We Do Us: Creating An Accessible Nightlife

Written by Louise Bruton

Fatima Timbo aka Fats Timbo and Layton Williams celebrate the Smirnoff ‘We Do Us’ initiative in partnership with Tilting The Lens and Sink The Pink on November 29, 2023 in London, England.
Photo by Dave Benett

Nothing about us without us is a well-known saying in Disability activism, and Tilting the Lens have taken this phrase to a new level with the We Do Us campaign. Launched in November, this partnership with Smirnoff and Stonegate aims to make socialising more accessible for Disabled people across the UK through pubs and nightclub spaces. 

The campaign began in November 2023 with a colourful club night, full of pop music, drag queens and sequins, in London’s 26 Leake Street, a cool event space held in the arches of the iconic, graffitied tunnel that runs underneath Waterloo Station. Hosted by Fats Timbo and Layton Williams, and with performances from Melanie C, Sink the Pink, Drag Syndrome, Leigh-Anne, Mae Muller, and… me, We Do Us shone its spotlight on Disabled and non-Disabled entertainers equally.  

Sinéad Burke, the CEO of Tilting the Lens, had a clear goal for this night. “At We Do Us, we created an event where the ambition was to achieve equity of experience. We define this as a night where every guest, whether they be Disabled or non-Disabled, can experience joy, autonomy, agency and choice. But, one night alone is not systemic change. This is just the beginning.” 

As an attendee and a performer, I had the esteemed privilege of experiencing thoughtful inclusion in the crowd, backstage and onstage. As a wheelchair user, I usually have to make compensations on nights out, like being lifted in through the front door, not being able to use the toilet, feeling cornered, or having no clear view of the stage, and this leaves me with a feeling of being unequal to my peers. But that night, access was a priority, making me and every Disabled person there a VIP.  

With Tilting the Lens’ expertise in accessibility, and their lived experiences as Disabled people, they not only raised the standard in access at We Do Us, but they provided the safety net that so many Disabled people lack when they socialise at public events. While DJing, I caught sight of a glorious moment where people in manual and electric wheelchairs, crutches users, and the Drag Syndrome performers, who all have Down Syndrome, dominated the dance floor. I have never seen such a diverse range of Disabled people share a collective freedom like it. 

Áine Aherne, a consultant with Tilting the Lens, stresses the importance of having Disabled people involved from the very beginning of planning an event. “We were there on the first site visit to 26 Leake Street, and immediately we could see what needed to be done,” she says of the successful collaboration with Smirnoff, Stonegate, 26 Leake Street, Sink the Pink, and RanaVerse. 

For any event to be as inclusive as possible, the three main elements are: 

  • Communication
  • Physical access
  • Service

Communication

One of the key starting points in access and inclusion is information. In the lead up to the We Do Us club, no guest or performer was left in the dark about what to expect. With ease, guests could find out everything that they needed to know about the event. 

Once people registered for tickets, there was clear communication from the event planners via email. This same information was easy to find on the official posts shared by performers and event planners on social media. Clear photo carousels, along with image description, were shared by performers, so anyone who follows Mel C or Leigh-Anne, even if they weren’t attending the event, could learn more about access.

The event’s accessible web page provided a thorough breakdown of access information, including the various transport routes, a description of the surrounding area, precise measurements of the gender-neutral and accessible bathrooms, and early entry times for a more relaxed admission experience. 

But the communication didn’t stop there. From the first email to the last song, clear communication needs to be maintained. Clearly marked signs that used strong lettering and coloured lines stuck to the floor told guests the location of the accessible bathrooms, the quiet room, the bar, the VIP area, the stage, and the viewing platform throughout the space. 

Those signs were then lit by spotlights, “Perhaps it’s a case of overcommunication,” Áine says, “but we had to make sure that they were definitely seen.”

With the option to be directly dropped to the door of 26 Leake Street, guests were met by staff upon arrival who explained the layout of the step-free venue. They reaffirmed that if guests need assistance throughout the evening, any member of staff wearing a red t-shirt, of which there were many, would help. 

Physical Access

Collage of photos from We Do Us event on November 29, 2023 in London, England.
Left to right: Lou Bru, Drinks menu in large font and in Braille, Lucy Edwards
Photo by Dave Benett

26 Leake Street is one of the few central and medium-sized locations in London that could host an event like We Do Us. With a mostly flat interior and close proximity to an accessible Tube station and accessible parking bays, it was an ideal choice, but some physical adjustments had to be made to the space.

Each bar had a lowered counter so that wheelchair users and people with a lower stature could order drinks and pay easily. When the measurements were taken for the bar installation, the lowered counter was a priority, and this was a note made by Tilting the Lens at the first site visit. All of the bar menus were available in Braille and its staff underwent disability awareness training in the lead up to We Do Us.

While 26 Leake Street is a ground floor venue, and has its own platform lift that connects to a mezzanine level, the number of internal ramps leading to the accessible toilet felt excessive. Disabled guests would have to slope down and then slope back up to get to the bathroom. Tilting the Lens team pitched the idea of a built-in platform to create a level pathway. 

“When you suggest building a platform, it’s the type of thing that sounds complicated or expensive, but it was an affordable and easy alternative,” says Áine, adding that ramps aren’t always an ideal access solution. “A flat surface is always preferred.”

Luckily, the venue has existing accessible bathrooms that meet the standard requirements, but Tilting the Lens made sure that they did more than just meet the standards. By adding a full-length mirror, a footstool, menstruation products, and low coat hooks, these fragrance-free bathrooms provided what many accessible bathrooms so often forget to include: the basics. Even the bathrooms backstage were fully accessible, which is something that a lot of Disabled performers rarely get to enjoy. 

The platform leading to the accessible bathroom was made from the same materials used to build the viewing platform. An interesting thing happened with the viewing platform on the night itself; very few people used it. 

The reason for this was that everybody in attendance was aware of the space Disabled people needed to feel comfortable, so the dance floor was never crowded. The front row view was prioritised for Disabled guests, with folding chairs available to use there too, so when given the choice between the raised platform at the back of the room or a front row view of Mel C’s DJ set, there was one clear winner. 

At We Do Us, all attendees shared the space and the spotlight equally. The queens from Drag Syndrome danced and twirled throughout the audience, getting Disabled and non-disabled people to move freely. When you design an event to include everybody, the end result is total and joyous inclusion. 

Outside of a Disability-led night, extra work will need to be done so that we can allow the considerate dance floor to filter out into venues across the country.  

Inclusive access

Collage of photos from We Do Us event on November 29, 2023 in London, England.
Left to right: Paddy Pio Smyth and Arthur Hughes, George Robinson, Fats Timbo. Photo by Dave Benett

Access is often limited to the needs of just wheelchair users, so Tilting the Lens made sure that all the needs of people with physical, learning, and intellectual disabilities, as well as Autistic people and those who are neurodivergent, were catered to at We Do Us. By offering in-app and on-demand visual interpreting, specific lighting designs, a quiet room, and providing noise-reduction headphones made, this was an all inclusive event.  

Just as everything was clearly signposted throughout the venue, everything onstage was signed by professional BSL performers. The BSL performers brought an extra level of movement to the stage, translating the music and capturing the vibe so that Deaf or hard of hearing people could connect to the performances. BSL interpreters were available at the bars and throughout the venue, too. 

On the floor, coloured lines directed people to the different spaces, mapping out 26 Leake Street in a memorable way. This colour system helped people to move around the venue and to manage the crowds as they got acquainted with a new space. These strips were easy to apply and just as easy to remove; a clever way of communicating the layout of a venue.

Similarly, lighting was used to enhance communications within the venue.  Existing lights, or ones hired in for the event, can illuminate signs, bathrooms, service counters, steps, and seating areas, benefitting everybody. This is a very simple thing to integrate into lighting specifications for different events. Additionally, the lighting throughout the venue was bright, but not harsh to ruin a good selfie, and no strobe lighting was used during any of the performances. 

The quiet room at We Do Us was a particular point of pride for Tilting the Lens. It’s very easy to create a space that reduces the hum of being in a crowd, using soft furnishings, low lighting and no music, but finding the room to create it can be the biggest obstacle. Located away from the main thoroughfare, the quiet room for We Do Us was distinct and clearly marked, ensuring that it didn’t become a general hang-out spot for everybody to wander in and out of.  

In busy, social settings, it can be difficult to monitor who should and shouldn’t be using the quiet room, but just like the considerate dance floor mentioned above, there needs to be an increased awareness of their importance. 

In theory, quiet rooms can be used and shared by everybody, but it’s how we use them that matters. Rather than fencing them off or grilling everyone on why they need to use it, these spaces can be overlooked by staff trained in crowd control and disability awareness. 

Service

Lowered counter at the bar at the We Do Us event on November 29, 2023 in London England

The difference between an event staffed by people who have received Disability awareness training and who haven’t is huge. Having great access is half the battle for inclusivity, and if staff aren’t regularly trained in Diversity and Inclusion, their behaviour or language could ruin an evening for Disabled guests. No matter how good a viewing platform or quiet room is, if a member of staff is rude or dismissive, that will be the memory that lasts.  

In the weeks leading up to We Do Us, all staff underwent training to make sure that all Disabled guests were treated with respect. It was important that everyone, from security to bartenders, felt confident serving people with different access needs without doing or saying the wrong thing. 

Our language, our actions, and even how we greet people, like hugs, handshakes, or any touch without warning, can contribute to the overall experience of Disabled people.

In contrast to late night spaces where there’s a “Go! Go! Go!” attitude to serve as many drinks and customers at once, the pace at We Do Us was relaxed. This requires the serving and security staff to consider a new approach to how they work, creating a more chilled and welcoming environment. 

In a lot of venues, accessible facilities can be misused or treated like storage areas, but this training emphasised the importance of keeping all access accessible. For example, the lowered counters were not to be used like a service area for empty glasses, and they had to be kept clear at all times. This communicates to Disabled people that access is for us, and not to be treated as a prop for non-disabled people.  

Conclusion 

Good access is a very achievable thing, and Tilting the Lens highlighted how existing access can be steadily improved upon at We Do Us. By incorporating Disabled people into the planning of this event, and prioritising us as guests, as well as including us on the line up, access flowed into every corner of the venue. 

“In partnership with Diageo and Stonegate, Tilting the Lens are now working on the scaling and implementation of these learnings. We must work towards ensuring that every night out, every event, offers this same level of thoughtfulness and accessibility. It’s crucial that we don’t view tonight as a standalone success, but rather as a stepping stone towards a more equitable society where these practices become part of workflows, budgets and measures of success. We have shown what is possible when we prioritise accessibility from the outset. Now, it’s about embedding these principles into the fabric of all our social spaces, ensuring that the joy and freedom experienced here becomes a standard, not merely an exception or a campaign.” (Sinéad Burke, CEO of Tilting the Lens)

Access isn’t a fully measurable thing; it depends on the space, the event, and even the time of day or night, but every venue has room to improve. Disabled people have social lives, but with poor access, or none at all, in venues, they are socialising in the most comfortable or safe way. 

With the expertise of Tilting the Lens, We Do Us is moving in the right direction – to the dance floor- and they are doing  their best to make sure that no one gets left behind.