LONDON. AT the weekend at Reading and Leeds Festivals music fans gathered to see and hear stars like Billie Eilish, Sam Fender and the Killers perform.

For deaf audience members, the increased use of on-site sign language interpreters means the experience will be just as thrilling.

The movement, which began with volunteers at Glastonbury Festival decades ago, has slowly become an essential professional service at major festivals, including Download, Latitude, Wilderness and Wireless.

Rachel Wilkins, who was one of several performance interpreters this weekend, recalls there being “so many barriers” for deaf people trying to access live music when she was younger.

“There are many deaf people who absolutely love hip-hop as much as I do,” she told the BBC. 

“So I just couldn’t believe my luck when I was able to actually interpret this music and make it accessible.

“We have great deaf audiences, huge deaf audiences who enjoy this music so much, so it’s a no-brainer.”

One such festival-goer is 36-year-old Breish Rowe, who travelled to Leeds Festival this weekend from her home in Derbyshire.

Although deaf since birth, she’s a music-lover who uses hearing aids as well as British Sign Language (BSL) – like an estimated 150,000 other people in the UK.

One of the highlights of last year’s festival, she said, was watching headliners the 1975 and “discovering their music through BSL interpretation”.

“Going to festivals with BSL access allows me to access songs in a way I couldn’t on my own,” she said. 

“Even the music I already know – it just sounds so different in a live setting and BSL access allows me to follow along regardless.”

She added: 

“The interpreters also do an amazing job of conveying the atmosphere by sharing the crowd’s reaction and suchlike, which makes me feel part of it along with everyone else.

“It’s about participation and true inclusion: deaf-accessible festivals allow me to be part of a micro-society, even if just for a weekend, where I get to experience things alongside everyone else.

“And that taste of equality and access is inspiring – it’ll surely have an influence beyond the scope of festivals, showing what access can and should look like.”

Rachel, who began her journey to becoming a performance interpreter by signing for hearing-impaired family members, is a specialist in rap music.

It’s a genre she loves – as do the bookers at Reading and Leeds, who’ve been steadily increasing hip-hop’s presence year-on-year.

But it’s also a form that carries a heavier workload, lyrically-speaking.

There are more verses to learn, with lyrics loaded onto her iPad, then scrolled through using a foot pedal during her performances, next to the sound stage.

Last weekend, she covered Stormzy’s set at All Points East in London, meaning this week was dedicated to learning material by her five assigned Reading and Leeds acts, including Central Cee, Easy Life and one of her favourites, Loyle Carner.

“There’s so many hidden meanings, he’s just very clever lyrically and that makes it really hard to translate,” she said.

Last summer brought problems of a different kind when interpreting the risqué lyrics of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B.

“There’s a lot of profanity and an obscenity,” she said, “so I have to be quite comfortable with that.”

“We don’t censor it because that’s not what we’re there for. We just have to be brave and go for it.” – BBC.

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