With summer upon us, festival season is well and truly underway. Yet, there is one glaring gap in the calendar, and it isn’t Glastonbury. According to the latest annual survey from Attitude Is Everything, the UK’s leading charity for accessibility within the arts, 82% of deaf and disabled respondents “had experienced problems booking access”, and 79% were deterred from buying concert tickets as a result.
However, the report also notes that 75% of those surveyed feel like the landscape for accessibility at concerts and live events has improved. Whilst there are different types of interpretation for smaller scale events, particularly when it comes to international languages, it is far more difficult to arrange interpretation for those who need sign language, especially to cater for huge festival crowds. Still, now more than ever, venues, concert promoters and festivals are giving accessibility and interpretation top billing.
Songs for the deaf
Attitude Is Everything have been at the forefront of accessibility issues for disabled music fans since 2000, representing those who have previously had great difficulty in getting to see live music in person. One of their most recent advocacy projects has been for three deaf mothers who took their children to see a Little Mix show earlier this year. After struggling to get the concert’s promoters to provide a sign language interpreter for the show, one of the mothers, Sally Reynolds, threatened a court injunction, which led to the promoters agreeing to hire a signer for the show. However, they only did so for Little Mix’s performance itself, leaving the two support acts’ sets inaccessible to Reynolds and her fellow concertgoers. Reynolds has since sought further legal action.
According to live music magazine Access All Areas, the wording of the current UK Equality Act suffers from a lack of clarity surrounding the “reasonable adjustments” which need to be made to accommodate those with disabilities or hardness of hearing. They also note that it isn’t just sign language which can improve the live music experience, with “hearing loops, infra-red systems and captioning” amongst the visual stimuli, and speaker vibrations providing a more physical way to interact with music. Yet, whilst both Scotland and Northern Ireland have taken steps to accommodate the deaf and hard of hearing, they point out that “progress across the whole of the UK has been slow”.
Sign of the times
By comparison to Great Britain, America—or at least, certain states—legally recognise sign language, and, as Noisey notes, the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act has mandated that promoters “provide interpreters upon request”. With the rising popularity of music festivals in the US, certain signers have also gained viral popularity for the work they do, particularly for hip hop artists. Artists themselves are acknowledging this need, however, with Chance The Rapper being the first hip hop artist to have an interpreter on tour.
Holly Maniatty, for example, prepares for up to forty hours, “going through the music and analyzing the lyrics”, even adapting her physical performance while signing to best suit each artist, depending on their style of music, and even where the artists are from. This may be an extremely physical way to make sure an artist’s words are comprehensible to a small number of people in the crowd but, as Maniatty puts it, “the most important thing [about my job] is that [deaf patrons] are experiencing the same thing as somebody else is.”
…and justice for all
This year’s festival season in the UK is more accessible than any other; last year’s Reading and Leeds festivals won awards for how they accommodated disabled fans, including specifying performances for which there would be signing. Even metal festival Download, organised by the same company which books Reading and Leeds, featured a British Sign Language access team for the first time in its history at this year’s event, with signing provided for main stage headliners Guns N’ Roses and Ozzy Osbourne, as well as its second, smaller, stage.
There is still a long way to go for accessibility of this nature to become commonplace at festivals—one interpreter told the Guardian of one occasion where a band “refused to have the interpreter onstage, and then refused for [them] to sign any of their performance”. However, if more major events, from festivals to stadium shows to sporting events, make interpretation for deaf attendees a priority, having a signer onstage could (and should) become the new normal.