Over the years, organizers of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival have made the festival more accessible to patrons with disabilities. But a lawsuit filed this week in federal court contends that the festival hasn’t gone far enough.
Plaintiff Mitchell Miraglia is a quadriplegic who suffers from cerebral palsy and requires a wheelchair. His suit alleges that the festival has not fulfilled the requirements of a 2001 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. That agreement sought to bring the festival into compliance with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The suit cites a litany of specific infractions, from the number and location of reserved wheelchair spaces at various stages to the height and width of counters at craft, food and beer booths.
Attorney Andrew Bizer, whose firm represents Miraglia, said his client “is not trying to get money out of Jazz Fest — he’s not seeking damages. He just wants a better experience for all disabled folks.”
The suit lists the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the festival, and AEG Live, the national concert promoter that co-produces the festival, as defendants.
Quint Davis’ Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans, which co-produces the festival with AEG, is not named in the lawsuit.
Don Marshall, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s executive director, said he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit and could not comment on it.
Seventeen years ago, the festival launched the Jazz Fest Access Program to better accommodate people with disabilities or limited mobility. The program has gradually expanded over the years and has earned national recognition as a model for event accessibility.
Along the way, the festival site at the Fair Grounds has been altered to be more wheelchair-friendly. Recent improvements include a new access ramp at the Sauvage Street entrance crossing, a new crossing near the Economy Hall Tent that links to the infield’s interior walkways, new asphalt at the Big Chief entrance and an expanded accessible viewing area at the Gentilly Stage.
In addition, the festival’s handicapped “access center” near the Fair Grounds grandstand offers assisted-listening devices, service animal registration, maps of accessible toilets and a daily schedule of American Sign Language-interpreted performances.
But the suit says the festival’s efforts have fallen short.
“It’s great that they’ve started the process,” Bizer said. “But they’ve got a long way to go.”
Bizer’s law firm specializes in ADA-related cases. The firm sent an inspector to the 2016 Jazz Fest to collect specific data on alleged violations of ADA requirements.
Among the problems cited in the suit:
Some food service counters, performance stages and tents were not on an accessible route, so when crowds got large or it rained, the areas became impassable to patrons in wheelchairs. “If you want to get a soft-shell crab po-boy, you have to go through the dirt,” Bizer said. “After it rains, you can’t.”
The festival lacks “accessible routes” to several areas of the grass infield, including the Native Nations area and the Cultural Crossroads tent, as well as lawn viewing areas at the Acura, Congo Square, Gentilly, Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do and Jazz & Heritage stages.
The portable, handicap-accessible toilets had a width of 58 inches, two inches less than required.
The beer and soft drinks sales counters were too high, and several food service areas lacked tables accessible to patrons with disabilities.
Several stages didn’t have the required amount of wheelchair and companion spaces. The main Acura Stage should have 22 wheelchair spaces but has only six, the suit says. Also, the wheelchair seating spaces were not marked and were too far from the stage.
“If they added more and put some up front, that would be great,” Bizer said. “We would like for there to be some sort of pathway and a viewing area closer to the stage.”
The suit asks the court to declare Jazz Fest in violation of the ADA, order it to make changes to come into compliance, pay Miraglia’s legal fees and “award such other and further relief as it deems necessary, just and proper.”
Miraglia, the suit says, intends to return to Jazz Fest both as a patron and as an “ADA tester to determine whether the barriers to access ... have been remedied.”