Bright lights, blasting music, and massive amounts of people. Regardless of where your seat is located, the opportunity to see a musician perform live is more than just listening to music – it's a complete experience.
For some people, however, sitting too close to the speakers or enduring the enhanced volume can be too much. The vibrations seem to rip through the eardrums and fill the body with somewhat uncomfortable sensations. But while people with hearing may enjoy the sound of the music but dislike the sensations that accompany it, individuals who are deaf or partially deaf rely on vibrations to really feel the music.
Members of the deaf community interact and appreciate music the same way hearing individuals do, but they cannot experience it the same way live. For a deaf individual to enjoy the same experience as a person with hearing, it's more than just feeling the vibrations.
From Kendrick Lamar and Eminem to Lamb of God, videos of sign language interpreters at concerts continue to go viral. To the rest of the world, it may seem like ASL interpreters are at every concert, making the experience increasingly inclusive.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public places to provide interpreters even if there is only a single request, many musical venues and artists are struggling to comply. Rather than placing interpreters in broadly visible areas or hiring enough people to ensure full visibility, venues may place interpreters in inaccessible areas. Sometimes, the performing artists also create obstacles, refusing to provide set lists or requesting the interpreter's spotlight to be turned off.
But with over 5% of the world's population having disabling hearing loss, and around 37.5 million American adults having at least some trouble hearing, making concerts more accessible is incredibly important. And with advancing technology, it's easier than ever.
Concerts typically have giant screens displayed behind and above the artists, ensuring every concertgoer can see the singer or band clearly. An easy way for concerts to make shows more accessible to the deaf and partially deaf community is to include real-time captioning. Apps like GalaPro have begun providing this feature specifically for Broadway shows. The difference between these two events, however, is that concerts can display the captioning rather than rely on attendees to use an app.
Google also has two apps – Live Transcribe and Sound Amplifier – designed to make conversations and live events more accessible for people who are deaf or partially deaf. Live Transcribe takes real-time speech and transcribes it, while Sound Amplifier works like a hearing aid, allowing users to tweak sound settings for optimal hearing. However, the apps are only available for Android phones and may be better suited for quieter events like speeches, musicals, and plays.
While real-time captioning may help to make concerts more inclusive, captioning doesn't replace American Sign Language interpreters because each addresses two different groups of people. Real-time captioning relies on the English language (or any other written language) to communicate, but individuals who are prelingually deaf, or culturally deaf, use American Sign Language as their primary language, making an ASL interpreter easier to comprehend.
Interpreters also provide more than just a translation of the lyrics. The facial expressions, body language, and emphasis interpreters use, along with specific signs for different instruments and melodies, brings concerts to life in a completely different way than captioning can.
The lyrics and instrumentals that are so vital to concert experiences can also be enhanced by a telecoil, a looping technology that allows people who wear hearing aids to tune into the music directly. Concerts can be swarming with screaming fans, making the music and artists even harder to hear for partially deaf individuals. But with looping through telecoils, background noise is avoided, and users can access a clearer and crisper sound.
As mentioned earlier, vibrations are the main way people with hearing loss experience music. While music volume at concerts helps provide some vibrations, a company created a backpack called a SUBPAC, which translates even low frequencies into vibrations each concertgoer can feel.
From just 1 hertz to 200 hertz, the frequencies are sent to the SUBPAC, which then converts the sound into physical bass. The waves of physical bass become vibrations against the skin, muscles, and even bones, ultimately reaching the inner ear and registering as sound.
Another wearable technology, called Music: Not Impossible, or M:NI, was created by Zappos, allowing deaf and partially deaf individuals to feel musical vibrations through a chest harness, ankle banks, and wristbands. Through technology the company refers to as "Vibrotextile technology," which acts very similar to the SUBPAC, sound waves are translated into vibrations and sent wirelessly to the devices, providing wearers with musical sensations in eight areas.
Technology has made leaps and bounds in the accessibility world, but it is up to venues, artists, and bands to ensure concerts are equally enjoyable for hearing and deaf communities alike.
One San Antonio festival made use of the available technology, combining real-time captioning, ASL interpreters, telecoiling, SUBPACS, and a synchronized LED dance floor to create a fully accessible music festival for the deaf and partially deaf. The Good Vibrations Music and Arts Festival debuted in 2017 and has returned every year since.
In 2018, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra collaborated with the Deaf Professional Arts Network to bring artists and sign language interpreters together to create a multi-genre concert experience for the deaf community. The concert experience, called Deaf and Loud, lasted over two hours, included 21 songs, and has plans to travel all over the world, spreading the message that music is inclusive.
There may be a clear shift in the accessibility of concerts, with some artists even taking steps to provide more inclusive concerts themselves. But when venues or artists don't take inclusivity and accessibility into their own hands, concertgoers have the power to make a change. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, public accommodations must provide auxiliary aids and services for people who are deaf or partially deaf. All it takes is a simple request.
The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) created an online database where individuals can find an interpreter. But when one is needed for a concert or other event, contacting the venue will ensure an interpreter is present and ready to translate.
All it takes is one request and an entire population can be represented.