After years of rancor, organizers of the Berkeley Free Folk Festival and members of the Commission on Disability are finally working together to make the annual event more accessible to disabled individuals.
At a special meeting at the North Berkeley Senior Center on July 26, about 20 people discussed ways to improve the organization of the festival by increasing public access and intensifying the outreach efforts to the disabled community.
“The meeting that we had was the first time in many years that everybody sat down together to talk about the problems,” said Karen Craig, chairperson of the Disability and Outreach Committee.
“It was positive because there were many people giving ideas to the folk festival on how to handle events where people with disabilities are going to be.”
The problem of accessibility at the festival has been an ongoing issue. First organized at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 1606 Bonita Ave., the festival was moved to Ashkenaz, on San Pablo Avenue near Gilman Street, last year.
The club had just spent $11, 000 to bring the building into conformity with the American With Disabilities Act and appeared to be much more accessible than the church. But problems persisted. Peni Hall, a disabled Berkeley resident who attended the festival last November said that because of the popularity of the event, she had serious problems moving around inside the club.
“It was obvious that they had done some work, but there were still a lot of problems,” she said. “The main performance room, when there were not too many people, was fine. But when the crowd got there it became gridlock.” Hall particularly recalls being stuck for 15 minutes in a narrow hallway crowded with a couch, musical instruments and a baby carriage.
Like many disabled people in Berkeley, she thinks that because the city sponsors the festival, it should make sure that everyone can attend.
Experiences like Hall’s, Craig said, are the reason why it is critical to continue working with the festival organizers and city officials.
Making the event fully accessible, she said, is not only the organizer’s responsibility.
“It’s up to us too,” she said. “It’s a matter of educating the public and the people who put on events on how to do it.”
This year as part of the festival, activities will take place at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House, at 1111 Addison St., considered more accessible than Ashkenaz.
But Craig and others,
including Councilmember Kriss Worthington, wish the festival were completely relocated to a larger and fully accessible venue. John Selawsky, a school board member, is currently looking into the possibility of moving the festival to one of the Berkeley schools.
Other people, however, believe it is unlikely to happen by November.
“It would be very hard to make a lot of changes aside from making arrangements with the spaces which they are already committed to for this year,” said Alan Senauke, a musician who attended the meeting. “I imagine they are going to be looking at other venues in the future.”
Suzie Thompson, festival director, was not available for comment Tuesday.
Meanwhile, organizers promised at the meeting to take significant measures to increase Ashkenaz’s accessibility.
“We heard very clearly what some of the members of the Commission on Disability were saying about the problems in a place such as Ashkenaz, which has some physical limitations,” said Ashkenaz General Manager Allan Katz. “We will get together with members of the disabled community to know how to deal with a large crowd.”
Ashkenaz plans, for instance, to have personnel to assist disabled individuals and monitor the traffic inside the club during the performances. It will also designate reserved seating for people with disabilities and have interpreters for deaf people.