I’ve been slowly learning British Sign Language for a while now (BSL – it’s different to American Sign Language, or even Irish Sign Language. You might think it would be more logical for everyone to use one universal language, but how would you feel if someone forced you to speak only in Esperanto, giving up all the nuances and beauty of your own language and the ties to your culture that go with it?). I’ve been asked a few times if it’s because I know someone who is deaf. While more than a few people I know are hard of hearing (we can all think of at least one engineer who doesn’t even flinch when there’s a 10k squeal on stage), I’m not studying BSL because I know a deaf person. Firstly, I’m doing it because it’s fascinating. It isn’t just taking each spoken word in order and translating it to a sign; it’s an entirely different approach to communicating. I highly recommend everyone at least reads about it, but you should consider learning it too.
Sign language can be genuinely useful for us sound engineers. How many times have you needed to talk to a colleague, but it’s too noisy to even catch their attention? How about trying to get an urgent message to the other side of the stage but you don’t have comms? If more people had some basic sign language skills, we’d be able to communicate more quickly and efficiently. It isn’t an option for private discussions about other people though: most sign languages are very graphic and literal, so if you’re rude to someone in front of them they’ll know about it!
On a more selfish level, I’m preparing for later life. The comedian Francesca Martinez has pointed out that it isn’t a matter of disabled vs. able-bodied: we are all either disabled or not-yet-disabled. It’s a dark message, but it’s true. An unfortunate side effect of our job is that no matter how careful you are, and how conscientiously you wear earplugs, your hearing will deteriorate over time (but don’t give up on the earplugs!). The older you are, the harder it is to learn a language too, so I don’t want to wait until I need it before learning it. I hope I will never become deaf, but studying BSL is fun, and I’ll have that knowledge if it does happen.
With BSL, I have a way of welcoming deaf clients, even if my grasp is very basic right now. You might think it’s odd for sound engineers to interact with deaf people, but it does happen. There are deaf musicians, choreographers, event organisers and guest speakers. There are also shows that have live interpreters, for example, a lot of comedians will have specific performances with live signing, or some bands and festivals provide signed sets. Just because someone is deaf doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy comedy or music (they can still feel the beats, or they may not be entirely deaf so can hear the melody but not the lyrics), so why should they miss out?
The same can be said for any condition. Having epilepsy doesn’t stop you liking dance music, having autism doesn’t stop you having a wicked sense of humour, having dwarfism doesn’t mean you don’t like to go out for drinks, being in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy live theatre. One of my best friends has a long-term condition that affected her mobility for years, and now she’s in a wheelchair. Just getting around and doing simple things can get quite complicated and tiring, and you know what? It’s boring! She can’t just give up and stop having her condition when she feels like it, she’s got to go through it every day. Having some time to relax and going to see a show where the aisles are wide enough, and she doesn’t get dumped on the end of a row and feels like she’s in the way, or the toilets are actually set up so she can use them without help (have you ever tried to open a door towards you while in a wheelchair and then roll yourself through it one-handed? It’s pretty challenging), can make her feel normal for a while, and make her week.
So the next time you’re working or organising an event, think about how you can make it more accessible to a broader range of people. You don’t have to wrap everyone up in cotton wool and not do anything risque for fear of offending someone, just put yourself in their shoes. Maybe contact local groups and charities to ask their advice on how you can help to make your venue more wheelchair friendly beyond the basic building regulations. You can also suggest daytime acoustic performances, some shows without flashing lights, better lighting at the box office and bar to aid lip reading or look into having a section of your bar lowered so people of all heights can order a drink. Why limit your audience (and your income stream!) when you can make all sorts of people feel not just included, but genuinely welcome?
Beth O’Leary is a freelance live sound engineer and tech-based in Sheffield, England. While studying for her degree in zoology, she got distracted working for her university’s volunteer entertainments society and ended up in the music industry instead of wildlife conservation. Over the last ten years, she has done everything from pushing boxes in tiny clubs to touring arenas and spends a lot of her life in muddy fields working on most of the major festivals in the UK. She has a particular passion for flying PA, the black magic that is RF, travel, and good coffee.