Burning Man shows how a riotous festival can be accessible

6 mins read
Burning Man shows how a riotous festival can be accessible

Published August 31, 2022

14 min read

In a ceremony that has taken place every year since 1993, a procession of people called “Lamplighters” dressed in robes embellished with embroidered flames has led Burning Man revelers to the festival’s namesake art installation. As darkness settles across the northern Nevada desert, the colossal wood, burlap, and wax statue is set aflame, marking the penultimate night in a weeklong celebration that promotes “radical inclusion.”

That “all are welcome” ethos is a key principle of Burning Man, a desert spectacle where (almost) anything goes. Even so, Dani Moore—known as “Rat Lady” to fellow Burners—helped make history. Moore was one of the first Lamplighters to use a wheelchair, leaving her tracks alongside footprints in the dust. She’s among hundreds of people with physical limitations who participate in the famous festival through Mobility Camp.

Founded by Dale Huntsman as Hot Wheelz Camp sometime around 2000, Mobility Camp is a volunteer-led group within Burning Man that makes camping, an essential part of the experience, more accessible. The group provides charging stations for medical equipment and one of the few accessible transport vehicles—a 1940s Gibson tractor and trailer decorated to match that year’s creative theme—to the art installations scattered across the desert.

Mobility Camp is one of many affinity groups within Burning Man that help foster a sense of community in the desert, but it’s not the only one. Festivals over the years have included Da Dirty Hands, a community for Deaf festivalgoers, Blind Burners, a community of blind, partially sighted and sighted artists and volunteers making Burning Man more accessible for blind people, and camps like Uni-Corny, which caters to people who have food allergies.

One of the oldest operating accessible groups, Mobility Camp shows how festivals can be more inclusive by providing wheelchair-friendly transportation and support services, with differently abled leaders who can ensure a truly accessible community event.

Equity in the desert 

The festival’s guiding principles state that “anyone may be a part of Burning Man,” but its harsh desert environment can be particularly punishing for people with disabilities. Although Burning Man began in San Francisco in 1986, in 1991 it moved to Black Rock, an arid region of rugged canyons and dry lake beds more than 100 miles north of Reno, Nevada.

Before the pandemic, some 70,000 to 80,000 participants made the annual trek out to Black Rock, building a makeshift, crescent-shaped metropolis across seven square miles of terrain known as the playa (the Spanish word for beach). Using materials they pack in, Burners construct camps, communal buildings, and the outsized art pieces that make the festival so distinctive. At festival’s end, they tear everything down and haul out every last bit. All this happens amid temperatures north of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, peppered by unpredictable sandstorms.

“The dust storms are bad—the dust and sand are corrosive to wheelchairs. And Burning Man is so huge that you can get stranded. Most wheelchairs just don’t have the battery range to travel all the way from the campsites out to the playa, where the art is,” says Moore, the leader of Mobility Camp. “I knew people who had great stories from attending Burning Man, but they told me that there’s no way I could do that in a wheelchair.”

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But all that is changing. Moore says that in 2019, 85 percent of people—from children to the elderly—who signed up to stay with Mobility Camp reported having a disability. (The camp is also open to people who do not have disabilities and are looking for quieter, substance-free accommodations.) When photographer Morgan Lieberman visited that year, she met people who weren’t just surviving but were thriving.

Her photographs reveal a community where members help and support each other, whether that means applying temporary tattoos, commuting to the playa, or bedazzling wheelchairs and crutches.

“Burning Man is a very visual community, so there are lots of pictures online where it seems like everyone is on a bike. You think, ‘Oh, this is a place for able-bodied people,’ but it’s not,” says Lieberman. “My goal was to go there and document real moments of joy and intimacy that people of all abilities feel in this space.”

For Emily Jacobs, Burning Man had a profound impact on her well-being. After a 2010 car accident resulted in her losing her leg, she struggled to adapt to her new normal. Six years and 37 surgeries later, she was lonely, something many people who identify as differently abled experience because they are often isolated from their peers or not accommodated.

Jacobs received a ticket to the festival as a gift from the man who lost control of his car and caused the crash that took her leg. “We had become friends, and he thought Burning Man might be a beneficial place for me,” she says.

“The first hour of my first year there I was terrified. [I was] by myself, in pain, setting up camp amongst strangers,” Jacobs remembers. “I hadn’t even ridden a bike since before my accident, so I didn’t know what would happen.” At the time, Jacobs’ doctors had only recently cleared her to do weight-bearing exercises.

Soon after arriving at Mobility Camp, Jacobs and another camper took a golf cart to see the art cars lining up at the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV). “I can still experience this place even if nothing else works out,” Jacobs remembers thinking.

Five years after her first Burn, Jacobs still relishes the freedom to make her own path, at her own pace, at one of America’s biggest outdoor festivals. “I don’t want people to do things for me. I want it to be possible to have spaces in which I can do things for myself,” Jacobs says. “It’s healing to have independence and receive help when you need it, without judgment.”

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Festivals for all abilities

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, art events (especially outdoor festivals) are gaining popularity across the United States. The federal agency asserts that festivals can contribute to stronger communities by encouraging people to make new connections, consider new ideas, and make new art.

But outdoor festivals and concerts do not accommodate differences or enhance the experience for many of the 61 million adult Americans who live with a disability. Some lack adequate seating, and not all hire American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. Others may not be equipped for attendees with sensory processing differences, where loud music and flashing lights may be uncomfortable or cause reactions. 

There are improvements. Pitchfork Music Festival has ADA-friendly viewing platforms so folks can jam out at any and all of the stages. In addition to providing ASL interpretation and viewing platforms, Coachella designates an area for rideshare companies that provide wheelchair-equipped vehicles. The nonprofit Accessible Festivals consults with music and arts festivals on how to improve accommodations.

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But even with this progress, the disability community continues to fight for improvements. For example, the ADA viewing platform at Pitchfork separates attendees from sitting with their friends.

When a festival is inclusive of all abilities, it brings an additional benefit of extending accessibility to enhance the experience of many others, such as senior citizens. That was the case for Carolyn Power. Despite being at higher risk of developing exhaustion and heat stroke—real dangers at Burning Man—Power says she felt comfortable when she attended her first Burning Man at 70 years old, staying at Mobility Camp, where “there’s ice water, shade, and buses that help take you where you need to go,” she says. “Those are great options for people with disabilities, but they were also really helpful for elders like me.”

“You never know when you’ll need these resources. You could fall and twist your ankle. You could be one moment away from needing a wheelchair,” says Moore. “As we get older, we’re all more likely to be disabled.”

But it’s not enough to provide assistance to those who need it. Educational components at Mobility Camp, which are open to all, offer a glimpse into what it’s like to attend with a disability. Learning experiences such as obstacle courses navigated via crutches and wheelchairs provide perspectives on how to improve facilities.

These lessons have ramifications in post-pandemic times. As cultural events return to in-person programs after pandemic-induced hiatuses, Lieberman ponders how COVID-19 might change Burning Man. No one yet knows how many Americans are coping with the virus’ long-term effects, such as lingering fatigue, respiratory damage, and brain fog.

“The Temple will feel intense this year. That’s a place of memory and mourning,” says Lieberman of the art installation that was first built in 2000 to memorialize a friend of several Burning Man artists who died in a motorcycle accident. “There will be a lot of people returning with grief and pain they didn’t have in 2019.”

While some affinity camps are still on hiatus due to the pandemic, one comfort is that Moore and her campers have returned to greet a new group of attendees looking to forge connections in the desert. “Disabled people deserve to belong,” says Moore. “Humans need to have adventure and love, so the wheelchair Lamplighters will keep carrying our lanterns.”

Laken Brooks writes about disability and wellness, culture, and technology for CNN, Washington Post, Forbes, and other media outlets.

Morgan Lieberman is a Los Angeles, California-based documentary photographer whose work focuses on narratives of queer identity, disability, and women’s empowerment. Lieberman’s photos have been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and other national publications.

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