A recent case involving a Little Mix concert highlights a need for better clarity surrounding accessibility for Deaf fans.

The issue of accessibility for Deaf fans at music events came under the spotlight following a dispute over the provision of an interpreter at a Little Mix concert on 1 September last year. Sally Reynolds, who is Deaf, is suing promoter LHG Live for not supplying a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter for the entirety of the show at the South of England Event Centre in Sussex.

The details of the case are complex, but in short, Ms Reynolds isn’t satisfied LHG Live met its legal obligation to make the event fully accessible for her party of six, which included herself, two Deaf friends and their three daughters.

Prior to the concert, Ms Reynolds approached LHG Live to provide an interpreter. She alleges her request was repeatedly rebuffed, only being met after she applied for a court injunction.

When the night of the show came round, she was disappointed to find LHG Live had only supplied an interpreter for the Little Mix set, not for the two supporting acts. She told the BBC: “I felt that we were really part of the Little Mix experience […] but because it was so good I realised that we had missed out on the first two acts.”

“This case highlights the need for greater empathy for – and awareness of – the barriers facing Deaf people, and legal recognition of signed languages to ensure that organisations are clear about their obligations,” said the British Deaf Association (BDA) in a statement.

Attitude is Everything, a charity working to improve Deaf and disabled people’s access to live music, said it would continue its consultation with Deaf audiences, artists and the industry in light of the news to establish some best practice guidance in the area, which we can expect to see published by April next year.

Under the Equality Act 2010, any organisation providing a service to the public is compelled to make reasonable adjustments for those with disabilities. But it is the lack of clarity surrounding the term ‘reasonable adjustments’ that opens up significant scope for dispute, and is why LHG Live is now facing legal action. 

LHG Live maintains it “takes accessibility to all its events seriously” and said the support acts for the Little Mix show were only confirmed 10 days prior to the concert (on 22 August), leaving “insufficient” and “unreasonable” time for the interpreter to learn the lyrics.

It remains to be seen whether the courts will find its handling of the case a worthy attempt to make the necessary ‘reasonable adjustments’.

When taking into account what ‘reasonable adjustments’ venues and organisers can make to ensure music events are more inclusive, there has to be some consideration given to the organisations’ size and its resources.

Had the event Ms Reynolds attended been an intimate gig produced by a small promoter, would it still be reasonable to expect the organiser to supply an interpreter?

The BDA has been busy lobbying for policy change to make things clearer for everyone. There is now a BSL Act in Scotland and a framework in Northern Ireland, but overall, progress across the whole of the UK has been slow.

“There is a lack of mention or transparency in legislation as to what these requirements are when it comes to sign language interpretation so the provision is inconsistent,” the BDA’s research and policy officer, Aine Jackson, told us. “In several other countries including, most recently, Ireland, the national sign language is a legally recognised language, so companies are clearer on obligations to provide sign language interpretation for Deaf people,” she added.

The US is one such place where sign language is a legally recognised language, and where you’re likely see many more festivals and live music events supply performance interpreters as standard.

Millions of music fans across the globe have watched viral videos of US artists like Snoop Dogg being upstaged by their animated interpreters. Chance The Rapper made history by becoming the first artist to provide his own American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter on tour last year.

Here in the UK there are 10 million people affected by hearing loss, equating to one in every six of us. This amounts to a huge potential audience organisers and venues cannot afford to ignore.

“It’s a myth that music is something Deaf people can’t and don’t engage with,” says Jacob Adams, research and campaigns manager at Attitude is Everything.

BSL is an extremely important tool for connecting Deaf fans with music – around 87,000 people in the UK are BSL users – but it isn’t the only way.

“Access to live music for people with hearing loss can involve various adaptations according to the setting such as hearing loops, infra-red systems and captioning,” explains Adams. “People also engage with music via other senses, including vibration.”

A handfull of festivals, venues and artists in the UK have been taking matters into their own hands and making proactive adjustments to improve accessibility. Attitude is Everything awarded Reading Festival an Outstanding Attitude Awards in 2016 for its approach in breaking down barriers for Deaf and disabled people.

It uses a combination of live and pre-recorded interpretations to make music and comedy more accessible to its large Deaf BSL-using fan base. Its organiser, Festival Republic, has been working hard to do more for the community of Deaf fans at Reading during the past several years.

The Motorpoint Arena in Nottingham was also commended for its new BSL service in partnership with Performance Interpreting, offering tailored BSL interpretation as part of its core programme as well as upon request. “Our aim is for as many Deaf British Sign Language users as possible to enjoy as many events as possible,” says Stephen Chaston, the venue’s dedicated accessibility officer.

Examples like these demonstrate inroads are being made, but it is clear we still have a long way to go in the UK when it comes to making events fully accessible for Deaf and disabled fans.

This will undoubtedly be an important test case for the industry and one that AAA will be following closely. The outcome could potentially have a big impact on the future access rights and provisions for Deaf people at events.AAA