I'll say it again, don't complain without being a part of the solution! Don't expect others to do for you, if you want something to change, be a part of that change!
So of course I wrote to Bluesfest, the Dave Matthews Band, and seeing as the Ottawa Citizen is one of Bluesfest's biggest sponsors, my friend Kelly Egan of the Ottawa Citizen who has written multiple articles on my struggle with ALS. I have included my letter below if you are interested.
I was happy that the Executive Director of Bluesfest, Mark Monahan, personally called me upon receiving my letter. He offered to refund my ticket and offered me a free ticket to Cityfolk. I had attended Cityfolk last year (it is much more chilled than Bluesfest!) and commented on the fact that I appreciated that I could bring an attendant for free. Mr. Monahan then informed me that for Bluesfest, your companion gets the VIP Zone for the price of a regular ticket. I couldn't believe it, then why wasn't I told that when I called asking about VIP Zone and wheelchair accessibility? Why did we pay full price for VIP if we didn't have to? And why, oh why, when we ended up in the VIP Zone off the platform, were we told we didn't belong there because we had a wheelchair? Why is this not written anywhere on the website? I think this is a policy that nobody knows about!
I explained to Mr. Monahan that while Bluesfest makes an attempt at accessibility, people with disabilities do not have the same rights (Equity vs. Equality). An able bodied person may also lose their spot if they move, however, chances are they will be able to find another spot to see the stage from. So how about creating a space where people with disabilities are allowed more than one friend (as other attendees can have, equity!), and can move around? A simple solution, have more than one wheelchair platform! Also, how about training the staff, especially those in the disability section, a lesson on compassion.
Instead of a free ticket to Cityfolk, I asked if he would be willing to donate a Bluesfest Pass to our Curling for Carol Bonspiel in March, which we could raffle off to raise money for ALS Canada, and he agreed (I also invited him to bring a team)!
So despite the fact that we had a ruined bucket list experience, I'm stoked for the raffle prize, and take it as a win.
I also offered to be a voice for those with disabilities for those attending Bluesfest next year, whether it is training staff, or organizational issues, so hopefully others will be treated with dignity and have an awesome festival experience, despite their disability.
...I'm still waiting to hear from Dave Matthews...
Cc: Mark Monahan, Dave Matthews, Kelly Egan (Ottawa Citizen)
My name is Carol. I am 46 years old. I am in a wheelchair and living with ALS, a terminal, neurodegenerative disease, which progresses as I lose all muscle function in my body.
I am married to Travis, a South African, and a caregiver to me. He is loving and supportive to me during all of the devastating challenges we face.
I was thrilled to be able to take him to see a bucket list concert for both of us, The Dave Matthews Band.
As I had been to Bluesfest before, I was aware of the wheelchair section and policy of only being allowed 1 friend. I also don’t like to feel trapped and penned in like cattle so wanted the freedom to move around.
So this year I called in advance and discussed with staff the Metropolitain VIP Zone. I was told that the reserved seating zone is not accessible, however, the party zone is, and that there would be staff who would help to place me in an area where I could see the stage, and I would not be limited to being with only 1 person.
My husband and I had 1 friend who upgraded her pass to be able to be with us in the VIP Zone. When we arrived, we discussed our situation with the staff at the VIP gates and they assured us that 3 of us wouldn’t be a problem and that there was a wheelchair platform in the VIP Zone. They also told me to not move once I get my place as it is first come first serve basis and if I left, I would give up my spot.
Staff on the platform sat us and brought over 2 chairs, one for my husband and one for our friend. All three of us had accessibility wristbands as well as VIP wristbands. We stayed in our spot with no problem for 2 hours.
As soon as the concert began, a staff I had not seen before came up to us and told us that my friend could not be there as I was only allowed 1 friend. My friend had on an accessibility wristband. I informed the staff member that the Bluesfest staff in the purple shirts had put us there, and that I had called before I bought my VIP tickets to ensure that this was possible. She told me I misunderstood. I told her I was just doing what the Bluesfest staff advised me to do, all of this happening as Dave Matthews was singing so we were missing the concert. Then the staff member said she needed our chair as there were none left. There were 3 stacks of chairs sitting at the tent in front of us. She told my friend to leave, although there was plenty of room for more wheelchairs behind us. So the three of us left. After spending 2 hours waiting on the platform with no issues.
In and amongst the crowd (where I could not see) in the VIP section, another Bluesfest staff came along wearing a grey shirt and stated that she was in charge of accessibility issues. I thought she was there to discuss what happened, that I was literally thrown out of the wheelchair section. She basically told me she didn’t care and that she noticed my wheelchair and wheelchair people aren’t allowed in the VIP section. She said my husband didn’t have the proper wristband. He did as he had on both the yellow accessibility wristband as well as the yellow VIP wristband as we all did. I guess she didn’t believe us because she asked to see my tickets, which I showed her. Being the head of accessibility issues, as she claimed, I thought she would care about our situation, but she didn’t and told me to write a letter. I felt publicly humiliated and spent the rest of the concert in tears.
Living with ALS is extremely difficult. I had chosen Dave Matthews as I only have enough energy for 1 concert. I purchased Museum parking and VIP tickets to reduce any stress and difficulty I might encounter. I was anxious about attending the event all day, but I was looking forward to providing my husband with a dream concert.
I did everything the Bluesfest staff told me to, from the first phone call in which I was told to buy VIP tickets and never told that a wheelchair section was literally in the VIP Zone. In the end, I felt like a second-class citizen, “separate but equal”. I do not have the same rights as other concert attendees, and was shamed publicly.
You turned our dream come true into a nightmare and have increased my already heightened anxiety about going out into crowds. I already have a limited life and you are taking more away from me.