For the first time in its 30 year history, 100 percent of the venues for the Halifax Jazz Festival are accessible thanks in part to the guidance of a local activist.
Former professional bass player, Paul Vienneau, was first introduced to the festival as a performer in 1988. It wasn’t until a bicycling accident years later that he realised there was a problem with the way many concert venues were operating.
“The way jazz festivals have gone in the last bunch of years, there’s less sort of sit down, formal jazz and its more like Dr. John where people get up and dance,” said Vienneau.
“You get a lot of people dancing around there in a close space. Put a wheelchair in there, it can be dangerous but its also kind of scary to get bumped around.”
He began contacting the festival about making changes to their venue, particularly stage access, in 2001. He said it took seven years to hear back, and even then the solution was to install a “very” steep ramp, one that took three men to get him on stage.
It wasn’t until a few months ago when he got in touch with Andrea Dawson Thomas, the new executive director of the Halifax Jazz Festival, that things began to happen.
“I went to them and asked would you be interested in making the Jazz Festival an accessible festival for the first time and they were interested right from the start,” said Vienneau.
In consultation with Vienneau, festival organisers began devising a plan to revamp the main waterfront venue that included a new accessible viewing platform, wheelchair-friendly cable covers and accessible portalets, along with a disability services booth to assist concert-goers requiring a little extra help.
Danny Thomas, technical director for the Halifax Jazz Festival technical director said he’s worked with many other festivals and concerts in Ontario where accessible venues are already the norm. He said he was more than happy to bring that level of accessibility to Halifax.
“We called Paul and asked him to consult with us on things we could do to basically make the site more accessible and prioritise some of it as well,” said Thomas, adding that making a venue accessible can oftentimes cost a lot less than organisers may think.
“A lot of people that do have accessibility issues, they can’t go to everything and they can’t get out that often. So to be able to offer them this… I mean, music is therapy,” he said.
“[For people] to be able to come and do this and see it and not be restricted in anyway and be in a very comfortable environment, it just is really important to us.”
Vienneau said doing this kind of activist work isn’t a selfish endeavour, but rather something he hopes will benefit generations of music lovers to come.
“In twenty years people aren’t even going to remember my name but they’re going to be able to take for granted all the things that everyone else gets to take advantage of,” he said.
“For the first time in my life I feel like I’m actually doing work that actually means something.”
He said there’s still more work to be done, adding that next year he hopes the festival will work to secure a partnership to have American Sign Language interpreters for all venues.
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