Venue Case Study: The Edinburgh International Book Festival

A group of people from the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Euan's Guide.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the world’s leading literature festivals, growing across almost 40 years to become the largest public event of its kind. We firmly believe that anyone can and should be able to enjoy our events, regardless of personal circumstances. The Book Festival has long committed to improving access, and when codifying our company values in 2017 through cross-organisation conversations we found access and inclusion underpinned all of our final four, and two especially: Responsibility and Equality. Since then we’ve worked to identify and remove remaining barriers to attendance, with the creation of a dedicated Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group spearheading this effort.

Audience at a Book Festival event. The person closest to the camera is seated in their wheelchair with an assistance dog lying next to them.

Image of: A wheelchair user with an assistance dog sitting in the audience at the Book Festival.

We know how important ease of access is for audiences and authors attending the Book Festival, and every year we gather a huge volume of feedback which helps us evaluate and adjust our purpose-built site each summer. However, a commitment to widening participation more broadly has led us in several positive directions. As a celebration of books and stories, we had to ensure that the diversity of the reading public could be reflected in our audiences and in our programming. As a space for public discussion, ensuring access for all was crucial.

One significant moment came when a member of PAMIS (Promoting a More Inclusive Scotland) wrote to a newspaper highlighting a lack of events and facilities for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. We reached out immediately and have since collaborated with PAMIS, ARC Scotland and the National Involvement Network on bespoke sensory sessions, accessibility guides and more. This partnership has shown us new ways to work with similar organisations to meet other needs. Euan’s Guide staff have advised where our Festival site could pose mobility or sensory challenges and helped find suitable solutions. With support from PAMIS we’ve introduced a Changing Places toilet in recent years alongside the standard accessible loos we've always provided, and created easy-read printed guides and videos of the Festival site. Crucially in 2019 we created a dedicated Access team to help Festival visitors with everything from accessible seating requests, to using our hearing loop system, to obtaining a discrete additional needs badge, alerting our Front of House staff when extra support is needed.

Two photos next to each other. The image on the left shows people walking around at the Book Festival, two guide dogs can be seen at the bottom right of the image. The image on the right shows an audience member in a powerchair about to enter the venue, there is a ramp at the entrance and three members of the team around the entrance.

Left image: People and guide dogs walking at the Book Festival.

Right image: Powerchair user at the theatre entrance being greeted by the Book Festival team.

In recent years we’ve increased the number of events which offer live captioning, and continue to offer a selection of BSL interpreted events as standard, alongside a BSL Interpreter request service for any other event in our programme. We’ve introduced and grown a Pay What You Can ticketing scheme on a selection of our biggest events, and have programmes of community and schools engagement work, helping us to bring the Book Festival to more people who may not otherwise be able to attend, and enabling them to visit and even take part in events at the Festival too. To make sure we continue to improve each year, we read, log and reflect on every feedback comment we receive; include questions about accessibility and inclusion in our annual audience survey; and continue to build partnerships and undertake staff training sessions with access-focused organisations like Alzheimer’s Scotland, Birds of Paradise and more.

Three people on stage at an event. One on the left is standing, one in the centre is seated in a wheelchair and one on the right is sitting on a chair. A large screen can be seen behind them.

Image of: Ade Adepitan speaking at the Book Festival. Abe is joined on stage by Rachel Mapson, who is providing BSL interpretation and Daniel Hahn, who is chairing the event.

“The lives of people with PMLD are limited so much by the unintentional restrictions placed on them by society, and it’s wonderful to see what can be achieved when they are offered the opportunity to experience an event such as the Book Festival. Here people can connect with the atmosphere of the festival, safe in the knowledge that their physical needs are met by the provision of a fully accessible Changing Places toilet, a quiet space if they need it and a disability team who are understanding, flexible and on hand should they require assistance… The Book Festival is a safe environment that offers the opportunity to expand their world and help them overcome those challenges to make the experience something magical and personal to them. A trip to the Book Festival offers connection to so many people on so many levels and these opportunities are rare for people with PMLD.”

Maureen Phillip, PAMIS Family Support and Development Director

It’s great to know the impact that even a small change can have for someone who would otherwise struggle to attend the Festival. In 2019, of the survey respondents who said they had an access requirement, 75% said that need was fully met, with a further 20% indicating theirs were at least partially met – with valuable additional feedback indicating where we can improve. There was a rise in reported use of accessible event seating and toilets from 2018 to 2019, the former a result of work we’d done to streamline accessible seat booking and free PA / carer tickets. Our Access team were praised in 2019 and we are determined to maintain the service as a core part of our Festival staffing when audiences can return in future. In expanding our Pay What You Can scheme to 20 events in 2019, including sessions with high profile guests like Ian Rankin and Prue Leith, we gave away 350 free tickets and sold another 1150 for £5 or less, allowing people to attend events they might not otherwise have been able to. We received a heart-warming message from an audience member who had not been able to afford to attend events before, and was at that point homeless, but had been able to join our Pay What You Can sessions, making it all the clearer why an event focused on ideas and discussion must be accessible to all.

A filled in feedback form on a wooden surface.

Image of: A completed feedback card.

There is always more that can be done, but we’re confident that we are improving accessibility at the Book Festival each year, and we were delighted to receive four successive Euan’s Guide Accessible Festival awards (2016-2019) in testament to our commitment to this vital work.

"It has been an amazing journey to watch the Edinburgh International Book Festival become increasingly more accessible over the years. Or putting it another way; creating a place where welcoming everyone is mainstream.
“It would be hard to find another ‘pop up’ event which has considered and delivered so well on making the experience easy for everyone to take part. There will always be things to do but the Book Festival is a fantastic example of how working with disabled visitors, collecting feedback and creating opportunities has produced an experience worthy of four Euan's Guide awards in recent years.
“We look forward to the next chapter of the journey.”

Paul Ralph, Access and Inclusion Director at Euan's Guide

Moving Online in 2020

Two people are pictured on a video call as part of an online event. Below the two images are captions of what is being said, the event name is written below that and the captions toggle is pictured near the bottom right.

Image of: Captioning toggle turned on for the Marian Keyes virtual event.

Covid-19 posed unprecedented challenges for the Book Festival, forcing us to cancel the physical Festival for the first time; but after careful deliberation we announced our first ever online-only event for August 2020. Despite new challenges and a tight timeline, keeping the Festival as accessible as we could was still a primary goal. We offered BSL Interpretation and Live Captioning from Stagetext on 45 events combined, with a custom-built toggle on event videos allowing viewers to easily switch to whichever stream they needed. Our new chatbox and ‘Ask the Author’ functions allowed any viewer to contribute directly to the discussion too, making engagement for some audiences easier than has been possible before. We chose not to charge for tickets partly in order to make the Book Festival available to anyone facing a difficult period emotionally and financially, and we are immensely grateful to our sponsors, supporters and the countless viewers who donated and helped make this possible. With the support of PAMIS as well as artist Ailie Finlay we created resources helping parents and viewers make their own Sensory Stories for some of our events, as part of a wider suite of free learning resources available to parents and teachers. Through a partnership with People First (Scotland) we included recorded contributions from adults with learning disabilities alongside other professional and community writers in an event in our Citizen strand; we also found ways to continue to record and include older and vulnerable adults shielding during the pandemic in our ongoing community programmes. Understanding some would struggle with streaming and digital access, we ensured the majority of Festival events would be available to watch on-demand and worked with our community partners to bring broadcasts to other venues, and provided physical copies of events for blind and visually impaired audiences through our partnership with charity Open Book. We will continue to bring recorded events into Scottish prisons, Edinburgh’s Sick Children’s Hospital and other settings when permitted through our year-round Story Nation programme.

“I’ve loved and attended the Book Festival for over 30 years. The last 5 years however, I have been housebound/ bedbound with chronic illness. How wonderful to think that many of us who’ve been unable to attend the Book Festival in person over the years will this year be able to join you in a fascinating range of programmes.  Thank you for making the Book Fest available to a permanently house bound population.”

2020 Book Festival Audience Member

“I wanted to thank you very much for putting on the online Edinburgh International Book Festival, which has brought me a great deal of joy and enjoyment whilst I have been shielding.  Thank you also for making all events free of charge. As someone who is currently unable to work due to health reasons, this has been a big help and meant that I could watch as many events as I wanted to without being prohibited by cost. As a powered wheelchair user, it is also very unlikely that I would have been able to attend any of the events in person under normal circumstances due to the extra challenges posed to me by travel / accommodation etc. and the fact that I do not live near Edinburgh… The various online events that are currently taking place, therefore, are a real balm during this challenging period.”

2020 Book Festival Audience Member

A BSL interpreter is pictured in front of a green screen at the left of the image. A large screen is beside her showing two people on a video call together, one of the people on the screen is also pictured on the right of the image.

Image of: Bernardine Evaristo on a screen towards the centre of the image, Nicola Sturgeon sitting at the right of the image and a BSL interpreter pictured on the left.

Looking ahead

We’re hard at work behind the scenes on what the future of the Book Festival looks like, with uncertainty around the potential for in-person audiences in 2021 still prevalent. Our Director, Nick Barley, has committed to maintaining many features of the 2020 Online Book Festival as key parts of our work in future, with digitally-streamed events opening the Festival up in ways that could not be achieved otherwise. Through our partnerships we are exploring how else we could tackle issues of digital exclusion too, including for disabled adults. We’ll have much more to say in the weeks and months ahead, so please stay tuned – but no matter what form the Festival takes, our commitment to accessibility and being a welcoming, open event for anyone to take part in will remain unchanged.

Image of a purple book

Written by the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Locations: Edinburgh

Tags: case study, venues, events, festivals


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