Attitude is Everything is one of the UK’s leading organisations when it comes to improving access to live music – their 2018 report into the state of access revealed that 80 percent of deaf and/or disabled gig-goers had experienced issues with live shows. For many, problems began long before soundcheck, with booking systems and uninformed ticketing staff causing multiple issues. On top of that, once gig-goers are through the door, it’s not uncommon to find that venues don’t have any access provisions in place.
'Deaf people ultimately access music in all kinds of different ways, whether that’s feeling music through vibration, for instance, or using lip-reading, BSL and closed captioning (or subtitles) to enhance their experience of a live show.'
There are many false myths and misconceptions around Deaf and hearing-impaired people’s ability to enjoy music itself, and a tendency to view them as one homogeneous community. This is, of course, completely untrue. I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t always understand how single-sided deafness shapes and impacts the way I experience sound spatially. When people are profoundly deaf in one ear, they can’t hear sound in stereo, and I find understanding speech in loud places to be a real challenge. That said, the barriers I come up against have very little in common with the issues experienced by somebody with hearing loss and tinnitus. Similarly, a person who was born Deaf and communicates primarily through British Sign Language (BSL) will have a completely different experience to a person who has lost their hearing later on in life. Deaf people ultimately access music in all kinds of different ways, whether that’s feeling music through vibration, for instance, or using lip-reading, BSL and closed captioning (or subtitles) to enhance their experience of a live show.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, a number of different charities and organisations are putting the work in to make gigs more accessible. DeafZone have been heavily involved with Glastonbury since the late ‘90s, and first set up a dedicated tent near the festival’s William’s Green stage back in 2009. They’ve been based there ever since, standing strong in the face of torrential rain, mudslides and heatwaves alike, and act as a crucial base for Deaf festival goers.
‘A Deaf person who had been going to Glastonbury for many years stumbled upon the DeafZone tent and burst into tears to find other Deaf people and Deaf access.'
‘Deaf people at Glastonbury faced so many barriers,’ the organisation’s Dai O’Brien explains to the festival’s Free Press. ‘There was no BSL interpreter provision so they had to rely on friends or family to access what was being said on stage during performances, to access workshops and talks and so on.’ A decade on, DeafZone have twenty BSL interpreters working across Glastonbury’s main stages, and as well as providing all-important performance interpretation across the site, the organisation acts as a valuable meeting place. ‘One powerful memory has stayed with me,’ reflects campaigner Colin Singh, ‘a Deaf person who had been going to Glastonbury for many years stumbled upon the DeafZone tent and burst into tears to find other Deaf people and Deaf access. That experience of DeafZone is typical for many others too.’
When punters mistakenly approach their tent on the hunt for some ear-plugs – apparently a frequent occurrence – DeafZone uses the interaction as a chance to teach people how to say their names using fingerspelling, and elsewhere on site at Worthy Farm the organisation hosts BSL classes and over the last ten years, the organisation has taught around 2,500 Glastonbury attendees how to use BSL. Beyond that, DeafZone has a squad of roaming interpreters who are able to cover everything from craft workshops and poetry readings to handfasting ceremonies and gong baths. Elsewhere at the festival, all spoken-word tents are hooked up with hearing loop systems – a game changer for many hearing aid and cochlear implant users.
Meanwhile Attitude is Everything – who awarded Glastonbury a gold award for access – have released a DIY Access Guide for bands and promoters, filled with helpful suggestions to make their gigs and tours more accessible. While providing live BSL performance interpretation might not be a viable solution for every touring act, Attitude is Everything point out that closed captioning – displaying band names, lyrics, and song titles on a screen during sets – can be a simple, low-cost alternative. The organisation happily dishes out templates to anybody who wants to get involved, and elsewhere, guides venues and promoters towards making their booking processes more accessible.
'For some, making access arrangements over the phone is completely untenable, and sorting things out online is often complicated by rigid systems that don’t accommodate different access requirements.'
Currently – particularly for hearing impaired customers – the issues are widespread. For some, making access arrangements over the phone is completely untenable, and sorting things out online is often complicated by rigid systems that don’t accommodate different access requirements. Others can struggle to book tickets that give decent access to any lyric captioning or sign language interpretation that’s available. Though some booking offices at larger venues are set up with induction-loops – a sound system to assist hearing aid and cochlear implant users – this kind of tech is still quite rare in venues themselves. There are undoubtedly huge strides to be made when it comes to streamlining the booking process for deaf and hard-of-hearing fans, and organisations like Attitude is Everything are working around the clock to change things.
Like DeafZone, reaching out to hearing fans to educate them about the importance of creating inclusive, accessible spaces is also a key goal of Not Impossible Labs. The solution-finding company has spent the last eight years developing cutting-edge haptic technology which translates live performance onto a wearable, vibrating suit, which has been tested by hearing fans as well as deaf and hearing-impaired fans. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive; the suit’s inventor Daniel Belquer jokes that one hearing tester recently got in touch from a Coldplay show to say they ‘missed the vibrations’.
That said, Belquer is also keen to stress that Music: Not Impossible’s haptic suits don’t replicate hearing. ‘We don’t claim we’re replacing music,’ he says. Instead, the tech allows fans – both hearing and Deaf – to experience music in a completely different way, by using the skin ‘as a conductor for a very emotional, intense and enjoyable experience.’
‘It's a very irreplaceable experience. When we [trialled the haptic suits] with Pharrell Williams, he said it best when he said, "Until you feel it, you don't understand."’
What began as a crude prototype crafted out of a pair of trousers has gradually evolved into a sophisticated piece of kit, with the company trialling the invention at this year’s Mighty Hoopla festival, Lady Gaga’s Dive Bar tour launch in Nashville – in support of her 2016 album Joanne – and Greta Van Fleet’s set at Las Vegas’ Life is Beautiful festival in 2018. ‘People were saying that they felt more connected to the music,’ says Belquer, of the response so far. ‘It's a very irreplaceable experience. When we [trialled the suits] with Pharrell Williams, he said it best when he said, "Until you feel it, you don't understand."’
Next year, Music: Not Impossible will begin rolling out a new, mass-manufactured version of the haptic suit, and in the meantime they’re working hard to make the suits ‘lower cost, simpler to assemble, and more enjoyable’. Eventually, wearers will be able to fine-tune their own suits using a phone app.
Belquer says that over the course of eight years development, he’s noticed a decided shift in the discussion around accessibility for Deaf and hearing-impaired fans, and an uptick in interest about how different people experience gigs. ‘People grasp the concepts with much more ease,’ he says. ‘That's what I'm feeling’.