Now that August has come and gone Edinburgh is no longer the centre of the arts world; the stalls are all packed up, posters have been removed and the streets cleared to let the working capital of Scotland return to it’s day job. So everything is back to normal for the people who live and work in Edinburgh. During the festival however, the streets are awash with colour, movement, and noise making the city feel like a giant party or circus venue. There is no doubting the benefits of the Festival for the multitude of cafes, shops and tourism-based businesses in the city but the downside of all of this activity is that some people find the changes make life more difficult and I am one of those people.
I’m a wheelchair user; I’m also a researcher in the field of disability and inclusion. So, as part of my role as an advocate of access for all and social justice, I spend a lot of time thinking, talking, and experiencing issues related to wheelchair access. I recently graduated after spending 4 years doing a PhD on the lived experiences of disabled musicians. During that time, it came as no surprise when in 2017 I was asked to chair a meeting that was arranged to discuss the accessibility or otherwise of the various venues and performances that were taking place at the Edinburgh Fringe. After all, I was based in the University of Edinburgh and during the whole of August I was exposed to the trials and tribulations of being a wheelchair user right in the centre of the largest arts festival in the world.
The meeting was to be held in the centre of Edinburgh at the height of the Festival; at this point you might be thinking ‘why go into town when accessibility is so difficult during August?’ Well, I was naïve enough to think that since it was organised by people who know about access, it would naturally be accessible to a wheelchair user.
My wife, my assistance dog and I made the hour long trip to Edinburgh hoping to find a disabled parking space near the venue. We kind of assumed that such a meeting would be at a venue with a level access door leading into a spacious hall. The latter may have been the case, but we didn’t get to find out. We drove all around the centre of the city looking for a place to park that might be close enough to the venue but many streets were closed and disabled parking bays blocked off. In addition, the pavements were overflowing with people, street performers and food stalls so, even if we did manage to get close to the hall, negotiating this sea of activity would have been a nightmare for all three of us.
After a meaningful debate, or as I like to call it, arguing, my wife and I decided that the best option was to go home. I called the event organiser and told him the news and he reacted in the same way that I encountered at university when I highlighted a problem – ‘oh, I never thought of that’. This type of reponse is a cousin to the token ‘I’ll get back to you on that’ that disabled students often encounter when making suggestions to university staff on how to enable access and inclusion.
A valuable lesson was learned that day, despite assurances that a venue will be accessible, wheelchair users have to take into account other factors such as the availability of parking, the pedestrian route to the venue, and the stress involved in being in a car with the sun beating in and no-where to stop and discuss your next move. The outcome of this fiasco was my wife and I will not venture anywhere near Edinburgh when the Festival is on, no matter how many assurances we get.
In my PhD thesis, I discuss the attitudinal and physical barriers that disabled musician’s experience. The thesis title poses the question ‘Where Are All The Musicians’ – answer; some are playing from cold segregated performance spaces where their instruments sound different to those playing on the mainstage. Others, e.g. those that have sought to study music degrees, are not there at all because the rules have excluded them and reasonable adjustments have not been made. Such as the singer refused access to a music school because they did not also play the piano or the musicians who experienced learning barriers because of taken for granted rites of passage that combine late night performances with next day, early morning, classes.
My thesis concludes that the music world sees impairment as a greater problem than other walks of life and that disablist attitudes, combined with institutional discrimination and an inability to creatively and proactively make reasonable adjustments, fosters a culture of exclusion.
In spite of this culture, Disabled musicians work hard at finding ways around societies disabling practices because of their love for their craft and because they know they have a lot to offer our communities.
Efforts are regularly made to make performance venues accessible for audiences – the hall being used to hold the meeting I was to chair is also a performance venue and, I assume it is suitable for audience members who use a wheelchair. But, considering the difficulties I experienced in getting both to and into the building, I’m left to wonder; how would a disabled performer fare?
Lawrence Clark, stand-up comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe, commented on the inaccessibility of many festival venues:
‘This will be the 3rd time in a row that I’ve performed at Assembly. There is a lack of venues in the fringe that are wheelchair accessible for performers. Often venues appear at first glance to be accessible, but when you read the small print they have restrictions on how many wheelchair users can be accommodated. Since I count as one myself, it’d mean I’d have to turn away my peers. I’m in a venue called the Box, which is literally a box! This means though it’d be easy to escape in a fire so we’re allowed more wheelchair users.’
As I state in my thesis, much consideration is given to the accessibility of buildings these days; ramps are constructed, internal and external lifts are installed, doors are widened. All of these measures taken in anticipation of the pesky wheelchair user who deems to turn up to an event once in a blue moon. Referring to venue organisers, one of the participants interviewed in my thesis said; ‘hiring a ramp to put at the end of your stage for a night, that seems like too much hassle for them’ (Low, 2018, p151).
I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum in this regard, some venue owners do their best to make their shows accessible and go beyond the guidelines they are expected to follow (see the Equality Act, 2010); others do the bare minimum in order to comply and avoid litigation. For example, many buildings have external lifts for those who cannot use stairs but in my experience, many of these lifts don’t work due to a lack of maintenance. Perhaps if wheelchair users felt more confident in actually getting to these venues, external lifts would be more regularly used and wouldn’t rust away in the Scottish weather.
And it is not just accessibility that is an issue, the Stay Up late Scotland Campaign argue that venues should do more to tailor their tickets for disabled people who require an additional ticket for a support worker:
‘Speaking to CommonSpace, Simon Walker from Upward Mobility highlighted the challenges disabled people face, saying that they often need to pay double the price to attend events because of the need to purchase an extra ticket for a support worker. Campaigners say music promoters and venues could make a change to their pricing structures to account for this, a simple change which would make disabled people more welcome.’
So, going back to my question about disabled musicians, how do they get on stage if they can’t get to the building? How do they get instruments, PA equipment, mobility aids (and themselves) through the gauntlet created by the throngs of people in the streets? The answer, in many cases is – they don’t. ‘Where are all the disabled musicians?’ Well, they’re certainly not going to the Edinburgh Festival in their droves that’s for sure and organisers need to show a much greater commitment to the fullest of inclusion.
The meeting I was supposed to chair acts as a perfect example of the issues that can arise for disabled performers or audience members at the Festival. The scenario was particularly ironic since I couldn’t access a meeting of individuals whose sole aim was to improve access. What then can be done to make sure the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe are accessible to all? Perhaps researchers and Festival organisers could have a meeting to talk about strategies to make the venues more accessible, but maybe not in Edinburgh…
And, for those of you thinking, ‘why didn’t George just take a cab’ – have a look at this video from Laurence Clark:
In addition to Laurence’s difficulties with taxi drivers who select their fares according to how much of a burden they represent; there’s also the financial aspect to consider. It would have cost me £100 to get a taxi from my home to the venue – yet another barrier that disabled people have to negotiate.
So, what can organisers do to make sure their venue is as accessible as possible? A good source of advice is the Euan’s Guide website which not only posts reviews on the accessibility of premises but also provides tips and advice for those who wish to make sure their disabled customers can access their café, shops or performance venues.
Euan’s Guide Top 10 ways to make your venue more accessible can be found here. The website also provides a list of venues that have registered with Euan’s Guide so that prospective customers can get an idea of what the accessibility is like at particular premises . This acts positively in two ways; it promotes the business thereby bringing in more trade, it provides essential information for disabled people as they decide whether a venue will be accessible to them.
In addition to Euan’s Guide, other organisations provide information on the accessibility of premises; DisabledGo is one such organisation. Their website has a search facility similar to Euan’s Guide which allows the user to find information on the accessibility of a variety of venues.
George Low is a researcher in social justice and inclusion. He gained a PhD in Education from the University of Edinburgh and explores the issues faced by disabled people through the lived experiences of musicians who have a physical impairment. As a wheelchair user and musician George has a special interest in attitudes and perceptions towards disabled people with a focus on disabled musicians in particular. George lives in West Lothian with his wife Jeanette and his assistance dog Fogle.