When communities across the globe realized the impact of the pandemic, workplace safety measures changed overnight. To protect bodies and minds, many professional fields transitioned online, enabling employees to work from home. Facing social and governmental pressure, employers were forced to reconsider what work looks like.
When able-bodied people sought accessibility measures, the entire world shifted to accommodate them. But historically, this has not been the case for people with disabilities. Not only workplaces, but many areas of societal participation are constructed according to the preferences of able-bodied people — including music festivals.
Inclusion Festival, the United States’ first and only sensory-friendly music and wellness festival, seeks to challenge that, and provide a widely-accessible space that showcases best practices for industries in and out of music. This year, the festival occurred online from August 21–23, and will be re-streamed from September 18–20.
The festival began in 2018, after co-founders Amy Pinder and Lean Barron met at a music festival. Both Pinder and Barron work in special education, and realized they shared the same dream: to reimagine the recreational spaces they love in ways that could welcome people of all abilities.
“We realized how much potential there is to connect and inspire others and facilitate understanding in recreational spaces, particularly ones where music is present,” Pinder says. “Music is a universal language all humans can connect to.”
The festival’s first two iterations prioritized making an in-person festival sensory-friendly. Many people with disabilities process sensory information differently than their peers. A sensory-friendly environment takes this into account, and limits stimuli with the potential to make an environment overwhelming. In a live music setting, this necessitated crowd-reduction, lowering music volume, creating calm areas away from densely-populated spaces, and providing sign-language interpreters for festival attendees.
But the pandemic necessitated another round of reimagining. Since individuals have more control over sensory conditions in their homes, Pinder and Barron pivoted to focus on online accessibility. During event planning, the two realized how difficult internet access can be for people with disabilities. They consulted people across various abilities, and updated their website to integrate all available accessibility tools. They created close-captions and sign-language interpretation for all performances and workshops.
The team also prioritized financial accessibility to festival programming. In the past, Inclusion Festival was a ticketed event, with a scholarship program available for everyone willing to participate, but without means to pay. The online event is entirely donation-based. All proceeds will directly benefit participating musicians and workshop presenters, as well as the non-profit Accessible Festivals, which Pinder and Barron direct alongside founder Austin Whitney. The non-profit seeks to increase standards of accessibility at live music and recreational events through education and consultation.
There are few online festivals catering to inclusivity — and most of these are film festivals like Reel Abilities and Oska Bright. So, just like the in-person Inclusion Festival sought to model best-practices for sensory-friendly recreational spaces, this year’s fest intends to model best practices for online accessibility. “Because we had a wide variety of accessible content, it has huge implications for anyone producing online content,” Pinder says. “Our lives are all increasingly online, and being able to access the internet is a requirement for societal participation.”
Ultimately, the event has the potential to educate individuals of all industries to apply the imaginative tools required by the current moment toward creating a more inclusive society.
“I hope it has a ripple effect across multiple industries, to encourage business owners to reimagine what is possible,” Pinder says. “We had to reimagine what our lives looked like overnight. If we can do that with some degree of success, I think we can reimagine various aspects of our society to better include all people.”