What’s it like supporting someone with sight loss at a festival?

Post date: 
Tuesday, 20 June 2017
Photo of Fran and Lucy at Download festival

Community member Lucy Hayward, who is blind, interviews her friend Fran on what it’s like to accompany her to music festivals.

My name is Lucy and I’m registered severely sight impaired due to macular degeneration. I love food, music, theatre and swimming. I work full time and am currently creating an accessible stage play with support from DaDaFest.
I’ve been going to festivals like Reading, Download, Glastonbury and Latitude for the last ten years. I love live music performances, meeting new people and the general atmosphere once you get your tent set up and start wandering around. My sight dramatically decreased a few years after I started going to festivals. I had always struggled with big crowds but my navigation was affected and I would get quite anxious finding acts and locating my tent.
I found out that I could apply for a free “Personal Assistant (PA)/Carer ticket” to support me at these events, something which is offered to people with disabilities if they’re unable to attend otherwise. So five years ago I went to Download festival with my sighted friend Fran and I have never looked back. Fran is an actor and director who I met in 2010 when I was acting in a performance of A Christmas Carol in London.
I thought it would be interesting to get her perspective on what it’s like to support me when we go to festivals...

What are your top three festivals you’ve been to?

Latitude, Glastonbury and Reading.

What is it about these festivals that you liked as a PA?

“In comparison to most festivals, Latitude is very relaxed. There's a variety of ages who attend and unlike other festivals which purely focus on music, it has performances from major theatre companies like The National Theatre, people who write for the BBC and they have tents dedicated to experimental performance. It has really good comedy shows too – I’m especially looking forward to the comedy this year as they have well known comedians like Marcus Brigstocke, Bill Bailey, and Katherine Ryan, and there are always new people to discover. We also find Latitude easy to get around.

We went to Glastonbury in 2013 to see the Rolling Stones and what was really interesting was the variety of reactions to Lucy and her cane. A lot of people congratulated her and were impressed with her being there and taking part.

She's pretty dangerous with it so we generally plan our day in advance and she’ll tear through the crowds leaving me peddling behind in her wake. Although most people at Glastonbury are understanding and helpful, sometimes I have to grab her arm and say wait a minute to let the crowd part so we can get through safely. Glastonbury is a big festival and I find it quite difficult to navigate. Lucy has a very distinctive tent which is good for spotting when we return and she takes a flashing light with her which we clip on the top of her tent so that it’s easier to spot at night.
Reading was the first festival we did as volunteers for Attitude is Everything, a charity aimed at improving access to live music for people with disabilities. We were working at the disabled campsite supporting people who were staying there. It was really good to meet other volunteers and their personal assistants, and we made friends with people staying there. When we arrived, we were escorted from the main entrance to disabled camping by a security guard in a golf buggy which was cool. The campsite was also right next to the main arena making it easy to get to each band and the security staff were really friendly. It was nice to have a chat with people as they walked past the information tent we were working in too.”

What do you like about being a PA for someone with sight loss at a festival?

“I’ve been attending festivals with Lucy for the past five years and it's nice to know how much trust she has in me to support her at these events. She knows a lot of people who enjoy the same music as her and who she attends theatre events with, but whenever festival season comes round or when she’s going to a big venue it’s nice to be asked to accompany her.”

What’s important to think about for getting to a festival?

  • Plan your route: We always plan our route in advance. I don't drive so we work out which train station to go from and check online or with friends who have been before about the best way to get from the train station to the festival.
  • Pack smart: Don’t go overboard on the packing, we need to be able to carry our luggage to the campsite without doing our backs in.
  • Ask for recommendations: We always talk to people on their way to the festival as they may know a quicker route or have some recommendations for someone we are unaware of who is performing.”

What things do you think about when setting up your tent?

“It’s important to make sure you are close enough to the toilets to get there easily in the middle of the night, but not so close you can smell them when they start getting yucky near the end of the festival. We always set our tents up opposite each other, about half a metre apart and right next to the pathway. This means we have a space to set up our barbeque, it's easy to check on each other (without Lucy having to worry about stumbling through guide ropes) and it’s easier for Lucy to work out the distance our tents are from the toilets or entrance to the campsite.”

What are your essential items to take to a festival?

  • A torch: Lucy’s sight diminishes at night, so she relies on me a lot more. Having a torch means I can help make sure the path ahead is safe and spot our tents when we get back.
  • Bin liners: We always take these for our rubbish, but they are also useful after it has rained to put damp clothing in or to sit on.
  • A tent (of course): It’s also important to bring blankets to wrap up in when it gets cold, as sleeping bags don't always keep you warm enough at night – especially if it’s bad weather.
  • Snack bars: They are really good for keeping energy levels up and they don't take up much space.
  • Baby wipes: Showers in the disabled area are definitely an improvement from general camping, but baby wipes are a really simple and easy way to keep clean.”

What stresses you out most supporting someone with sight loss at a festival?

“Other people's spatial awareness. I’m there to support Lucy and help her see all the shows she wants to see, as well as to make sure that she feels safe and happy. People can be inconsiderate and sometimes don't process she’s carrying a white cane. I find it helps for me to walk slightly ahead and talk quite loudly so that people move out the way. Lucy is confident finding her way during daylight, but at night it gets more difficult as her sight deteriorates and people are generally less observant as they have had a few drinks. This means it's really important for me to know the layout of the festival and to be able to stop people from walking into Lucy.”

What happens at the end of a festival?

“It depends on the festival. We have been to a few where we woke up just as the trucks were picking up tents and throwing them in bin lorries. Now we try pack the night before and leave as early as possible in the morning. This means we don't have to wait in long queues to get a bus to the train station or negotiate large crowds of people leaving the main entrance.”