Enabling Truly Accessible Festivals

Callum Hogg is Safeguarding and Accessibility Manager at Wild Rumpus, which produces the multi-award winning Just So Festival and leads the Northern Festivals Network. He also works with festivals, events and venues as All In Access, removing barriers to access.

Wild Rumpus is proud to take a pioneering and exemplary approach to accessibility. We collaborate closely with leading music charity Attitude Is Everything to make our events more accessible for deaf and disabled audiences and are thrilled to have been awarded Silver on their Charter of Best Practice as well as being the first festival to sign up to their Access Starts Online campaign. We are now working towards their ultimate Gold award.

Putting new approaches in place has seen real results in removing barriers to attend, with a 189% increase of families with access requirements able to attend Just So Festival this year and much great feedback.

Barriers to access can be deep-rooted, subtle and hard to spot if you’re not the person being blocked by them. And the solutions to these access issues can seem costly, boring and unachievable on festival sites. We have found that this is not true (as the Access Starts Online campaign demonstrates) and would love to share how a simple change can be low-cost, creative and a valuable part of audiences’ experiences.

I work with festival organisers – people with a vision of an experience they want people to have, an environment they want people to be part of. These little worlds are built each year, and it is from their point of inception that festivals have an opportunity: to be responsive. Working alongside organisers on their festivals from early on means that access can be considered all the way through the planning process, not bolted on at the end. Access becomes less about booking toilets or ticking boxes, and more about considering audiences more widely, thinking about people and their memories of the festival, and making changes accordingly.

The real joy of doing this is being creative with access; finding new ways to get people enjoying your festival. Working towards having an accessible festival, rather than a festival with some access facilities, means that access doesn’t need to be a cold or medical topic. It means talking about access in the same tone and with the same excitement as you talk about the atmosphere you want to create, or the same language on your website as you announce next year’s artists. Yes, we should do this because it’s the right thing to do, but also because 1 in 5 people have a disability in the UK. That’s 1 in 5 people who might be giving the access information just as much attention as they give the line-up announcement, and so what they’re reading should be relevant, accurate and sound like it’s part of the festival. For this 20% of the potential audience, it might just be the access information and provision that they remember.

Just So Festival is a brilliant and astonishing combination of theatre, art, music, dance and unapologetic joy. Families come together to encounter new things, old things and experience as a team. This kind of engagement in a festival, exploring as a family, means that the festival is varied to the extreme. Not only does the programme present an array of options, but each family will experience and engage in different ways. Depending on the age of the family, how much they engage with the arts, how much time they get to spend together and – in some cases – if a member of the family is d/Deaf or disabled. These factors might play some part in both how a family chooses what they see and how they engage with it whilst it’s happening.

At Just So Festival, we were keen to make sure that we were giving as much information as possible to families about what they might see. We were considering content warnings, ‘autism friendly’ notices or an accessible guide to the festival. The problem, and opportunity, we faced was individuality. As keen as we were to inform families, we didn’t want to dictate to them. We did not want to pretend that we knew the children onsite with autism better than they knew themselves, so well that we could tell each one what would be suitable for them.

Instead, we created the Programme guidelines.

At the point of booking, we asked each artist, musician and performer to put their act in any of the appropriate categories. We typed up some extended guidance for what might qualify for each category, and worked with the artists so that they understood what we were doing. Then, throughout the main Just So Festival programme, each act would be coded. The key for the codes was at the front of the programme, with a brief explanation of what each code meant. The codes were designed to describe the experience of engaging with an activity, rather than to tell you who should go to it. That is to say that if you are a person who would be put off by the threat of being called onto stage, you can go and freely enjoy a performance marked ‘Sit Back & Relax’. No chance of being called upon there. Or, if you (or your children) are sometimes self-conscious about the noise you make at the theatre or cinema you might choose to go to something marked ‘Make Some Noise’.

This system is a simple one, but is an example of a change of viewpoint. It is about considering what we are putting in place and, at every stage, what within that could be problematic for parts of our audience. Our emphasis is now on giving the tools to navigate the festival to the audience, rather than telling people what we think they can manage or should experience. I love working with audiences so that they are able to attend festivals. What I love more, is seeing festival teams considering access in the different areas of their plans. It’s at that point, when access is a part of planning and not an add-on, that a festival’s character will be seen in access provision. That facilities not be luxury but a given, because the festival audience needs it. Exclusion is still a very real part of the world we live in, and we have a chance to challenge it. We are building little worlds in fields, and we can choose to build worlds for a few people or for many.

Just So Festival