Charlie Swinbourne: Music venues should follow Glastonbury and give Deaf people better access to concerts

Posted on June 30, 2014

By all accounts, this year’s Glastonbury festival went down a muddy storm, and even better, the festival has also been honoured for the way it allowed Deaf and disabled people to access the festival.

BBC News has reported this morning that the festival is the first ever to be awarded ‘gold’ status by the charity Attitude is Everything, who campaign for better access at concerts and music venues.

As the article says:

The event has a bespoke campsite for deaf and disabled festival-goers, uses raised “viewing platforms” for wheelchair users at 11 stages and employs sign language interpreters to allow deaf people to understand lyrics during live acts.

A team of interpreters operate from the festival’s Deaf Zone area – where passers-by can also pop in to learn sign language – and many Deaf people saw a sign language interpreter on stage with Blondie over the weekend (that must have been a career highlight for them!).

Glastonbury’s been working hard on access for Deaf people for the past few years now, and it’s not the only festival that makes a special effort for its Deaf audience. Latitude Festival has also made massive inroads (see this link for more info).

The fact that these festivals are considering a diverse audience is incredibly positive, however, the music industry could do a great deal more for Deaf people, whether they sign or not.

I spent three years working in theatre access, at Soho Theatre in central London and then for the charity STAGETEXT (who are also one of this site’s supporters).

During that time, I saw many theatres (both in London and outside the capital) dedicate valuable resources to organising and funding signed and captioned performances, so that Deaf people could enjoy performances on the same basis as the non-deaf audience.

While at STAGETEXT, I also saw how the charity – along with other organisations – was working to make live talks and events accessible through Speech-to-Text in museums and art galleries.

By comparison, live music promoters and large venues that host big performers – who often make much larger profits – could do so much more for Deaf people.

Some offer special headphones to help Deaf people hear a concert better, but it’s almost unheard of for a major music venue to organise a sign language interpreter or captions so that Deaf people can follow the lyrics to the songs.

As a teenager, I often went to gigs (seeing bands like REM, Radiohead, and Reef) with my hearing friends, but found it almost impossible to work out any of the lyrics (for one thing, I was often too far back to lipread, but the main difference was that the music wasn’t as clear live as it was on CD at home).

Two years ago, I went to see Radiohead in Manchester, and although I enjoyed the music, I left with the sense that I’d missed half of the concert, because I could hardly understand a single lyric (Thom Yorke’s voice sounded nice though).

The problem is sometimes that it’s not clear who should pay for access – is the promoter responsible, or the venue? But when profits are vast, there really should be some agreement when acts are first booked, to do something that gives Deaf and disabled people access.

In a sense, a huge festival like Glastonbury or Latitude is the most effective place to provide access. There’s so many people there that there is bound to be a sizable Deaf audience. There’s a multitude of acts to choose from (so there’s less chance of providing access for an act Deaf people aren’t interested in). One knowledgable person with awareness of what Deaf people need can organise a team of volunteers and provide an amazingly accessible experience concentrated into a short period of time.

The challenge for one-off concerts is quite different. The organisers have to arrange everything themselves, and they might not have the expertise. They might work out how to book an interpreter, but will they be aware that they need to seat Deaf people in the right place to see them, for example?

They also face a marketing challenge. How do they reach Deaf people to tell them that a concert is accessible? Just adding an access section to their website and hoping people find the information is not enough.

During my time working in theatre access, I saw how hard theatres worked to attract a diverse audience (not only Deaf, but also partially sighted and those with other disabilities), using mailing lists, contacting local groups, advertising in specialist magazines and so on.

They also worked massively hard to retain customers – getting feedback and improving the service so that people would come again and again.

What I’d like to see is big venues like the O2 or the MEN arena in Manchester start to regularly offer captioned and/or BSL interpreted access to concerts by major performers, across the year. As Attitude is Everything pointed out in the BBC’s article, venues are missing out on revenue from people who would attend performances – if they were able to.

I’d go along and see an act I wasn’t even familiar with if I knew I could see what the lyrics were and get a sense of what they are trying to say.

Providing great access isn’t easy, but when theatres have done so much to improve the experience for Deaf audiences, it’s clear that music venues should be doing much, much more to try and improve things.

Find out more about Attitude is Everything here:

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist (Guardian, BBC Online) and award-winning scriptwriter. His short film The Kiss was shown at Bradford International Film Festival in March, and his comedy Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool can now be seen on the BSL Zone by clicking here.

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