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Fringe Society and accessibility: making the Fringe more welcoming for everyone

This article is from 2019

Fringe Society accessibility: making the Fringe more welcoming for everyone

credit: David Monteith-Hodge

Here are just some of the measures being taken to ensure everyone can enjoy August in the city

Think of some of the things that make the Edinburgh Festival Fringe so special. The busy buzz of the street events; venues popping up in secret subterranean spaces; the grand, historic backdrop of Edinburgh, its steep, cobbled streets and narrow wynds suggesting a city constantly on the brink of adventure. It's an exciting, enticing mishmash of sights, sounds, smells and sensations.

Unfortunately, some of the things that make the Fringe so intoxicating also make it hard to enjoy if you have access requirements. Sensory overload is challenging when you're an autistic person; navigating the bustling, bumpy streets can be difficult for wheelchair users. The Fringe prides itself on being an 'open-access' festival – but how do you make the biggest (and busiest) arts festival in the world open and accessible to all, especially in a city like Edinburgh?

It's a question that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society is working to answer. As the organisation that underpins the Fringe, one of the Society's main goals is to provide information and assistance to everyone who wants to experience the Fringe, whether as participant or audience member. When it comes to helping people with access requirements, the Society's first step has been a deceptively simple one: asking how they can help. Through close consultation with partners in the disabled community, the Fringe Society has developed a number of measures to make the Fringe more welcoming for everyone. Here are a handful of them.

Fringe Society accessibility: making the Fringe more welcoming for everyone

Access bookings service
The best way to find out how to help someone enjoy the Fringe is to ask the right questions – not so much 'what's your disability?', but 'what access requirements do you have?' The Fringe access bookings team is trained to handle access enquiries for a range of audiences, and has specialised listings for shows with signed, relaxed, captioned and audio-described performances. You can also find these listings on the Fringe website, and filter search results for a variety of requirements including hearing loops, wheelchair access and accessibility to non-English speakers.

Accessible viewing areas
Another deceptively simple idea, these blue mats mark out spaces where wheelchair users can watch street performances. They're referred to as the 'magic carpets' by Paul Ralph, who works with disabled access review site Euan's Guide: 'For the first time ever, I wasn't sitting behind a crowd… I can actually go, sit on the mat and enjoy the performance. What was fascinating was the crowd actually opened up to allow me to get into that space and enjoy it. It changes street performance.'

Sensory backpacks
The contents of these free-to-borrow backpacks – including a fidget toy and earplugs or ear defenders – are designed to make the Fringe environment more welcoming for people who might find it overwhelming, such as autistic children and adults. The Fringe Society has increased the number of backpacks available to borrow this year, and the number of places where they can be picked up and dropped off.

British Sign Language interpretation
Last year, the Fringe Society introduced a weekend of BSL-interpreted performances at the street events; this year, it's happening every Saturday at West Parliament Square, outside St Giles' Cathedral.

Changing Places toilets
There are five Changing Places toilets in central Edinburgh during August, including one established by the Fringe Society near George Square. Each toilet contains an adult-sized changing bench and hoist, for people who are unable to use a standard accessible toilet.

There's no such thing as a 100%-accessible festival. Features that make a show accessible to one audience might make it inaccessible to another – for example, some Deaf people require bright, clear lighting to help them lipread, which could pose a problem for someone sensitive to light. But by asking the right questions and responding to feedback, the Fringe Society is attempting to make the Fringe as accessible as it can be for everyone who wants to experience it.

Find out more about access at the Fringe.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Each year, thousands of performers take to a multitude of stages all over Edinburgh to present shows for each and every taste. From big names to unknown artists looking to build their careers, the festival caters for everyone and includes theatre, comedy, dance, physical theatre, musicals, operas, children's shows, music…