Shape's Programme Coordinator Andrew Cochrane gives us the lowdown on deaf access at two of the UK's biggest music festivals...

As another festival season hangs up its welly boots, tents are made redundant back in the garden shed and the wristbands are withering on your bedside as a memento, you shed a tear until next year.

Myself and a group of other deaf festival-goers on a yearly basis go to Latitude, Reading and many other UK music festivals. You might be thinking how on earth do deaf people go to festivals when they can’t hear the music? This is a common misconception in today’s society. There are many different ‘levels’ of deafness - I know Stereophonics’ ‘Word Gets Around’ album like the back of my hand. Now I can imagine you are scratching your head and wondering ‘how?’ - no, I don’t hold balloons and rely on vibrations…

I am profoundly deaf and I do love my music, and it’s my hearing aid device that helps me hear - I take it off, okay I am stone deaf from there. I was the youngest baby in Northern Ireland to receive analogue hearing aids at just 3 days old in 1987, so my brain has processed so much sound from such an early age.

Sometimes if I go ‘Oh! I like that tune’, I research, I listen (the Shazam app IS AMAZING, it quickly identifies the music you‘re listening to, even in a noisy Topman store), rehearse and memorize the lyrics and I’m ready to take on the Wembley crowd with my lip-syncing and air guitar. My peers are just like me - big music lovers - and we all love different genres such as Rock, Indie, Pop, Dance - you name it.

I have a best friend who is also deaf and let me tell you something, he was in a band once and with them he supported Paul Weller - yes Paul Weller - and Tim Burgess from The Charlatans; he did an acoustic duet with Gaz Coombes from Supergrass and even played with Will Young which I will never let him forget *smirk*.

This year, my deaf peers and I went on our annual crusade to Latitude Festival in Suffolk and I thought I’d put together a brief access review for Shape. So how did it shape up?

When we arrived, we purchased programme booklets and sat down with each other around our tents to plan our timetables, discuss which headline acts we were going to see and which potential new favourites to discover, knowing we’d require access support such as British Sign Language interpreters. We made a note of where the on-site access tent was in case we had any enquiries or access requests during the long weekend.

I was apprehensive about Latitude’s standard of access for this year as there were a few access issue scenarios last year - I remember Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats refusing to have an interpreter on stage, for example. Bob may be all about campaigning for equality, but he really marginalised a group of deaf people that day. Safe to say I lost my respect for him.

First scenario: on the Friday, early afternoon, legendary documentary maker Louis Theroux dropped by for an interview-slash-chat with Adam Buxton at the Film and Music Arena. Before it started I went to the access tent to book an interpreter, which was a smooth process – I was given an interpreter’s phone number to arrange when and where to meet. A group of us set off to the Arena and when we arrived, my god, the queue was astounding - totally rammed with fans eager to see Louis Theroux. I couldn’t even get in so I told a security staff member that we were to meet the interpreter at the entrance – he just insisted that we join the back of the queue (his attitude was *expletive*). An interpreter appeared, explaining to him that we had booked the access service to see this show but it was all downhill from there, with him still insisting we join the back of queue for the tent which appeared to be a full house already. We wasted our time, as well as that of the interpreter, and didn’t get to see Louis Theroux.

Moving on, without letting this bad experience dampen the mood, we went to another comedy tent where we hopped onto the viewing platform provided for deaf and disabled festival-goers. There was a screen to the right hand side of the stage on which we could see an interpreter, but it was small and pixelated – too difficult to make out the interpretation – so we gave up on it. My mate’s access assistant went to use the accessible port-a-loo which accompanied the viewing platform, the staff saw their PA pass and told them to use the ‘normal’ toilets instead – ‘normal’! When I heard about this I thought ‘WOAH, that’s really not inclusive language…’ and voiced my frustration to one of the interpreters, who went up to the staff to make a complaint on our behalf - the staff were apologetic for not realising their language wasn’t acceptable. I asked if they’d had been given any Disability Awareness Training and the answer was ‘yes, but only 45 minutes’. Ok. Disability awareness training sessions usually take between half to a full day but even that doesn’t always cover everything so 45 minutes was a real laugh.

One of my friends said to me during the Maccabees’ set that having interpreters on the screens at both sides of the stage was something that could be marked as an achievement, but once upon a time we had interpreters on the stage itself and not on the screens, so when you consider that, it isn’t really progress. Yet again the screens were pixelated so no-one could make out what was being signed and so I went on a hunt to find the interpreter again. At last year's Noel Gallagher set, they were on the viewing platform so that was my first port of call, but when I got there I was told by the stewards that the interpreter was on a different platform across the field. I walked across the field to the other platform, only to be told that they weren’t there either. Uninformed stewards; completely inaccessible.

After this, we went off to see the Lumineers’ set, which was clearly advertised on the timetable as having an interpreter – cool, until we found out that it was about 5 miles away from the stage. Basically, as we were grabbing some drinks, an interpreter, her assistant and a festival organiser approached us to tell us that the band (or their manager) had decided that they didn’t want to have an interpreter showing up on the main screen, but rather on the secondary screen some 250m+ behind the main screen, where the atmosphere and vibrations were practically non-existent. The interpreter knew by experience that we would be reluctant to be moved around, which we confirmed. We felt totally segregated and disappointed.

The interpreter was furious, rightly so as she knew it was pointless to carry out her services where none of us would watch, and she’d been basically robbed of her role to provide accessibility for the deaf, however the festival organiser didn’t exactly roll over and accept it. After much arguing back and forth between them both it became clearer and clearer that there were no chance of the interpreter being displayed on the main screen. In the end, it was agreed that she would stand behind the fence while we observed from the crowd where we’d be able to enjoy the atmosphere. So the organiser attempt to pull some strings (to his credit) and granted her access behind. She put on a hell of a show and our group eventually enjoyed the set more than expected because it was more intimate.

The organisation of the festival towards deaf people has apparently gone downhill massively. One interpreter spoke to us saying that he signed on stage two years ago and now he's not even allowed on the stage or the front screens! The festival organisers kept saying to us that they are improving access every year, but we as a group (one that has been going to Latitude for over a decade) can vouch that that just isn’t the case.

You know what, I am gonna stop right here with Latitude. It was a good social event with my close friends and we saw headline acts we adore, but the access services for deaf users were not satisfactory and didn’t meet the standard advertised. I met interpreters who vowed not to work there again and there were COUNTLESS access scenarios. I don’t want to make this blog super long so I am going to roll forward to Reading Festival ‘16.

Before the festival started we were emailed set lists and schedules of interpreting services planned out for the duration. A lot of headline acts and gigs offered interpreting services and the email also asked that if there were any bands not on the list that we wanted interpreted we let the festival organisers know and they’d sort it out. Great start.

Two years ago, I went to Reading Festival ’14. I remember having interpreters on a viewing platform on a regular basis which was brilliant but, as night fell, the lamps that shone on their faces so that they were lit up for us made their jobs difficult as they couldn’t read the lyrics on their music stands. This year it appeared the organisers had invested heavily in technology to put screens on two platforms with the aim of the interpreter interpreting on camera backstage and appearing on screen for us to see - I was super happy with this improvement! My deaf mates and I all loved having two platforms with screens, however some could not see the screen, for instance when the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were headlining - the viewing platform was far too packed out with people in the way. Future improvement would be to be raise the screen height.

Frank Turner started the Friday afternoon gig at the Main stage. My mouth fell open when I saw an interpreter on the main screen – the first time I’ve witnessed such thing. Being at the front of the crowd is a much more intimate experience than being on a platform so I really respect bands who allow this. We all know getting permission from band managers to have interpreters on the main stage screen interpreting is difficult, but they are persuadable, especially with audience pressure. We shouldn’t have to fight alone against marginalisation - bands and musicians need to not to be such divas and start taking action to make us feel included as fans.

Deaf people are always reluctant to go to comedy shows because of the delays from interpreters translating and keeping up with improvised comedy, not an easy task at all, however one comedy interpreter at Reading was absolutely amazing! Comedian Lee Nelson’s show on Friday afternoon was one of the best, most accessible comedy shows I’ve ever been to and our laughter wasn’t delayed from the rest of the audience *laugh*! Quality time for all of us. For some deaf audience members it was the first time in their lives they’d actually been able to access a comedy show and it was such a great feeling!

The viewing platforms staff were very welcome and helpful throughout the weekend - Russell Howard's set on Friday evening was packed and the staff tried their best to help us. One friend came up with the idea of opening the area next to the ramp and they were happy to let us do that. The staff at the platforms went out of their way to ensure we still had a space when they were full and did not treat us as if we shouldn't be there at all (unlike at Latitude).

I have to say we were very lucky at Reading this year with interpreters due to friends bringing interpreters they knew as well, some of whom were interpreting for hours on end – we did greatly appreciate their hard work. This won't happen every year as interpreters volunteer to provide an accessible festival experience for us so, to keep them on, paying them is a serious must or the standard of access services won’t be consistent.

Reading Festival, two words -TOP NOTCH! Well done to the organisers for all their hard work there, seriously improving on a yearly basis: we loved it, so acknowledge that from us. Latitude… Access services weren’t satisfactory, you need to go back to the drawing board and work on your accessibility for deaf people. If it was all like at Reading, it would have been really sweet, so what was the difference?

It is vital that there are actually deaf people advising on accessibility at festivals and other live music events. I have to say that hearing people cannot speak on behalf of the deaf community, even when obtaining feedback from us, we have to be directly involved in decision-making.

Dream goal – live captioning and BSL interpreters on all stages. Not only would it be beneficial for deaf users but hearing people too - there are many theatres that provide this so I know it’s possible. Live music events would be like some sort of giant karaoke festival, everyone all together singing ‘I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing’ and holding hands. Lol.