Illustration © Antonio Rodriguez
One of the few positive impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic has been that as events and festivals were shifted to an online format, they became accessible in ways that purely in-venue events could never be. They reached wider audiences. They enabled speakers to participate who could not otherwise have taken part.
As Covid-19 restrictions have eased, we have seen many festival and event organisers (including the Society of Authors) start planning in-venue events again. Our hope, during this transition, has been that this would not mean a shift back to solely pre-pandemic setups – that event organisers would be striving to combine the best of online with the best of in-venue practices – adopting hybrid approaches where possible, and always prioritising accessibility and inclusion within their planning.
Authors have been speaking out on the importance of this – not least through Penny Batchelor’s #KeepFestivalsHybrid campaign – and we know from our own experience at the Society of Authors that it is what audience members and speakers want too.
This is why we were concerned to hear about several cases over the past week of disabled authors, who had been booked for online appearances, having bookings cancelled when event organisers switched to an entirely in-venue setup.
I’ve just had a festival that offered me an online reading get back to me to say they’ve decided to go entirely in-person, but with streaming, so they’re no longer asking me to speak at the festival. They’re offering another, non-festival option. This is not equality of access.
— Polly Atkin (@pollyrowena) March 16, 2022
On 16 March, poet Polly Atkin wrote on Twitter: ‘I’ve just had a festival that offered me an online reading get back to me to say they’ve decided to go entirely in-person, but with streaming, so they’re no longer asking me to speak at the festival. They’re offering another, non-festival option. This is not equality of access.’ This situation was echoed by other authors.
While we understand that Polly has resolved this specific issue, we are concerned about the compromising situations that might continue to arise for speakers and audience members, as events, festivals and venues develop their programmes for 2022 and beyond.
Commenting on her experience, Polly Atkin said:
Like many disabled people I’ve had to turn down work during the pandemic which insisted on in-person attendance, but only recently have I had a work offer revoked as an online event shifted to an in-person format with streaming. I’ve since heard many similar examples. This hits disabled writers hard at a time when we’re all struggling anyway, after over two years of shielding for many people. We feel forgotten and let down. It’s devastating to see excellent writers shut out of cultural activity as online options shut down.
The need for good practice
It is vital that every organiser strives for equality of access. This is not simply about widening access. It is part of their responsibility for ensuring diversity and inclusion. It is essential that organisers provide transparent accessibility conditions for those attending and contributing before we find ourselves forgetting the learnings of the past two years and slipping back to less accessible pre-pandemic days.
We urge them to develop a policy and practical commitment to accessibility and inclusion, including remote access for speakers and audiences, in whatever form this may take – and to collaborate with disabled people to make it work. This benefits everyone who cannot attend in-venue, whether that is because they are still shielding, whether they cannot travel because of disability, or whether they have caring responsibilities or other commitments and pressures that make travelling difficult.
This might not be straightforward. There may be perceived financial, technical or logistical barriers. We know that not all events can be made hybrid. And we know that online speakers and participants can often receive a sub-par experience. But these are no justification for turning back the clock to the setup of events and festivals before the pandemic. Good practice is already happening in the running of many events. It is time to recognise and learn from that good practice and celebrate it where we see it.
Resources from Claire Wade and the Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses network
Sign the open letter to festival organisers and look out for their free guide on hybrid events from w/c 28 March 2022
The free Inklusion Guide will be published in August 2022 to provide an invaluable source of good practice guidelines for making literature events accessible to deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people
Recording of the Poetry and Spoken Word Group event on the shift towards online events and its impact on poets and the spoken word scene