Cambridge University May balls increase accessibility adjustments

Many college May Balls are making changes to widen accessibility

Some Cambridge colleges are seeing a shift towards more accessible balls to celebrate the end of the year.

The tradition of formal, indulgent parties – known as May Balls has increased vegan offerings and targeted adjustments for neurodiverse students.

St. John’s College is now part of the Access-A-Ball scheme run by the Student Union at Cambridge. The scheme marks colleges based on accessibility and requires they release an access statement before tickets are sold.

Homerton College May Ball, 2023 (Image Credit: Leah Whiting)

Many May Balls are now run by student committees who are driving change. In 2023, Darwin College was the first college to host an entirely vegan May Ball, with students being consulted in the decision.

Last year, Darwin College told The Tab Cambridge: “Over the past 8-9 years the Darwin Catering team has increased the plant-based options offered in College, in response to research demonstrating the environmental impact of different dietary choices. This change has been made in collaboration with Fellows, staff and students”.

Student responses at the time were polarised, with one student saying “diet is a personal decision and people shouldn’t be patronised by having their dietary choices made for them” on anonymous confessions page Camfess, and another responding “saving the planet is a bit more important than having meat at a may ball”.

Authors own screenshot via Camfess

Also in 2023, Emmanuel College was awarded the highest ‘Platinum’ certification by Access-A-Ball. This year they included a four page access document on their website detailing adjustments, including step-free access, “free priority access” for those unable to queue, a quiet space and no fireworks display.

Emmanuel May Ball also has gender neutral toilets and seating “throughout the ball in every area”.

Emma May Event 2023

Jesus May Ball also offers a quiet space, saying it features “gentle acoustic music or calming films, soft comfortable furniture, and subdued lighting for those needing respite from noise or bright lights”.

Colleges have made a shift towards quiet spaces and more budget tickets, including Sidney Sussex and Clare College’s danse macabre themed ball, which is known for its more relaxed atmosphere.

On the website for King’s College May Week Event – a term for a more affordable May Ball – the website’s ‘about’ section includes “inclusivity is our champion. Gowns and tuxedos are exchanged for extravagant fancy dress and costume”.

An old college – Downing May Ball 2023

Similarly, Newnham Garden Party gives discounts for non-drinking tickets and has the lowest prices of 2024 – below £50 for Newnham students and less than £80 for members of other colleges.

May Balls – especially desirable ones such as John’s – sell out very quickly. Accessibility improvements such as removing fireworks or relaxing dress codes has not changed this in 2024. John’s tickets sold out within minutes of the ticket releases in January and February, months ahead of the event.