Richard Kilberg had a tough decision to make.
The 68-year-old music lover from New York found himself using a wheelchair unexpectedly right before the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
“I was bummed, and I wasn’t going to come at all,” Kilberg said.
He chose to attend and was pleased by the Jazz Fest’s network of asphalt track, accessible ramps, viewing areas and restroom facilities. “It’s been great,” he said. “It’s incredibly easy.”
The Jazz Fest Access Program has become a model for event access planning, and it continues to grow every year, said Molly Cozad, the festival’s access program coordinator.
“Every year, we have more and more people using our program, and everyone has different needs,” Cozad said. “We want to make the festival accessible to everyone.”
During the first weekend, patrons could be seen utilizing some of new features, like a new access ramp at the Sauvage entrance crossing and an additional crossing at the Economy Hall stage that meets asphalt on the inner track for a smooth transition.
The Big Chief entrance has new asphalt, too, and there’s an expanded accessible viewing area at the Gentilly Stage. It’s raised, right next to the Big Chief viewing platform.
The access program began as the brainchild of event planner Laura Grunfeld, human resources director for Jazz Fest in the 1980s and ‘90s. Concerned about fairness and equality since she was a child, Grunfeld was the natural go-to person for staff and patron questions regarding access at the fest for people with disabilities.
“Everyone should be invited to the fun stuff,” said Grunfeld, now the owner of the business Everyone’s Invited, which helps make outdoor festivals easier for all patrons. “I’m a big proponent of universal design, and of another concept: universal inclusion.”
She began with small things, like making a list of all the things Jazz Fest already had: which stages had sign-language interpreters, for example, and where accessible toilets and ramps were located.
Seventeen years later, the Jazz Fest Access Program is an award-winning, nationally recognized plan that ensures older festival-goers and those with disabilities can enjoy the festival as much as other patrons.
Judith Starks, who is 76, said she was impressed with this year’s improvements.
“It’s much easier than it used to be,” Starks said on Sunday, maneuvering her motorized wheelchair out of the People’s Heath Economy Hall Tent and over to the Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent.
Starks has gone to the festival for several years and called the changes “gradual.” She said she appreciated the paved roadways, finding them much better than hard-to-maneuver sand.
There’s also a bus service for wheelchair transport, accessible parking, reserved seating and accessible entry gates, including an expedited bag-check line.
The festival has an access center near the grandstand, complete with large print and braille copies of the guide, assisted listening devices, service animal registration, maps of accessible toilets and a daily schedule of American Sign Language-interpreted performances.
Still, some festgoers saw room for improvement.
“Maybe they could make some bypass lanes,” said John Craine on the first weekend of the festival, as crowds thickened for acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. “It’s so hard to navigate on the field.”
Cozad said the staff works hard to absorb criticism and improve the system. Suggestions made by festival-goers are considered for following years, she said, to see if further changes are possible.
Making it seamless for all festival-goers, Grunfeld added, was always the goal.
“Everybody needs to do things they’re passionate about,” Grunfeld said. “And festival-goers are really passionate.”