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IRP Stories: Toronto's Inside Out Film Festival Seeks to Become Accessibility Leader Through a New Social Enterprise


This is part of our Investment Readiness Program series, showcasing how IRP funding is helping social purpose organizations prepare for investment while continuing to have a positive impact on their communities.

For 30 years, Toronto-based film festival Inside Out has been using the arts to address the inequalities and discrimination experienced by the LGBTQ+ community, while providing support and visibility to people with disabilities. The festival received funding from the Investment Readiness Program (IRP) to help establish its first-ever social enterprise: the Accessibility Toolhouse, aiming to create more inclusive events.

“There’s myriad ways that the festival addresses inequalities,” says Steen Starr, Inside Out’s grants researcher and writer. “It allows a space for queer artists to tell their stories, and for queer audiences to see themselves reflected in those stories. It makes changes in people’s lives.” 

Today, as well as securing festival funding, Starr is the co-coordinator of Inside Out’s Reel Access project, bringing Toronto’s film festivals together to address accessibility issues. During one consultation, “[Inside Out’s] event coordinator said they find it frustrating that every time they set up an event, they have to source a ramp for the stage, source real-time captioning, source noise-cancelling headphones,” Starr says. “They said, ‘I would love to have a main space I could just go to [for resources].’”

Inside Out is developing a social enterprise to provide accessibility event resources

The idea for the Accessibility Toolhouse sprang from this conversation, as a place for events organizations to rent accessibility equipment and services. “It would be one go-to place that could provide consultation, accessibility audits of a venue, or even a main place to go to find ASL interpreters,” Starr says. “That is our dream.”

The social enterprise model is new to Inside Out which, as a non-profit, receives major backing from funders like Netflix and RBC. In her search for investment support, Starr came across the IRP: “I thought ‘this is perfect’,” she says.

Inside Out Receives $44,000 to Get Investment Ready

The IRP’s aim is to make social enterprises investment ready, by providing the funding to create resources like business plans, branding, financial models and more. These are all items that a social enterprise needs in order to prove to investors that their business can become profitable and provide returns. 

But first thing’s first: the Accessibility Toolhouse needs a feasibility study. The organization is using the $44,000 in IRP funding to hire a consultant, who will investigate the viability of the social enterprise. This will include identifying everything from possible business models to price points for equipment rentals. Starr explains that the feasibility study will outline “the nitty gritty: what is the demand, how would this work, is it actually something that would fly within the city?” She emphasizes the festival’s non-profit model. “Inside Out has existed on corporate sponsorships, private donors. We’re not currently a social enterprise, so there may be some learning within that.”

Although Inside Out has huge support, Starr says, “All arts organizations and non-profits struggle for income and revenue. It’s an exciting idea to think that [the Accessibility Toolhouse] could partially sustain the festival.” The additional revenue would allow Inside Out to expand its impact even further, reducing inequalities for people with disabilities in Toronto and beyond. 

Thinking ahead to the pitching process, Starr says, “At base, to attract investors, you have to have an exciting idea — and I think we’ve got that. What we need to establish is the demand within the community. I think that we could probably find that as well, because for a long time, people with disabilities were ignored. It was never considered that they might want to come to a baseball game, football game or go to a concert.”

Starr points out that this has been changing, giving the example of sports stadiums having accessibility areas with raised platforms.

As well as creating more inclusive spaces, the Accessibility Toolhouse gives investors access to a large but underserved market. “People with disabilities do have income, and they do want to be involved as a community,” Starr says. “The feasibility study is proving that there is a need for it, that there is an industry to sustain it. That for sure would attract interested investors.” 

Inside Out is conducting a feasibility study to determine the need for an accessibility events social enterprise

Looking to the Future

For all events organizations, there’s one reality that can’t be ignored: COVID-19. “In-person events obviously have a huge question mark around them right now, and that will definitely be a part of our study,” Starr says. “Accessibility still applies even if what you’re doing is online [closed captioning, audio descriptions, etc], or if what you’re doing is for 50 people or less.”

Reflecting on how Canada can build back better after COVID-19, Starr continues, “If we’re going to look at the silver lining, I’ve heard a lot of talk that COVID-19 in some ways can provide a new way of thinking about things. I think maybe industry, government, community, even individuals are rethinking what it is to have a functioning society and a community that looks out for each other. People are rethinking the kinds of supports that we need. Accessibility could be right in there.”