The Imperfect Reality of Accessibility

Pride festival with rainbow flags

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At the beginning of June, I went to the Philadelphia Pride festival. I suggested to ASDNext that I might write a blog post about my experience and what I thought of the accessibility measures that were put in place. They agreed it was a good idea, but since I was already working on a pride month post I figured I’d save writing this one for July.

I’d hoped it would be much earlier in July (this blog may well end up being posted in August), but I started a new job and in the chaos of that other things have slipped away from me. It happens to all of us. At least I’m finally crossing it off my list.

Pride events are of course always trying to become more accessible. Or, at least, they should be. It’s hard to be a proper celebration of diversity and inclusion if you’re still excluding people. The festival I’d planned to go to certainly prided (no pun intended) itself on the accessibility measures they’d taken, all of which looked very good on paper. That’s why I wanted to do this blog in the first place. I wanted to report back on whether an event like this really lived up to that expectation.

Not that I set out wanting to criticize this event. I was excited about it, and I hoped for the best. Still, I’ve found that even with the best intentions some accessibility measures will fall short when put into practice. While I’m grateful that many accessibility concerns are even considered by event organizers these days, I think it’s important to scrutinize how helpful some of these measures can be. Most importantly, if they’re lacking, consider why they might be lacking.

Even before the festival itself kicked off, it was apparent there was a massive number of people in attendance. I couldn’t even hear the speeches being given amongst the sea of people waiting to start the pride march that would precede the festivities. Better microphones/speakers probably would have gone a long way, though perhaps they could have easily just added more volume to the chaos. The noisy crowd could easily be overwhelming, but at least the starting point was near a public park. Meaning it was easy enough to escape the crush of people lining the streets if necessary.

It was hard to tell when the march had truly started. My friends and I were stuck milling about with many other confused people until we were finally able to get on the move. At least once the march was on, though, there was plenty of room for everyone to spread out while we all walked down the streets of Philly.

It wasn’t until we reached the actual location of the festival, an area known as the gayborhood, that things got a little trickier. While it was obvious why this part of the city had been chosen for the pride festival – the rainbow-painted crosswalks certainly added to the atmosphere – the streets were much narrower here. This resulted in a truly overwhelming crush of people that never let up. When traveling through the crowd with any of my friends, we usually had to hold hands while going single file through the immense numbers of other festivalgoers.

It was inevitable that one of my friends would start to feel some sensory overload, especially since one of them is particularly sensitive to crowds. Since I, out of all of us, had actually bothered to do some research on the festival before we went, I knew that there was a decompression zone set up somewhere. It was a good thing too, since I saw no obvious sign indicating the area and what it was when we got there.

While I see the value in putting it near the festival entrance area as they did, in practice this meant that anyone not approaching from the entrance (like my friend and I) were forced to walk through the center – and often nosiest parts – of the festival. It was also far too close to the performance area. While it being in a side alley sheltered us from some of the noise, my friend and I both noted the loud music from the stage just a block over was still extremely noticeable. Plus, probably since without signage the place could easily be mistaken just for a basic rest area rather than a “decompression zone”, there were some people there talking at a high volume. Overall, my friends and I all agreed that if any of us had been having a full sensory overload episode/meltdown, this decompression zone would have been useless to us. We’d most likely have been forced to simply leave the festival. And we did end up leaving earlier than we’d planned, mostly because the festival crowd proved to be far too much for any of us.

It wasn’t all bad though. The area was set up right next to a community garden, which did offer a calming view of greenery. We all also agreed that, however imperfect it was, we were glad for a space to sit and rest in a far less crowded area.

Overall, I appreciate the attempt at providing greater accessibility measures to those who have a harder time attending festivals like this. However, it also saddens me to realize how often a lot of us find ourselves unable to truly count on these attempts at accessibility to help when we need them most. I understand how hard it is to balance and consider all these factors and needs when event planning, but I hope the Philadelphia Pride festival can continue to improve its accessibility to others in the years to come.


Rachel is a Jewish bisexual autistic woman (she/her) with ADHD in her twenties. She loves writing and can always be found with her nose in a book! Her plan for the future is to earn her Psy. D. in clinical psychology. This interested in psychology started as a way to help her understand people better and to figure out what it was about others I kept not getting. It is also something deeply linked with her self-advocacy. There is a gap in communication between the autistic community and providers, and she want to help bridge it and challenge others to see things from different perspectives.

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