By Molly Stock-Duerdoth
The size, complexity, and architecture of the Fringe presents immediate problems for accessibility, but a lot had been done to improve the experience for disabled visitors and performers. The Fringe Society has been working with various charities for several years, and has been recognised for its commitment to and achievements in improving access.
The Fringe website includes a searchable database of all performances which are signed, relaxed, captioned, audio described, have wheelchair access, disabled toilets, or level access. Access tickets can be booked via phone or email (although unfortunately not yet online), along with free PA tickets, and specific equipment to help you access a show can be requested. It is also possible to get full access information about any venue online, and the Fringe shop itself is fully accessible with wheelchair street access and a dropped counter. Free sensory backpacks can also be picked up here for adults or children with autism, which contain ear defenders, a fidget toy, a stress reliever, a water bottle, a list of relaxed performances, and, in the kids’ backpacks, a soft toy.
Aside from the Fringe’s own site, a great website to check out for general information and first-hand accounts of experiences with specific venues is Euan’s Guide (www.euansguide.com), “the disabled access review website used by disabled people to review, share and discover accessible places to visit”. I spoke to the Guide, who said that “so many things have been done well this year” in terms of disabled access and that “the Fringe society has upped its efforts to improve the quality of access” – despite the challenges which come with managing an event of this size especially when performers choose their own venues. The Guide were keen to note that “the thought that has gone into other elements of the Fringe experience has been exemplary” and celebrate that the Fringe Society has been “presented with the ‘Spirit of Inclusion’ award at this year’s Accessible Edinburgh Festivals Award!”
The architecture of Edinburgh presents some difficulties. Nevertheless, the Mile, although crowded, is fully accessible and there are disabled toilets nearby. Unfortunately much of Edinburgh itself is cobbled and steep, but steps are always avoidable, and trams and buses service the centre and wider city frequently, so most venues are not further than 0.5 miles from a public transport stop. There’s a Welcome App which allows you to let staff know when you’re arriving and what you look like if you require in-person assistance at a venue. The Changing Places map also shows where you can find accessible toilets with benches and hoists.
Euan’s Guide recommends that “The Fringe doesn’t have to be over-complicated: simply take time to read the information on the Fringe website and speak directly to the access booking team. The information is comprehensive”. They also stress the importance of utilising the wonderful staff; “the Fringe volunteers are among the friendliest people you’ll meet in the city!”
Many of the areas where access is still difficult are the venues, which the Fringe Society has no control over. To combat this, the Society has published the Adapting a Show handbook, which can be found online and lists specific ways in which theatre groups can make their events more accessible.
There are also plenty of shows on offer at Fringe which tackle disability as a subject and/or involve people with disabilities. When asked to recommend any shows featuring or crewed by people with disabilities, Euan’s Guide replied enthusiastically; “Yes! If you’re visiting with kids, check out AnimAlphabet: The Musical with every performance BSL interpreted. Speechless Comedy is another one to check out and My Left / Right Foot by Birds of Paradise Theatre Company and National Theatre of Scotland.”
The Fringe’s approach to access, while some challenges remain, has been thoughtful and excellently executed – just make sure you’re aware of all the information and resources available, most of which can be found online – and the friendly Fringe staff are always on hand.