Dylan Alcott: Why Ability Fest Should Be The Standard For Every Future Live Event
Dylan Alcott created the first all accessible music festival. Now he’s expecting all other big Aussie festivals to adopt the same standard.
One of Australia’s youngest yet mightiest music festivals Ability Fest kicks off on Saturday, and founder and organiser Dylan Alcott is on the ground, dressed in hi-vis, ready to go.
You see, Ability Fest is Alcott’s favourite day of the year. The former Australian of the Year launched the country’s first all accessible music festival back in 2018 in Naarm/Melbourne, to raise money for the Dylan Alcott Foundation, which helps young kids with disabilities to achieve their dreams. So far the festival has raised just shy of $500,000.
For Dylan, Ability Fest is much more than just a fundraiser. It’s also one epic party that everyone can attend and enjoy freely.
This year’s event line-up includes huge talent like Sampa The Great, Broods, DJ Cooper, DZ Deathrays, and Hilltop Hoods (to name a few), with additional sprinklings of silent discos and other sensory experiences.
We spoke with Dylan about the inspiration behind setting up Ability Fest, and how he hopes Australia can move towards making accessibility a priority at all events.
Junkee: Morning Dylan. I see you’re literally already on site for the festival…
Dylan Alcott: I’ve done a bit of press and ticket sales are going really well. There’s still some available, but we’re just hustling and building and yeah it’s awesome… We’re all working our tails off, but obviously for a good cause and good rewards.
Awesome. Ability Fest is such a huge feat – can you talk me through where you were in your career when you first thought “I’m going to make Australia’s first all accessible music festival”? Was it something that you’d been wanting to do for a long time?
Yeah, look, I’m very lucky. I live an awesome life and I’ve got incredible friends and one of the things I loved going to was music festivals when I was younger. It wasn’t very accessible, but I had great mates and I just tried to do my best to get around. But I fully appreciate that I have the ability physically to get around those sites, but a lot of people don’t.
Outside of your relationship with your family and friends, the best thing to do is travel and enjoy live music and live events — imagine if you never got that opportunity? So I was like, you know what? I want to provide a space where able bodied people can come with their disabled mates and just have a party and have a good time. You know what I mean?
And, obviously to raise money for the Dylan Alcott Foundation along the way was the main goal. The way that everybody’s got behind it, you know, the Visit Melbourne, the Untitled Group, Junkee, triple j — everybody gets behind it and we’re really grateful for the support.
What do you want the broader community to know about how important event accessibility is for all young people with disabilities?
Well, for people that run live events, the main reason you should do it is it’s the right thing to do, to be accessible and inclusive.
The other reason is, there are 4.5 million people in Australia with some form of physical or nonphysical, visible or invisible disability. And what do we love? Major events, live music, going to sport. Yet, we often get left out of that conversation because people think we don’t or can’t do anything or there aren’t any of us or we don’t want to go. So not only is it socially the right thing to do, it’s economically a good business decision as well, because we are your consumers.
And you might think it’s too hard to do or whatever. It is not. As long as you listen to lived experience, and do it from the beginning, it’s so easy to integrate accessibility and inclusion features into your festival or event.
What does an all accessible music festival look like?
We have elevated platforms, we have pathways, we have Auslan interpreters for every lyric on stage. We have a sensory room for those that are neurodiverse.
We’ve got a silent disco for people that are deaf or have heightened hearing. They can put on these things called haptic suits, where you feel the vibrations, and when the bass drops you feel it. It’s like another way of experiencing music.
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All the tech and all the things are already out there — it’s up to you if you want to do it right and the time to do it is now because if you don’t, you’re going to get left behind. But listening to that lived experience is probably the most important thing. And, and you know, don’t overcomplicate it. It’s often a lot easier than you think.
How are you feeling about us as a country moving towards that goal? Just last month there were accusations of discrimination and ableism at a Harry Styles concert. We had festival goers at laneway talking to Hack about being denied accessibility access…
Look, it is getting better but we’ve still got a long way to go.
What I will say is that Australia does okay with the hardware, things like sensory rooms, accessible areas. But where we fall down is the software — people denying access because they don’t understand disability, people questioning how autistic people are, which you can’t do. That is all about education and training and we need to do way better at that.
We partner with some of the biggest festivals in Australia to try and support them to do better. Our partner at Ability Fest is Untitled Group, who have Beyond The Valley Festival and Grapevine Gathering and they’re on their journey as well. They do some things well, but they can do some things better and they’ll admit it. But you gotta start somewhere, and we’re positive about that start. We want full inclusion in all events everywhere. Not just music – in sport, in food festivals and in all events.
I’m excited we’re even talking about it because back in the day when discrimination happened you got away with it cause no one cared. People really do care now. And there is a thirst to get better. But a thirst is not action. It’s about actually doing it as well. I know I’m an optimist. Yes there are some really bad things happening, but it’s about all of us working together, co-designing it so we can look back and hopefully we see all major events, fully accessible in the best way they can be.
Yeah of course, it’s got to be with the people, not for the people to really continue forward together.
When it comes Ability Fest, what are you most proud of?
I think what makes me most proud — and I get a bit emotional — is when I think about the people that have come here with their friends or family potentially for the first time and they experience something that we all take for granted, right? And that’s why we do it. We’re raising money as well for the foundation and it’s all about a party, but that is it.
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And even just building the site — there’s this tangible feeling here at Ability Fest, that’s hard to put into words. This coming together and this energy that is different to any event that I’ve been to. And maybe I’m biased, people tell me that. But please come down to Melbourne, Naarm. Please come check it out.
There are still tickets available, you gotta see it to believe it. It’s such a fun day, great party, with incredible acts. You know, we’ve got so many different activations. We’ve even got a Nike Ability Fest collab merch, which nobody can get. Somehow our friends at Nike said yes — I love my Nike fam.
So come down and I promise you, you will not be disappointed and if you see me come get a photo, let’s get a beer, let’s have a good time.
You can buy tickets here.