Much of The Edinburgh Fringe programme remains inaccessible to disabled audiences, prompting criticism from campaigners and advocates as the 2022 festival gets underway.
According to the Fringe’s own website search filters, a number of shows include no accessibility features at all. Additional analysis by The Ferret found that almost 40 per cent of venues were hosting no accessible shows. Almost two-thirds of all Fringe venues are currently inaccessible to wheelchair users.
Campaigners have called the findings “unsurprisingly shocking” and said commitment, investment, and changes in attitude are needed to address the problem.
A Fringe Society spokesperson said the festival had already taken steps to improve accessibility but recognised that there is still work to do in supporting disabled artists and audiences.
The Fringe website allows visitors to filter shows by seven accessibility criteria: captioning; audio description; signed performance; relaxed performance; wheelchair access; audio enhancement system and wheelchair accessible toilets.
Of 3,445 shows listed on the site on Wednesday 3rd August, 75 (two per cent) were listed as including captioning. Seventeen (0.5 per cent) included audio description and 64 (1.9 per cent) were listed as putting on a signed performance.
2,163 (63 per cent) shows were accessible to wheelchairs, meaning over a third of all shows were not. 622 of those shows listed as being wheelchair accessible did not have a wheelchair accessible toilet at the venue.
There were no shows which met all seven accessibility criteria.
As the search filters return results based on shows and not individual performances, a show will be identified as accessible even if it is only putting on one accessible performance. Many acts included in the results have only a single signed or captioned performance available.
Moira Tasker, chief executive of Inclusion Scotland, said some access problems existed year-round in Edinburgh while others related to the pop-up nature of the Fringe and a tendency to use all available spaces.
“A common complaint from Edinburgh festival-goers is how tricky it is to choose what to go to because of the sheer number of shows on offer,” she said.
“However, the festival is still not that big for many disabled people due to an enduring lack of accessibility at performances.”
“We need a mixture of commitment and investment in accessibility from the council to address long-standing access problems, as well as a shift in perceptions from festival organisers that consideration for deaf and disabled artists and audiences is overly complicated, or prohibitively expensive.”
Some adaptations can be low-cost and still have a big impact – for example temporary ramps, good signage, and promotional materials in large print, said Tasker.
Ben Wilson, a blind theatre-maker who has attended the Fringe as an audience member, said he had decided not to return to the festival until improvements were made.
“As blind and visually impaired audiences we are not welcome at the Fringe. This is clear. The Fringe don’t want our custom,” Wilson told The Ferret.
“I’ve been to the Fringe a handful of times and every time faced huge barriers and felt not welcome or accepted as a visually impaired audience member. I have now decided not to return until there is proof of serious change.”
Equalities consultant and disability campaigner Fiona Robertson said worries about Covid had been a particular barrier for disabled people at this year’s festival and that responsibility for an accessible event should ultimately fall to the Fringe itself.
“Disabled people are unable to see so much of the Fringe. Especially now with the added risk of crowded venues where masks are not required, we have to fight for every basic concession,” she said.
“Most performers are already operating on a frayed shoestring so the responsibility for this lies with the Fringe organisation itself to have a common fund available for interpreters and technology, and to audit venues for actual accessibility.”
Analysis of venues by The Ferret found that just over 50 per cent of all venues had at least one show with no accessibility features. 108 (40 per cent) of these had no accessible shows at all.
Andrew Roach, a talent agent and Managing Director of Andrew Roach Talent Agency which almost exclusively represents deaf, disabled and/or neurodivergent acts such as Lost Voice Guy and Jamie MacDonald, said he had seen little progress on the issue in the years he has been attending the Fringe.
‘There’s a large potential audience there to be served, while many shows are struggling and competing for ticket sales. It’s true the Fringe is expensive but more tickets are likely to be sold if shows are made accessible and more revenue generated as a result; the additional costs will then be recouped from those increased audiences,” Roach said.
“It’s often said that accessibility is difficult because Edinburgh is a historic city. But disabled people have a legal human right: if we just gave into history all the time nothing would change. Many venues ‘pop up’ for the Fringe but others are run year-round by councils and universities who should be at the forefront of ensuring accessibility.”
But there are challenges, said Roach: acts are affected by a lack of available and appropriate interpreters and captioners in the city during the Fringe, and while it may be manageable to introduce one feature at a time, costs can increase exponentially as multiple accessibility features are introduced.
A lack of clarity about where financial responsibility lies between productions and venues is also an issue, he said, as is a lack of dedicated support and funding for those who wish to make their performances accessible but may lack the means.
“This is a whole industry issue and it’s for everyone to think about, not just disabled people,” Roach told The Ferret.
“The Fringe, venues, comedy clubs and everyone else needs to be asking themselves: do people feel included in the first place? Do they feel it’s a place for them? Even if they can physically get in the room, are they made to feel welcome there?”
Actor and writer Lila Clements is among the small number of acts offering captioned and signed performances with her one woman show ‘Look, No Hands’ about a serious bicycle accident.
“It makes sense to me that we extend our reach and continue trying to make theatre more inclusive, particularly after the pandemic shutdown of the industry; it was a time to ask questions and reflect on working practices,” Clements told The Ferret.
“The Fringe is a wonderful platform for new work, artist collaboration and experiencing live theatre from across the world. Hearing voices and experiences which are different to our own is something to strive for and making theatre accessible is an important step towards that aim.
“There are so many barriers already and [captioning/BSL] is a small offer on our part which could help many audiences feel more included.”
Clements was supported by Deaf Action to provide signing and captioning. This year’s Fringe also sees the charity host a dedicated week-long Deaf Festival coinciding with the third week of the Fringe.
Other initiatives include the Fringe Venue Access Award, which sets accessibility standards for recognised venues, and a dedicated ticketing service for those with accessibility requirements.
A Fringe Society spokesperson said: "Within the 2022 festival programme, 63 per cent of shows are accessible to wheelchair users, with 35 per cent of Fringe venue spaces currently accessible to wheelchair users. Edinburgh's historic infrastructure can create physical barriers and we work closely with venues throughout the year to support as much as possible.
“We recognise that there is still work to do in supporting disabled artists and audiences, and it is why we have committed to doubling the number of venues achieving Level 2 and 3 Venue Access awards within our recently launched Fringe Development Goals.
“There is increasing demand to improve captioning and BSL interpretation, and there have been some really positive steps in this area, including the development of a Venue Access Award scheme, and BSL interpretation at all Fringe Society events.”
This investigation was co-published with The Herald.
Photo Credit: iStock/yacobchuk