All-access pass for accessibility at Jazz Fest

Activist Paul Vienneau has been working with organizers to make this year's festival venues 100 percent accessible.

click to enlarge “I thought it was enough that I was playing,” says Paul Vienneau, “why shouldn't these venues be accessible?” - SUBMITTED
“I thought it was enough that I was playing,” says Paul Vienneau, “why shouldn't these venues be accessible?”

For the first time in its 30-year history, the Halifax Jazz Festival's venues will be 100 percent accessible, thanks in part to the work of local activist and former professional bassist Paul Vienneau.

For Vienneau, who has been using a wheelchair since 1991, these changes have been years in the making.

Vienneau performed at the Jazz Festival multiple times between 1989 and 2014. After his injury, he found himself unable to attend certain shows because they were held in buildings with no wheelchair access. He contacted the festival to ask them to consider fully accessible venues, but received no response.

“For years I accepted not having accessible venues and making do,” he says. “What do I have to show for it? My rotator cuffs sound like Rice Krispies, my right deltoid is shredded...I thought it was enough that I was playing, but why shouldn’t these venues be accessible?”

Around five years ago Jazz Fest organizers ramped the main stage, but Vienneau says it was so steep he needed three men to help him up.

This year, through conversations with interim executive director Andrea Thomas, Vienneau successfully advocated for infrastructure improvements to make the festival accessible to all. Performances will now feature a viewing platform for attendees using wheelchairs and scooters, an accessibility services booth at the information table and low-rise, wheelchair accessible cable mats.

“It’s very important to us as organizers that we make things as accessible and as inclusive as possible for everyone,” says Thomas, who reviewed festival services with her team to identify weak spots and decide on improvements.

According to Vienneau, these changes are an important exercise in trial, error and empathetic listening.

“It’s not that the first year has to be 100 percent perfect,” he says. “It’s that we have to build a culture in everybody’s mind that this is worth doing—that there is inherent value in including everybody.”

Vienneau calls this year’s accessibility improvements the “low-hanging fruit.” In future years, he and Thomas hope to include sign language interpretation, festival schedules printed in braille, an accessibility insert in the festival guide and more visible diversity amongst performers.

“The thing with the festival is not that every famous musician that goes on stage talks about accessibility, but that all the accessibility is built seamlessly into the festival,” Vienneau says.

The former “asshole with a shovel”—who petitioned city hall two years ago for better snow and ice clearing—will be working with the East Coast Music Awards and Halifax Pop Explosion in the upcoming months to continue to improve inclusivity in the Halifax music scene.

“As a legacy thing, I would love to leave accessible venues and some changed minds in the music business,” Vienneau says.

Note: This article originally said the festival itself was 100 percent accessible. It's been updated to clarify that means the Jazz Fest venues.

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