Access all Areas: Disability & Culture in Scotland

Deviance speaks to EUSA's Disability and Mental Wellbeing Convenor about Edinburgh's accessibility problem and the people who're trying to fix it...

Feature by Leah Morgan | 01 Mar 2017
  • Access All Areas

I’m in good company in saying that Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. I come from a small Welsh town, meaning this city was an absolute wonder the minute I set foot in it. I was ecstatic thinking about all the places I would visit and experiences I would have during my time spent living here. I was far enough away from home that I could be as independent as possible; I felt I was free to go and do whatever I pleased.

But as I settled into my new home, it began to dawn on me; maybe I couldn’t do all the things I'd planned, because the places I most wanted to visit are also difficult for me to deal with. I have an invisible disability, and finding places that are accessible to my needs can be difficult. Large crowds, loud noises, and bright lights are a stressful and a painful experience. While you cannot see the symptoms of my disability, it often deters me from going to cultural venues as I know, more often than not, that my experience will be troubling.

Here's an example. Museums are difficult for me to appreciate because I feel I cannot fully immerse myself. I’m anxious, anticipating loud noises (you’d expect museums to be somewhat quiet, right? Nope). That, or I'll forget my colour-lensed glasses and am left squinting at the exhibitions. I’ve also been to restaurants and bars where the music was far too loud, yet due to an unexplained policy they refused to turn it down. It tends to ruin the experience of going out, leaving me feeling like a burden.

And I’m not alone. As EUSA’s Disability and Mental Wellbeing Convenor, I’ve heard over and over that students have been prevented from participating in Edinburgh’s cultural scene because it’s inaccessible. Issues range from being physically unable to get into buildings to being unable to attend events because organisers haven’t taken measures to help avoid undue emotional or mental impact.

More often than not, when we ask why Edinburgh’s venues are frequently so inaccessible, we’re told something along the lines of “It’s an old city, there’s nothing we can do about it.” No matter how we go about it, whether we complain to the council or to the venues themselves, we’re constantly given this answer. And that feels like a slap in the face. It implies that buildings are, and should continue to be, protected more than disabled people. This feeling of being a burden is far too common among differently abled people. It is isolating. We end up being forgotten about because, really, we’re not there.

Access Scottish Theatre

Yet, while for the most part it all seems like doom and gloom, there are initiatives, communities and individuals trying to combat this problem and open up culture to disabled people. Access Scottish Theatre is one of these organisations. Its website, launched in 2010, is dedicated to helping patrons find accessible performances in theatres across Scotland. 60% of its users claim its very existence has increased their attendance at the theatre.

What’s more, lots of Edinburgh’s theatres now provide listings of accessible performances on their own websites, with the likes of King's, Festival Theatre, Lyceum and the Traverse specifying how each performance is accessible to theatre-goers (audio described, captioned, etc). 

Relaxed performances

Relaxed theatre performances are also becoming more frequent. During these adapted performances, specifically crafted for people with autism, sensory and communication disorders and those with learning disabilities, the house lights stay on for the whole performance. There are warnings for loud noises, and if anyone is overwhelmed, they can head to a designated ‘chill-out zone’, which allows punters to follow the show through speakers.

Some venues even offer a walk around the theatre prior to the show starting, allowing people to see the set and backstage. It seems that theatres are becoming aware that disabled people want to engage with theatre and culture, and that they should have the opportunity to do so. Venues accommodating those needs should be praised.

Praising progress

...Speaking of which, Disabled Access Day takes place this month (10-12 March), and was specifically created to promote accessible venues. The weekend-long event allows businesses to demonstrate just how accessible they are, meanwhile encouraging disabled people to visit new places; museums, theatres, art galleries, music venues and beyond. 

It's the hope that events like Disabled Access Day will demonstrate that increasing accessibility not only engages the wider disabled community, but that improving access is also pretty good for business. 

We're still a long way from a completely accessible city, but this is a good start and hugely encouraging. It's also refreshing to see a shift in nuanced empathy and understanding from the wider public. Accessibility is not just a matter of wheelchair ramps and lifts – there's a whole range of disabilities that must be catered for in public spaces. In testing times like 2017, where disabled people are often forgotten about, it inspires hope to see people helping others to feel part of Edinburgh – not just a resident within it.

Tips for trips out

Create a plan: While this may take the spontaneity out of a day out, plan your day out as much as you can, and include on that list where you can enter from a building, use an accessible toilet, etc. Call the venues ahead of time, check out their websites for accessibility information. This should help reduce anxiety before heading out.

Find space: If you are in an area that has a large crowd or is a confined space, keep in mind a place you can escape to if you’re feeling overwhelmed. This can be to go outside, to the foyer or the bathroom. 

Use Euan’s Guide: A website which aggregates user reviews based on accessibility, if a building or area is registered, will detail how accessible it is. This is a great way to check accessibility as they are honest reviews from other disabled people, so they may share things that venues and businesses wouldn't necessarily share on their website. 

Keep in touch: When you find a cultural venue, bar or restaurant which caters to your needs, keep an eye on their website or sign up to a mailing list to make sure you’re on top of their programming, new menus or offers.