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Deaf Culture and the Arts in the UK

hearing loss and unsafe listening practices
This month we’re celebrating Deaf Awareness Month, an initiative of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), which corresponds with International Week of the Deaf People 2021. Today, Sept. 25, the theme is “Deaf Culture and Arts.”

“Deaf people regularly come together to share their language and culture,” according to the WFD. “Deaf culture involves the behaviors, traditions, beliefs, values, history, humor, art that exists within Deaf communities. Deaf communities are proud of their linguistic and cultural identity and celebrate that regularly in many different ways.”

In this article, we take a look at Deaf Culture and Arts specifically in the UK, in regards to live music and the events industry.

Support for Deaf Culture and the Arts 

Deaf Culture and the arts were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, just like everything else. In the UK, the live music and events industry was thrown into uncertain territory. Thousands of self-employed artists were forced out of work and received little in financial support. For deaf artists, this presented additional barriers in an industry that already largely excluded them.

A recent study by Arts Council England found that 71 percent of 150 professionals working in the music industry who identified as having a disability have an “invisible condition.” Of these, 88 percent choose to keep their disability discreet, fearing discrimination and fewer job responsibilities by employers.

Read more: Hearing Loss and Workplace Discrimination

Arts Council England’s annual report has repeatedly found disabled people underrepresented across all levels of the music business. The report found that only 1.8 percent of music industry workers identified as having a disability, compared to the UK population average of 18 percent.

Now that the world has opened up again, it seems like a good time to acknowledge the industry and its slow recovery. Many worry that deaf priorities will no longer be a prime concern. That includes deaf audiences attending live events as well as deaf individuals trying to find employment within that sector.

“One risk is that accessibility will fall off the radar and become less of a priority in some quarters,” Jacob Adams, Head of Research and Campaigns at Attitude is Everything told NME. “It’s really important to nurture the visibility of disabled people during this time. It’s important that recovery is done in a way that welcomes everyone back. There’s a lot of talk about this idea of the ‘new normal’ versus going back to the normal we had before – and we’re very interested in the idea of the new normal. Normal wasn’t good enough in the industry.”

“It’s important that recovery is done in a way that welcomes everyone back.”

Deaf Music Fans

Live events have generally excluded the deaf community due to major accessibility issues. In 2017, a group of Deaf mums attended a Little Mix concert with their daughters. A BSL interpreter wasn’t provided for the full duration of the show. They won a legal case against the concert promoters of the band. According to NME, the gig promoters, LHG Live, had initially told them to bring their own interpreter. Although they eventually did provide one, she wasn’t present for the warm up acts. As a result, the mums were unable to enjoy a large portion of the night they had paid for.

“It was very much a disparity of experience compared with everyone else,” Sally Reynolds, one of the mums in the group, told the BBC.

Some people have even taken accessibility into their own hands – hiring their own interpreters to accompany them to concerts.

In 2019, Deafie Blogger, a Phonak hEARo and HLM contributor, asked an interpreter to join her at a “Take That” concert, giving her a musical experience she otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Read more: How the deaf and hard of hearing experience music

Making the Glastonbury Festival accessible

If organizations are unwilling to put adequate accommodations in place for just one stage, what about a venue that holds thousands, with live acts spanning across more than 100 stages? There’s a festival in Somerset, England that is pulling it off. The Glastonbury Festival is the largest performing arts event in the world. The event sees close to 150,000 people flock to Worthy Farm in the West Country where it is held. In 2014, it became the first festival with camping in the UK to be awarded the Gold level of the Charter of Best Practice by Attitude is Everything. The charity campaigns for better accessibility to live music and has been working with Glastonbury since 2005. Their website says the award is “in recognition of the festival’s long-term and ongoing efforts to make the largest greenfield music and performing arts festival site in the world as accessible as possible.”

The festival has been cancelled for the previous two years because of the pandemic, however, both hearing and deaf fans are eager to get back in their wellies and experience five days of dancing in the mud to some of the best live acts in the world.

Read more: Notable Deaf Musicians Around the World

Making music accessible

Deaf Zone, an organization founded by Deaf activist and author Paddy Ladd, is one organization that is working to make music more accessible. Ladd, who The Guardian describes as a self-proclaimed “Deaf hippy” is well known in the Deaf music scene. He created the first signed pop video and has spent time touring the U.S. with Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead acting as their on-stage sign interpreter. In 1998, he was awarded the Deaf Lifetime Achievement Award by the Federation of Deaf People for his dedication to broadening possibilities for Deaf communities in the UK and worldwide.

Deaf Zone created a team of BSL interpreters who have been working at Glastonbury for the past decade to support Deaf festival goers. They have worked alongside the festival’s accessibility team to bring signed interpretations to all major stages at the event. They have now expanded to the smaller ones too. All the main stages have viewing platforms.

One Deaf Zone interpreter, Stephanie Raper, explained to The Guardian that to prepare for interpretation performances, the team spend weeks studying artists’ recent sets online. “We just have to go with it,” she said. “It’s about the beat, the words, the melodies, the feeling, the tempo change – it’s just trying your best to relay all that.”

Deaf Accessibility Across the Arts

The team of BSL interpreters doesn’t just interpret live music acts. They also interpret poetry, comedy, theatre, and cabaret acts, and have even held free sign language classes. As part of their service, you can take their number and message them if you find yourself in an area of the festival where you need interpretation. They will then make their way to you.

Sometimes surprise bands are announced over the weekend. When I was there in 2017, we were all lazing about at the campsite when our Glastonbury app suddenly pinged. We were notified that The Killers were arriving at the John Peel stage for a set that had been kept a secret until just moments before. This is a good example of when it might be useful to contact Deaf Zone. It means you don’t have to stress about planning everything beforehand.

Deaf Zone celebrated their tenth year at Glastonbury festival in 2019, the last year the festival went ahead before lockdown. They’ll be back in 2022 when the festival resumes.

More Accessibility at Music Festivals

In addition to interpreters, the Glastonbury Festival has hearing loops. They are installed in numerous tents, including the cinema tent if you want to take a break from dancing.

There’s also have a whole campsite specifically for disabled and Deaf ticket holders called Spring Ground. Concert goers can pre-register for with the access team here. The camping ground has charging facilities for people who need to charge hearing aid or implant equipment. Stewards are on hand 24/7 to help with anything.

“It is so important that our festival can give access to people that would otherwise find it difficult,” said Michael Eavis, Glastonbury Festival founder, upon receiving the Gold Chartered Award.

Attitude is Everything, which was founded in 2000, has recently set up a three-year program called Beyond the Music. NME reports that “BTM will provide the necessary skills, experience, resources and guidance for Deaf and disabled people as well as for music businesses in order to create inclusive work environments and close the employment gap.”

The Future of Inclusive Live Events

In 2020, Arts Council England published Let’s Create, a strategy plan for the next decade that if successful, will see serious progression in the live music and events industry by 2030. The strategy is steered by their four Investment Principles, one of which is “Inclusivity & Relevance.” The description reads: England’s diversity is fully reflected in the organizations and individuals that we support and in the culture they produce.”

“This sends out a very positive message to all festivals that with some thought and forward planning, they can become accessible too,” said Suzanne Bull, CEO of Attitude Is Everything, of Glastonbury’s achievements. If an operation as huge as Glastonbury can show solidarity and commit to creating positive change for the experiences of the deaf, then any organization can. They are a leading example to all other event organizers that we can create a world that is an accessible and inclusive space for all.

Author Details
Beth Tingle is a 27-year-old English graduate, and currently resides in Bristol, UK. Beth was born with congenital deafness to an otherwise all hearing family, and is currently navigating life with new sound after receiving cochlear implant surgery in April 2021. She is currently learning BSL.