According to the complaint, some stages are inaccessible by wheelchair, and lack sufficient seating throughtout the grounds.
Today, a lawsuit was filed against AEG Live and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation claiming that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell is not ADA-compliant. According to the complaint, Jazz Fest doesn’t conform to the requirements spelled out by the Americans With Disabilities Act, nor does it comply with a settlement agreement reached between the foundation and the Department of Justice in 2001.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court alleges that Mitchell Miraglia, a quadriplegic, attended Jazz Fest on Saturday, April 23—the first Saturday of the festival this year—and found much of the festival to be inaccessible or harder to access than it should be in a wheelchair. The complaint contends that most stages have fewer available spots than required for those in wheelchairs to watch the show, and the access to some of those spaces was too narrow. In the cases of the Kids’ Tent and the Fais Do Do Stage, there is no wheelchair access except over the grass or, after a rain, mud. Once there, neither have any wheelchair slots, much less the five and four respectively that are required. Many food areas are similarly inaccessible, and there are too few wheelchair-accessible portable toilets. Many counters are too high for those in wheelchairs to use. In total, Miraglia counts 43 instances where the festival does not comply with ADA regulations—instances that affect access to almost all elements of the festival including the Acura, Gentilly, Jazz and Heritage, Congo Square, and Fais Do Do stages, as well as the Economy Hall, Jazz, Blues, and Children’s tents.
Because Jazz Fest is, with the exception of the Fair Grounds Grandstand and paddock, a series of temporary structures built on patch of land not initially designed for such use, it comes with challenges to ADA compliance, and the festival has had to deal with them before. In the November 2002 issue of United States Attorney’s Bulletin, Glenn K. Schreiber, assistant US attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana—where Miraglia’s complaint was filed—wrote at length about trying to help the foundation become ADA-compliant.
“When I first approached the Foundation about performing a compliance survey, it was after I had resolved a minor dispute between the Foundation and a volunteer who complained that he could not park his wheelchair accessible van close enough to attend the requisite orientation meeting,” Schreiber wrote. “Having just had the ADA flung in their face, by an unpaid volunteer no less, the Foundation at first did not entertain my request [to help find an effective solution] with any great cheer.”
Some features of the festival that we now take for granted date back to the 2001 agreement according to Schreiber’s article. The rubberized pathways across the sandy track were instituted to make the infield more accessible, and three full-time sign language interpreters were hired as a result. At first, Schreiber says that the foundation was reluctant to create special viewing area for those in wheelchairs for “fear of drawing the wrath of the crowd.” But, they came around, he says, and when they did:
the Foundation went all out, carefully enclosing an area large enough to allow up to six persons in wheelchairs and their companions ample space to maneuver into position nearly in front of mid-stage. The reserved area also included a wheelchair accessible portable toilet, and signs placed high enough and printed large enough to be readily seen from the vantage point of a wheelchair pointing the way to the entrance of the area.
Schreiber describes the foundation and its ADA coordinator as becoming eager and imaginative in their efforts to make Jazz Fest ADA-compliant, and in recent years the response has been mixed. Like Miraglia, OffBeat publisher Jan Ramsey found the accommodations at the stages for whose in wheelchairs and scooters insufficient, while respondents on the Jazz Fest message board are generally positive. One wrote, “We were very inexperienced with the chair but managed to get around pretty well, except when it r#^ned and the ground was boggy. Didn't attempt to get up front at any of the stages, but I didn't really do that when I could skip. I know the blues tent cops a lot of grief here, but the allocated seating for chairs was fantastic. Everyone was beyond helpful.” The people interviewed for a story in The New Orleans Advocate earlier this year about the Jazz Fest Access Program were similarly positive about their experience at the festival. “It’s much easier than it used to be,” one person said, while another pointed out that “it’s so hard to navigate on the field.”
According to Miraglia’s lawyer Andrew Bizer, he is a long-time New Orleanian who has attended Jazz Fest for years. The suit contends that “removal of the discriminatory barriers to access located on the property is readily achievable, reasonably feasible, and easily accomplished, and would not place an undue burden on defendants,” and that as it stands, “removal of the barriers to access located at Jazz Fest would provide Mr. Miraglia with an equal opportunity to participate in, or benefit from, the goods, services, and accommodations which are offered to the general public at the Jazz Fest.”