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Rachel Bagshaw: As a wheelchair user, Edinburgh left me exhausted – but I finally felt included

Hannah McPake in The Shape of Pain at Summerhall, Edinburgh Hannah McPake in The Shape of the Pain, based on Rachel Bagshaw's experiences
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This is the first year I have taken a show to the fringe. Although I love it, Edinburgh is not kind on anyone with a mobility impairment.

As a wheelchair user with chronic pain, the city’s cobbles and hills can feel a challenge; combining this with heaving festival crowds and the many inaccessible theatre spaces means it can be forbidding.

Previous visits as a punter have left me feeling bewildered, exhausted and that it wasn’t for me, so taking work up always felt completely out of reach.

And this hasn’t been specific to me: despite the thousands of shows on offer, a tiny percentage of these offer accessible, captioned or audio described performances. Last year, Jess Thom wrote brilliantly about the lack of access across the fringe, and the challenges that still face disabled artists and audiences in attending the world’s largest arts festival.

After a long break, I returned to the festival last year to find that while there are still enormous barriers – there’s a huge amount of work I can’t get to see and the city isn’t going to suddenly change its landscape – it was the first year where I felt the possibility of bringing work myself.

It was refreshing to be able to get into more shows than ever before, and while some of this is down to physical access, it’s also from the changing attitudes of venues.

It was heartening to see other disabled artists bringing work up and for it to be sitting within the whole programme, as those attitudes change across the industry, too.

So, this year, here I am. The Shape of the Pain, based on my experience of living with pain and written by Chris Thorpe, has been at Summerhall as part of the fringe.

Initially, when our producer China Plate suggested that the show start its life in Edinburgh, I was sceptical. But with a lot of thought, we managed to put plans in place.

Some of this has been practical – we obviously needed to be in a wheelchair-accessible space, which narrowed down the options, and asked for a longer get-in to allow for extra rest time. And I had to adjust my view of what the Edinburgh experience should be – no rushing between shows, I need to make sure I take it easy where I can.

But it has also been essential to us that work itself is accessible. Although the number of shows accessible to deaf or visually impaired audiences increases every year, it’s still only a small percentage.

The Shape of the Pain uses captions and audio description; working with the whole creative team and with lots of advice, we have fully integrated them so they feel part of the fabric of the design. So much so that in fact some audiences don’t even notice they are access tools.

Along with others – Graeae’s Cosmic Scallies or Paines Plough’s Roundabout programme, which has offered captioned performances – the show offers an opportunity for audiences with sensory impairments to see work at the fringe.

Coming to the end of my first ever Edinburgh show month, I’m still bewildered and exhausted. And I’ve still encountered my fair share of tricky access situations. But I no longer feel it’s not for me. It might have taken years to get here, but I intend to return.

It will take many more years for the festival to be truly, wholly accessible. But as venues improve their approach to access, it can only increase the opportunities for disabled artists and audiences alike, and enable the fringe to be a full reflection of the world we live in.

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