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Accessibility At The Eurovision Song Contest 2018 Written by on May 9, 2018

It is no secret that Julia Samoylova, this year’s Russian artist, is a wheelchair user. Vienna 2015 showed that the organisers of the Eurovision Song Contest do not always plan appropriately in terms of accessibility for disabled persons.  John Egan has explored some of the key venue features to see if Lisbon 2018 has done any better.

Disability is a common experience, which covers a range of experiences. The United Nations (UN) estimates up to 15% of the world’s population is disabled at any given time. Some people have a time-bound level of disability due to illness or injury; others have persistent or chronic conditions that at an ongoing level impede the ability to live their lives; and others yet have chronic conditions where the extent of their disability impacting the quality of day-to-day life varies from not at all to debilitating.

Monika Kuszynska – ‘In the Name of Love’ (Source: YouTube/Eurovision Song Contest)

In 2015 Monika Kuszynska represented Poland with ‘In The Name of Love’. Kuszynska is a wheelchair user, and at Eurovision she had to be lifted out of her chair to access the Green Room and the stage. There was no ramp available for the opening parade of entrants despite Poland announcing her participation in March 2015, two months prior to the event. This year Russia has sent Julia Samoylova who has a mobility impairment and, like Kuszynska, she uses a wheelchair to aid her. In the run-up to Vienna 2015 I took a broader look at disability and the Eurovision Song Contest, but for 2018 we need to ask why isn’t venue accessibility a requirement for hosting—and is it now?

Framing the Issues

Matters around disability — and accessibility — are often discussed in physical terms: people talk about the physiological/medical aspects of disability, and the physical changes needed to offer access to facilities and services. However, disability also needs to be considered in social terms: we need to think about systemic barriers, negative perceptions, and social exclusion. For example: while an office space can be adapted for a user with a specific mobility impairment, the architect could also have designed it in a way that would enable access for a wide range of people. The latter way of thinking is what we call ‘universal design’.

There is not yet a European Accessibility Act, although the European Parliament was working on this legislation back in 2015. The proposed legislation focuses on “improving the accessibility of products and services in the single market.” It is important to note that this legislation’s focus is on the common market rather than the wider social union.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is existing, relevant legislation. The Charter specifies freedom of assembly, equality regardless of disability, and solidarity rights to fair working conditions as universal rights in the EU:

  • Freedom of assembly includes the ability to assemble, without barriers
  • Equality means have the same level of access as non-disabled persons
  • Solidarity rights refer to disabled persons as workers.

This last one is particularly salient here: performers at the Eurovision are workers, so barrier-free access to the Contest venues should be the goal.

In Lisbon

For this year’s Contest, the key Eurovision venues are:

  • Press Centre
  • Press Conference and Interview Cabins
  • Altice Arena, including the public (‘front of house’) and production (‘back of house’) zones

There are more than 20 other venues — from the delegation hotels and sites for the official parties to the Village, Euro Club and Euro Café etc — but we have chosen to focus on accessibility at the key venues to keep the analysis streamlined. We also acknowledge that many of these facilities are existing one that were mostly built for Expo 1998, 20 years ago.

Press Centre

The ability for artists to interact and engage with the press is important for every delegation and many create so-called “drop in” events in the centre. Engagement with the fan media is an big component in building an artist’s profile—especially with regards to social media presence. Bear in mind there a number of wheelchair users working in the press room. This is their workplace too.

There are two wheelchair ramps to enter the building. The press room worktables themselves are only accessible for wheelchair users if they work at the end of the tables or shift into one of the available chairs. Many wheelchairs also sit a bit tall to fit comfortably under the table ends. The space between tables is less than two metres: with the chairs at each table there isn’t clearance for most wheelchairs.

Press Conference and Interview Rooms

The press conference tent and interview room building are across from the Press Centre. Each has two entrances, one of which has a ramp. Most of the press conference room is accessible, though the mixed zone where artists make themselves available for photos has a barrier that is too high for many in a wheelchair to see.

The Interview room building is adjacent to the press conference tent. It has its ramp at an entrance where Press accreditation is not valid. One would assume that someone requiring that access would be permitted to use that ramp. The security folks on the ground do seem to be able to respond effectively to that sort of required flexibility. But the facility also features a steep staircase to get to the first floor.

Altice Arena

For spectators, the arena can accommodate multiple wheelchair users and similar number of caregivers/supporters. These are in the seating areas above the floor level. If there had been floor level areas for wheelchair users, they would be unable to see anything, particularly in a standing area. There are lifts between the levels in the spectator side of things.

Julia Samoylova and dancers

Julia Samoylova and Dancers (Courtesy EBU Thomas Hanses)

For performers, access is variable. There is lift to the stage in the back of the house, in addition to staircases towards the front of the stage. The Green Room is also in the front of the house this year. There does not appear to be any lift for access to it. Instead there are two ‘public’ sets of stairs (similar to those at the stage) and two more out of shot ones on the sides. In other words, no improvement on 2015. We do not yet know if the stage or Green Room stairs will be used during the live performances.

Looking towards 2019

In political or legislative terms, there are often discussions around what it is called reasonable accommodation of persons with disabilities. The idea of reasonable accommodation is to balance the rights of disabled persons with the resource constraints of providers of goods, services or facilities. Across the UN, EU and other contexts, reasonable accommodation means necessary and appropriate adjustments, while not imposing an undue burden on those providing goods, services or facilities.

For 20+ year old buildings, we would not recommend razing everything and rebuilding from the ground up. But for future editions of the Song Contest, could we not perhaps have plans in advance that do not create participation barriers between artists with mobile disabilities and artists who have none?

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