Leadership / 02.18.20
Wheelchair + Medieval City = Accessibility Nightmare
Doug James and Christine Payne
Header photo by David Monteith-Hodge
Everyone is aware of that old proverb, “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” It simply means that if someone is determined to do something, they will find a way to do it regardless of obstacles. That, in a nutshell, sums up the mindset that has helped turn the Edinburgh Festival Fringe into the epitome of accessibility in the global arts community.
In a presentation titled Wheelchair + Medieval City = Accessibility Nightmare, Lyndsey Jackson, Deputy Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, held her INTIX 2020 audience in awe as she recounted how the biggest arts festival in the world is working to overcome a challenge of historic proportions and make it possible for everyone, regardless of their ability, to access and enjoy thousands of events in a 12th century city, well known for its cobblestoned streets, staircases and other physical challenges.
Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.
To put things into perspective, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a 25-day, noncurated event that has been staged in the Scottish capital every year since 1947. That “stage” is anything from a street corner to a bus, literally hundreds of venues and thousands of shows crammed into the oldest part of one of Europe’s oldest cities.
“If you have a story to tell, you are welcome to come and tell it,” Jackson says. “Your stage can be literally anything.”
The question is, of course, how is it possible to engage with the festival if you use a wheelchair, have hearing and/or vision loss, or live with a neurological condition? How can you go to the festival and make sense of it?
“We have an access strategy that deals with barriers to participation,” Jackson says. “We see our job as breaking down those barriers. If you want to come to the festival as an audience member, artist or professional, then we want to help understand what’s in your way, and then it’s a level playing field for everybody.”
It must be working, because the number of individual access customers has been growing, and in 2019, stood at almost 1,200.
“Once they find a venue that works for them, they will generally come back time and time again,” Jackson says. “Access used to be centered around captioning or interpretation or adaptation, but we recently added ‘no sight needed’ and ‘no hearing needed.’ Sixty-one percent of the program is now accessible to people who use wheelchairs.”
Jackson says the festival organizers are committed to increasing that number, but they face myriad challenges. “Edinburgh is old. There’s a castle and a volcano and crags. Everything is rickety and spiraling up a hill. And the biggest challenge of that is steps. They are everywhere. They go up and down. And if it’s not steps, then it’s cobbles. For wheelchair users, they are an absolute nightmare.”
Cobblestone streets for which Edinburgh is famous; Photos by Pleasance.
So, what is their strategy? According to Jackson, it is all about knowledge. “We can’t force venues to install ramps and lifts,” she says, “but what we can do is ensure they provide information. In order to be able to confidently attend an event, you need to know what to expect, so the core tenet of our information strategy is assuaging concerns over practical issues like ‘How am I going to get there?’, ‘Is there a bathroom?’ and ‘Is someone going to come and meet me?’ These are things that people tend to take for granted, but they are real concerns [for people with varying abilities].”
The knowledge begins to flow at the time of registration, when venues are asked to provide detailed information about their event and its location. With 700 individual spaces, Jackson says, there can be a lot of variables.
Pop-up event in a parking lot; Photo by David Monteith-Hodge.
“For some customers, the threshold is zero stairs,” Jackson says. “But for a customer who uses a walking aid, two or three [stairs] is fine, but a dozen wouldn’t be. So, it’s really important they give us as much information as possible. The venues choose whether or not to tell us this when they register; it’s not mandatory yet. However, if they haven’t given it to us, we still include accessibility information. It’s not about hiding the bits that aren’t accessible and just promoting the festival. We need to be transparent.”
Information requested during registration is fed into the show/venue listing, including general venue info and by space. If information is not supplied, it still displays, as shown above.
Jackson points out that all the information eventually ends up online where audience members can register their need and find out which shows are accessible to them. Information and technology go hand in hand. And with that in mind, the festival organizers are working with strategic partners that offer technology-based solutions to overcome some of the accessibility barriers.
“Using an app, an audience member registers their need and finds the show they want to attend. We receive the parameters of the venue and the venue gets notification of what the particular access need is. At the event, rather than getting into the door and waiting for 10 minutes, that customer goes straight on in and there’s somebody waiting for them and the people in the venue know what they need,” Jackson says.
“There’s front-of-house training. We have a digital training platform for our staff that’s compulsory that we make available to all venues, and it is about attitude. It’s about the language that you use and how you might assist a person who is blind, how you overcome some of the challenges … [for those who] may have never met a person who uses a wheelchair or who has a severe mental disability … It’s all entertainment-led video and it’s … about how we have a good and positive attitude toward people with disabilities.”
Organizers are also cognizant of the overall atmosphere during the festival; the sensory overload that can be extremely challenging for all of us, let alone those with neurological conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome or attention deficit disorder. The festival recently started providing sensory backpacks filled with a variety of tools and resources to help people manage various situations.
“We have [also] introduced BSL (British Sign Language) flyers, which is if your show has a performance that’s going to be sign language interpreted, then we will pay for a sign language interpreter to produce a video flyer so you can talk to BSL-first language users. We work really closely with the deaf community in Scotland to help understand how we make the festival accessible to them and how they feel represented on stage and off,” says Jackson, who adds that street performances are also interpreted.
Additionally, magic carpet viewing platforms are clearly marked so people who use wheelchairs can see and enjoy street performances like everybody else.
The festival also has accessible toilets and bathrooms, complete with hoists and adult load-bearing change tables. These accessible bathrooms are marked clearly on the festival maps.
Jackson also highlights the festival’s partnership with Red61, a company that was founded in 2002 to build a robust and flexible ticketing system that could handle the size and complexity of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
“Their solution already provides the ability to search by performance and to tag performances,” Jackson says. “It means that individual performances or multiple individual performances can be tagged across the 25‑day run as accessible, and you can have layers upon layers of tags in there so the audiences can really find and nail down their itinerary — what they are going to see and when they are going to see it. And, conversely, you can also apply it if a whole run is audio described.”
It doesn’t end there, Jackson says. “The technology continues to improve, and, in 2020, audiences that are looking for just a captioned show or interpreted show will be able to easily find that in the search as well.”
The technology also allows for access notes to be added to a customer account for increased efficiency. “The system is very clever,” says Jackson, “and in a world where we have many variables, the notes are very helpful.”
One variable is the need for wheelchair access to events. Every show is different, and where many of the venues are small, it’s important to know in advance how many seats will need to be removed to make room for wheelchairs. “A lot of Fringe venues are very small, small black box studios,” notes Jackson, “and venues don’t want to be over their capacity for insurance reasons and safety reasons. This means they need to cleverly manage their availability and their allocations.”
The ticketing technology used by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe provides an easy solution. “It does all the work for us,” Jackson says. “It tells us if you book a wheelchair seat, you need to make a capacity adjustment of one which, in this case, would require the removal of one seat in order to accommodate a wheelchair. But because of specific needs, you can override that standard adjustment to accommodate the need. For example, if a small child’s wheelchair would only take up a single seat, whereas if you have a large power chair, that might take up three or four seats. The system is completely adaptable and flexible, and it does it all for you.”
It may at first glance seem difficult, if not impossible, to make any live event fully accessible. But the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the most unlikely of all accessible events, has taken many positive steps in that direction. The work will continue until as many people as possible are accommodated. As Jackson told her audience, “We want to be able to see customers confidently and assuredly booking tickets, to know with confidence that they are getting the right information, that things are going to be where we said they are going to be and the venues will be ready for them, so their experience is just as easy and as seamless as everybody else’s and they only have to worry about choosing shows, which is one of the hardest things to do. So, we are committed to doing this and committed to doing it properly.”
This story is from a presentation at INTIX 2020, the 41st Annual Conference & Exhibition, which took place in New York City from Jan. 20-23, 2020.
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Tags: ADA , Accessibility , Leadership