Sept. 20, 2021

Live Entertainment Events Made Accessible for All with Austin Whitney

Live Entertainment Events Made Accessible for All with Austin Whitney

Attending live events can be stressful and challenging for people with disabilities so that’s why we’re so excited about what today’s guest is doing! Today Mai Ling chats with Austin Whitney, an accessibility consultant for event producers,...

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Attending live events can be stressful and challenging for people with disabilities so that’s why we’re so excited about what today’s guest is doing! Today Mai Ling chats with Austin Whitney, an accessibility consultant for event producers, about how event planners can make their events accessible to everyone. Through his various organizations, Austin is working to make more events accessible, educate folks with special needs about how to attend and enjoy live entertainment, and a whole lot more. As a wheelchair user himself, Austin is using his lived experiences to make a huge difference in the world of festivals, concerts, and other live events.

Contact Mai Ling: MLC at

Contact James: James at



Introduction 0:00  

The COVID stuff gets a lot more into the world of like working with the legal regime that we have which is honestly pretty boring compared to what I enjoy doing which is not just making an event, ADA compliant, but more importantly, how do you make an event welcoming to people with disabilities?


Mai Ling0:23

Welcome to Xceptional leaders with Mai Ling  Chan and Martyn Sibley, where we give you front row access to intimate conversations that are shaping the way the world is supporting people with disabilities. If it's happening, it's being shared here. I'm Mai Ling Chan you can find me at Martyn Sibley at  is not available today. So I am flying solo, I hope it's okay that it's just me here with you. But I kind of feel like I get you all to myself. So this is fun. We are going to be talking about my interview with Austin Whitney. He is an amazing person that I met at a abilities Expo and it's a perfect example of me kind of stalking someone and saying you've got to be on the podcast. But this is an interview that I waited a while to be able to complete because of the pandemic and Martyn and I really tried to shy away from talking about the pandemic too much, because you know, we're all living it. But I really believe that this episode is so important because Austin is at the forefront of finding ways for us to be active in the midst of a pandemic and we are here now in September, right in the beginning of September, and things have been kind of escalating, there's been increasing requests to wear masks and social distancing and this is just a wonderful episode for us to know that there are people out there who are really doing their best to make sure that everyone is going to be able to have access to any of the events that are going on. And so I'm really excited that I had the opportunity to connect with him and to share his story with you. Before we get to the interview, though, I do want to share that my third and final book is coming out in November, becoming an Xceptional SLP leader and this week, the first drafts have just started coming in. They're amazing. They're personal, introspective, and inspiring and I really can't wait for you to read these stories of amazing speech-language pathologists and how they're creating and growing their ripple in the world and I hope that it's an amazing inspiration for you. Also, if you're thinking about starting a nonprofit writing a book, you know, starting a community or a group, or you have a product idea, every one of these stories are going to be amazing for you. One more thing I wanted to remind you is that we are here and we want to connect with you. So please follow us on Facebook, we have thexceptional leaders podcastpage, or on Instagram. We also have the  page where you can sign up for the mailing list, you can email us contact us, whatever, we just want to continue to connect with you. We finished our 100th episode last week and so now we are in the three-digit episodes, we're really excited to be doing this and we're going to continue to drop episodes for you guys bi-weekly as long as it's something that you want to hear. So if you also get a chance, putting a review out there on any of the major podcast players would be fantastic. It's always good for people to see that real people are listening to our show and that you want more. So thank you so much and I really hope you enjoy this episode. I am here finally with Austin Whitney and the reason I'm saying finally is because we met back in 2020 at the LA abilities Expo and that was an amazing opportunity for me that was my first time going there and it was like a kid in a candy store because there were so many amazing people that I wanted to meet with and talk to. So meeting Austin was a real pleasure because I literally walked up to his booth and he was mobbed, mobbed with people and I stood there and waited and waited and waited. I want to say it was about 15-20 minutes before there was that break that I could move in and I was like, Oh my god, I need to have you on the podcast. So I'm so excited for you for the listener to get to meet Austin because I've been waiting. He's been involved in so many things and we knew that he was going to be super busy because the world was going to start reopening or at least we had high hopes. So welcome, Austin.


Thank you for having me today. I appreciate it. And yes, it has been a long time in the making. I'm glad we’re chatting today


Mai Ling  4:27

Fantastic. Now when I met you, you had really long hair I want to say almost like dread Locky,



I had really long hair. I have really short hair now.


Mai Ling4:36

Yes,It's funny because that had nothing to do with the pandemic, but you had that total grooving look



Yeah, well, you know, back then, I think I was working mostly just in music and today it's like in three weeks I have like the Ryder Cup for the PGA like I did like last month I did two different site tours for the PGA of America and I did another golf tournament back in May and like my shoulder-length hair It was, it was gonna match it, you know, like, Alright have like enough tattoos. Like..


Mai Ling5:06

I know when you're like a conformist.



I don't want to stand out too much like a sore thumb. You know, some of my clients.,so


Mai Ling5:13

That's so funny, but I'm saying like, You're like a conformist. I gotta be like the business guy with a really cool crewcut. 



You know, these days, they do a lot more than just than just music festivals. I spend my time doing conventions, doing trade shows, doing municipal events, as well as my music festivals where I got my start so


Mai Ling5:31

Well, excellent. Okay, so we have a lot to catch up on and we need a little background history. So for the listener, you know, I haven't really said anything other than you were mobbed and that I was so excited. So can you tell us a little bit about what your booth was about and what you were doing?



Yeah, so I was at the abilities Expo, promoting a nonprofit I started called accessible festivals, and accessible festivals is all about this idea of improving accessibility for people with disabilities at live music, live entertainment experiences, do that from a number of different ways. But why I was at the abilities Expo is actually doing outreach to people with disabilities to break down this misconception, or the stereotypes that I find pretty common with people with disabilities who think oh, music festivals aren't necessarily for me. It's the same thing that happened to me before I went to music festivals is in my mind, I had this image of like Woodstock, like, oh, like, how would I go to something like that? Like, how would I get around? How would I be able to see the stage? How are we able to go like, to the restroom? That's not for me, that's for able-bodied people.


Mai Ling 6:42

I was gonna clarify that. That's because you have a wheelchair?


Yeah, I have a spot for an entry now since I was since I was 18 and so we work like directly with the disabled population to try and break down that because that's my life's work is getting more people with disabilities to go to live music festivals and other live entertainment events. So yeah, I was at the abilities Expo, just breaking down this myth for people with disabilities that these events are accessible, as they're literally just asking people, you know, are you a music fan? Have you ever been to a music festival? Oh, why not? Let me tell you about it. You know, what type of music are you into? Let me tell you about some of the shows that I work with. I would love to see you attend them and let me let me tell you how and..


Mai Ling7:27

Yeah, but I need to stop you there. People were like, Oh, my God, I can go or there's someone out there who's helping me to be able to do that, rather than them trying to think of all the steps that it would take for them to be able to park and then get to the show, you know? and they were mobbing you and I feel like it's it. Was it the first time that someone's been out there doing this, like, Are you new into this area?



So I started doing this, I started the non-profit in 2014. I've been doing this for seven years. But this is only like my second year at the abilities Expo I think I only was there 2019-2020. So most of my work has all been on the back end of like the industry side of things as opposed to general public-facing. So I've been really happy over the last couple of years to spend more time doing stuff like that if that makes sense.


Mai Ling8:17

Absolutely. It does make sense and so can you remind me what was the image behind you up on your backdrop?


That's just our logo and like, originally, it just came, It's just something I thought up one day of you know like you take the universal accessibility symbol and make that person having a lot more fun. shopping just like at a ship. Like I look like yeah, like that’d be a good logo. I had somebody who actually had some sort of art that you can just mock it up. And so he ended up. There's a logo, it's been evolving over the last eight years.


Mai Ling8:54

Yeah, but that's what drew everybody's attention. Like, whoa, what is this? Just so creative, I really want to give you so much credit, Austin, you know, because most of us in this area, we start out, we're not a graphic designer, we're not a marketing person. We're not a business person. You know, we're passionate, and we have this motivating feeling that you know, we can make a difference and we can do something and you knocked it out of the park on so many levels. You know you were there and people were like just drawn from everywhere and you know, those expos or those conferences are huge. So you're going up and down going up and down and you were kind of in the last row if I recall correctly.



Yeah I have a terrible relationship, Yeah I have on my own page you know I live and learn


Mai Ling9:41

Absolutely. Okay. So let's go through I usually don't like to say the word pandemic, but we have been through that and I held you off because we were like, Okay, well, you know, you're really not out there and that we're not having events. Let's just hold off and see what happens. So what's been going on since you know, all of this started?


Yeah So like, just Like an image of like a normal year for me in like 2019 my company 1050 Entertainment, which a branch of it is accessibility live. We were working with 90 live events that year and I was working mostly with music festivals that included like, you know, Coachella, Music and Arts Festival, ETC. Each of those are doing over 100,000 people a weekend and just for scale, like a show like Coachella, we have like 800 disabled guests a day at that event, you know, for three days for two weekends, you know, working with you know, growing loud the biggest hip hop festival in the world on all four their dates, music festivals in 20 different states country-pop, hip hop, name, just every you know, electronic dance, every type of genre, large sporting events, large conventions. We are Comic-Con that year. Start with celebration, we missable events like la pride and then we were doing work separately in the space of accessible festivals, the non-profit, and then came march of 2020 when the live events industry shut down and like, up till that point in 2020, we had done I think, four events that year and it uh, yeah, I mean, things just completely shut down and that's what, you know, the work I've been doing, pretty much my entire adult life, So it was a massive, yeah, retooling.


Mai Ling11:36

So you sat around and did nothing?



No, no. I got a lot of things that I started this work. When I was in my second year of law school, I was planning to do a completely different career choice. When I say like, Oh, this is actually what I want to do. I don't want to do corporate intellectual property law. And that was a big shift in my life. And since I made that choice, like, my life had been, go, go, go, go and there were a lot of other things that I've been putting to the side over, over the last eight years and I got to do a lot of those. I'm really grateful for that. Because I'd never really had a moment, but then like, I had like a bunch of time to like, work on things that were like important to our business, like, I just been going so much just from the events to events, you know, every weekend having the events that like I could take time to like think like, Oh, these are things I want to work on both in the for-profit, and in the non-profit world. So

Mai Ling12:35

Excellent. Okay, so now we're on the other side, and things are open again, people are out and I know that there's a lot to do with compliance, so on, you know, the business side, right, so tell us a little bit about your role in kind of defining that and also bringing it to people's attention.



Yeah, so what you're seeing now, in my world, like, we have four events going on this weekend, one in Seattle, Chicago, LA, and Napa and all four of them have either a vaccine or negative test requirements. One of them has a mask requirement. One of them has a social distancing requirement. In the world of when you start about mask requirements, there's ADA stuff involved, because you get claims of someone requiring reasonable accommodation to not wear a mask because with disability.


Mai Ling13:32

Right, and I'm just going to clarify there. So the ADA is the American Disabilities Act that's in place to protect people who have disabilities and what Austin's talking about is that there may be people who have medical conditions where they can't wear a mask. And so now how do we work with that?



Right, and that lands on me and my team to figure out if that's a valid reasonable accommodation based on Sundays, where they're on, they're on their disability, and the world of social distancing, the same thing comes up to make sure that, you know, some he has some immuno-compromised and that like, there's some cueing that they have to go through, like, okay, cool, they have to, they cannot have that. Okay, how do we make sure that happens?


Mai Ling14:17

Is this on an individual basis? Or do you do this by diagnosis?



We have to work with individuals, to work all this with individuals, you know, anytime you're working with somebody, it's going to be on a case by case basis and this is how we work with everybody, you know, literally, the 10,000 people that we work with the year somebody comes up to us and, you know, just Hey, how can we help you? You know, my job and what my team does is to solve problems. You know, it's like somebody tells us where they're at, and we try and figure out like, okay, cool, how can we make it so that you can enjoy this event just like anybody else, the COVID stuff gets a lot more into like the world of like, just straight-up working with the legal regime that we have, which is honestly pretty boring compared to what I enjoy doing, which is not just making an event, ADA compliant, but more importantly, how do you make an event welcoming to people with disabilities? They're related. But if you spent too much time, just focused on like, Okay, how do we make sure it's compliant, we can’t it was, you have to hit that, but I always look to look to do better than that. But with COVID, for example, because all this stuff is new, it's, you have to hit that, you know, you get into the world of like, you know, events that require vaccines, which that, you know, down the pipeline, you know, a couple of months, making up like policies for that, like what happens if somebody can't get a vaccine because of a medical condition that falls under the ADA. It's in my world. So


Mai Ling 15:48

I've always said the most valuable things I've ever done to increase my business and industry knowledge in a very specific niche of disabilities was always related to learning from other people, whether it was going to conferences, introducing myself, and connecting directly with LinkedIn messages, or asking people for a warm referral, hearing other people's stories and finding pearls of wisdom has been a priceless part of my journey. And ultimately, my success with various offerings is directly related to these. That's definitely why I created this podcast for you and also why 13 other amazing disability leaders and previous podcast guests join me to write a book for you. For less than $15 you can get intimate stories and priceless startup journeys from 14 xceptional disability leaders, including my co-host of this podcast, Martyn Sibley. So I invite you to go to Amazon search for becoming an xceptional leader and get this book today.

 Now, let's get back to our amazing interview. 

Mai Ling16:42

Let me ask you, what's been the most creative thing that you've done?



I mean, here's the thing is like, what I love is the fact that I can go almost any weekend, my job, and I will still run into something new. You know, I've worked with, let's say, 150- 200 live events, you know, in my life, and you know, I'm going off to one this weekend, and like, I'm going to run into something new, because that is how broad the spectrum is of disability. You know how it is. No two people are the same. No two people's life, their journey, their medical conditions are going to be same no way that you're going to help everybody's going to be the same and just like working in a live space, it's live. You know, it's not like I get to like, take, like, Oh, hold on, we put this on hold. I'll come back to this tomorrow and try and figure out the best solution. really think it through now. It's not how it works. It's like shows going on 10 minutes. out right now. You know?


Mai Ling17:47

Yeah. Okay, so did you want to focus anything else on what you've been doing during the pandemics? We talked about compliance.


Yeah, that sounds good. So like, during my time, my other big passion is spending time out in nature. So over the pandemic, I got to spend, I think I went to 21 National Parks over the pandemic, General, a lot of you know, a lot of people did, a lot of it was on my own, unlike solo trips, just with me and my dog affiliate. Wow, something that oftentimes bothered me as I was, you know, like, we're in like North Dakota or Wyoming Montana on like, a couple of month trip. It was like, I was like, off on these trails and like, I wouldn't see someone else like with like, a visually identifiable disability, for huge stretches of time, and working with people with disabilities a lot something on my mind, because how I spend my time and like knowing demographic trends, and like, it struck me as odd. So I spent more time doing like research on like, why, why is that the case? Why doesn't like the ratios match at all, like what I'm seeing spending all this time doing it, like match what it should be demographically and I think there's like, there's some reasons for it, but I got more into the world like, Okay, what, what could I do about that? What would be interesting and me a couple of friends kind of took on this project during the pandemic, and did a couple of different things. One of which is we have a website called  that has a list of 1500 accessible trails throughout the United States. That's just to get people to go with disabilities to go out. There's some really beautiful things out there and like National Park Service, like on like in their purse, there are lots of great accessible trails, you go to the big parks you go to and like the Utah mighty five, you know, or the Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Tetons, like that you're going to find some amazing accessible trails, like we'll just like have like a jaw-dropping moments, you know, oh my god, like it's absolutely gorgeous and like as I'm going all these places, just literally no one else with disabilities. So like, you know that that site has a bunch of all those Don't think the national parks first does the best job of like advertising, all these places are accessible. So like that led me to like think like, oh, like how could we get more exposure. So just like the same things I've done with the festivals I want to do with national parks, me and a couple of friends also decided that we were going to launch and accessible for some company, all inclusive expeditions, and we're gonna start taking reservations for next year and like, a couple weeks. that's like my other project that I spent my time.


Mai Ling20:33

We need to duplicate you.



So yeah, that's why I spent the pandemic was preparing for the festivals coming back, and then spending time on the nature stuff.


Mai Ling20:41

Excellent. Okay, so you brought up a couple of different things here just want to make sure if our listener wants to deep dive more, the one that website is called  and it's about helping people to attend live music, and it says recreational events also and then the second website is that one is?



That one’s more for like event producers, that's like more of like me working with the industry to make the events accessible.


Mai Ling21:10

So if a company wants to put on an event, a large event, you know this, then they need to the plugin?



Yeah, or if your listeners have any interest coming to work with me, I'd always love to make new friends. That'd be great.


Mai Ling21:22

I love that. So what are you looking for in terms of working for you?


Well, so like, like I said, I work nationwide. I'm always looking for new passionate team members. Generally speaking, if they have a passion for the live music scene or live entertainment scene, that's great. But more importantly, a passion for helping others is even better. Beyond that, like just somebody who like thinks quick, on their feet can be empathetic, can be resourceful. You don't necessarily need to understand like event production operations or ADA compliance. Those things me and my team members we can teach, but just having like a good head on their shoulders, and like a willingness to learn and good caring soul, absolutely.


Mai Ling22:03

Right ,jumping on the spot.



Somebody who can think fastball someone who also like let's like, set fun to music festival. So, gotta have fun. Yeah


Mai Ling22:12

 Right. Excellent. Okay, how can we stay in touch with you?



You can follow my dog on Instagram.


Mai Ling22:20

What is his name? 



My dog's name is affiliate and our handle is the festival dog. 


Mai Ling22:28

So cute



That at least shows like where I go in the world and I was like, Am I a music festival? Or am I a national park either way, my dogs with me and either way, I'll probably take a picture of with my dog. You can follow my dog on Instagram. Or you can go visit one of my either my non-profit or you can visit you know the for-profit, you can drop us a line, shoot me shoot me a message on LinkedIn, something like that. There's a lot of ways that you can get a hold of me any of those ways I'll be around and one of the things for your listeners that they'd probably be interested in, which is so over at the non-profit, as kind of mentioned that, like we do like a number of different things. I mentioned the part about outreach to the disabled community to get more people to go, we have our own music festival for families with children with autism, called the inclusion festival. And we're promoting that at the Expo. We also do like trainings to the industry. Just like say like your small like community organizer who like you know, say you're doing like a small event for like a couple 100 people, you're not gonna like bring in people like help work on this, but like, you just need explanation for these kind of complex topics we do. We do those type of trainings, we have like a whole guide on our website of festivals that have organized ADA compliance departments, whether I work with them or someone else does, like at least the website kind of has that has that list to help people you know, understand what that looks like. But then we have like, dozen and a half music festivals that we're giving out tickets to for free to people with disabilities between now and now in December part of that is just again, like, the reason I do what I do today is because after I had my spinal cord injury, like the thing that like changed my life was going to my first live music event. The first music festival I went to was Coachella and it was like the first time I was able to like smile and laugh again after that, before that I was pretty caught up in anxiety and like self-consciousness and I really wasn't happy and having that to look forward to and having to experience that that got me through the hardest time of my life and because that I really do believe that these events can have a kind of life-changing effects on someone's life and can really be like a catalyst for change and like me and my colleagues really do believe that and we said okay, you know, we don't want just That would be six costs a bunch of money to like stand in the way from someone to have the experience. So a bunch of my clients are amazing and they donated tickets to the non-profit and we have an application on the website for people just to tell us about their journey and why they want to go to one of these shows. And we have shows all around the country, big concerts that are rock and hip hop and electronic dance and country.

Mai Ling25:26

Beautiful, Thank you for sharing that Austin, you’re one of the reasons why it's so important.



Yeah, we have volunteer opportunities and if somebody can't, like work like a full shift, they just want to go for a couple of hours and enjoy the festival. Lots of different stuff. And that's all in the non-profit world. So

Mai Ling25:41

Excellent. Well, thank you for all that you're doing getting us all back out there and being able to be just part of everything that's available to us. So we really appreciate you, Austin.



Yeah for sure. My pleasure


Mai Ling25:52

All right, we're gonna stay in touch and keep watching all the great things are up to.


Mai Ling 25:56

Thanks so much for joining us for this episode and I invite you to connect with me directly at  We also want you to let us know what you think about the show, ideas and how we can continue to help you or referrals to a great guest through our Facebook group atxceptional leaders podcastor email us 


Martyn 26:16

Yes, Mai Ling . I totally agree with that. I know we're both really mission-driven people and for me, it's always been this big mission to have a world that fully inclusive for all people and in the end, that's probably why we've bonded and come together so well on this podcast, xceptional leaders podcast because we get to meet cool people, give them a platform to share their story and really just make such an impact in the disability world. I love it. Also, for everyone listening please do head over to  This is the magazine that I co-founded about 10 years ago. We've got a free mailing list there for all the latest article news, discounts for the shop if that's your kind of thing. And definitely do get your copy of becoming an xceptional leader book. We want you to get as much information as you need and today as successful as you can be.

Austin WhitneyProfile Photo

Austin Whitney

Founder, Accessible Festivals

After suffering a spinal-cord injury in 2007, Austin Whitney devoted his life to finding ways to make live music more accessible for people with disabilities. While attending UC Berkeley School of Law he founded Ten Fifty Entertainment. Ten Fifty Entertainment manages ADA Compliance programs for many of the nation’s largest events such as Coachella Music and Arts Festival, Rolling Loud, EDC, the PGA Championship, and Star Wars Celebration. He also is the founder of Accessible Festivals, a non-profit organization that advocates for greater accessibility in this space. During the COVID-19 Pandemic Austin spent his time exploring national parks and he is currently working on a new venture called Inclusive Expeditions that looks to share the majesty of nature with others.