The moment John K. Samson and his band took the stage at the West End Cultural Centre for the first of two sold-out shows in November, the audience’s rapt attention was focused on him. As Samson worked through songs from his latest album, Winter Wheat, gazes began to drift to the side of the stage, where two women were taking turns providing sign-language interpretation of Samson’s music for deaf attendees.
The American Sign Language interpreters, Brittany Toews and Darla Stewart, used their hands, faces and bodies to translate the lyrics and melodies, as intrigued people on the floor pulled out their phones to capture their artistic movements.
While the interest from the crowd was ultimately positive, it was also telling — ASL interpretation is so uncommon at concerts that, in a room full of longtime members of Winnipeg’s music community, for many it was their first encounter with it.
Lack of understanding is the largest barrier stopping accessibility many in the deaf community desire when it comes to arts events, and in particular, live music. The assumption made by too many hearing people is that because a person is deaf, they don’t enjoy music.
"I think it’s a mistaken conception, that a lot of hearing people don’t think deaf people enjoy or appreciate music," says Jamie Routledge, 25, a clinical case manager for New Directions. "Hearing people, if they listen to headphones, they think, ‘Wow what a musical experience that I get from the sound of this,’ and they wouldn’t associate that to the way a deaf person is seeing things, but there’s more to that."
Routledge is deaf and often goes to live-music events with her friends; she says access to interpretation makes a world of difference to her experience.
"If I don’t have an interpreter, I’m usually just looking, I just feel the music, it’s more spending time with friends," she says via an interpreter. "With an interpreter there, I feel more included. They’re doing the music in my own language, and I can actually watch the music, and listen to it, so to speak. I can watch what’s being said, and I know what the lyrics are."
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The job of an interpreter is mentally and physically exhausting; the situations can often be stressful and pressure-packed. Think of any time in day-to-day life you are verbally given information; a deaf person needs an interpreter to help navigate that. That includes appointments with doctors or lawyers, exam sittings from high school all the way through PhD-level education, conferences and meetings and any number of other situations where an incorrect translation of information can have serious consequences.
While artistic events such as concerts don’t necessarily carry that same weight, they present their own challenges for interpreters. Firstly, the ASL interpretation is not word-for-word — ASL is, like any language, unique in its grammar, syntax, phrasing and vocabulary, and because of this, many interpreters look for greater themes and ideas in the music to make the most coherent translation possible.
(ASL is its own language, and not a variation of English. Just as an English-only speaker would not be able to understand a French-only speaker, an American Sign Language interpreter would not understand the sign language of a French interpreter. The language is not universal.)
Metaphors and non-literal phrases are often used in lyrics, as well as words that hold multiple or implied meanings, adding layer upon layer to the unpacking process interpreters must go through. In the best-case scenario, they are given the lyrics and set lists ahead of time, so they have time to understand the core message of the song and develop an interpretation that relays that information. But in some instances, they are forced to do all that work in the matter of seconds on stage.
"In between English and ASL, the grammar is different, the structure is different, so when we interpret, we aren’t just putting something from English into sort of an English order, what we’re doing is we’re listening for the meaning, we’re understanding what is meant, where the person is going with it, where they’re coming from, and what the true, as much as we can access, meaning of that utterance is. And then we’re putting it in a cultural and linguistic way in terms of ASL and in terms of deaf culture," Stewart says.
"Because the languages are different, the ways people express themselves culturally are different, we may have to express it in a way that’s very different from the source, so the source being the English or what’s sung, we may have to in some cases make choices around whether we interpret it one way or another, which may either add some meaning or lose some meaning, so we try to remain as accurate as we can, but it’s very complex in terms of the choices that we make moment to moment," she continues.
Neither Stewart nor Toews (nor any of the other hearing people interviewed for this piece) have any desire to speak on behalf of the deaf community, but both expressed their hope that accessibility will improve in the future.
"I would say that across the board there’s such value that people don’t recognize in providing increased access," says Stewart.
Adds Toews: "There’s lots of venues in the city, and our hope is that at some point it becomes normal, that it’s not a fight to have inclusion. And then you could go anywhere and invite your deaf or hard-of-hearing friend and not have to fight for that accessibility — there’s a big need for it."
Many large festivals in the United States, such as Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, have made ASL interpretation a regular part of their accessibility planning, thanks in part to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990 and, among other things, requires concert venues and production companies to provide interpretation on request.
There is no such legislation in Canada, though we are getting closer with the Accessibility for Manitobans Act, which applies to the removal of barriers in five main areas: customer service, employment, information and communication, transportation and the built environment, but does not stipulate that ASL must be offered at public events if requested.
However, the Winnipeg Folk Festival has long had a history of offering interpretation at their annual event in Birds Hill Provincial Park. A group of volunteer interpreters worked at the festival in the late 1970s and informally translated music at various stages.
Then, there was a cultural shift and it became "incredibly politically incorrect" to interpret music, explains Bonnie Heath, executive director of ECCOE — a company that offers professional interpreter and intervener services — and co-ordinator of the crew of interpreters who volunteer their services at the folk fest.
"I think what happened is interpreters became afraid because interpreters are allies of the deaf community, and it’s so important that we follow the culturally appropriate things to do," says Heath, who was part of that initial group of volunteer interpreters in the ’70s.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Heath began to revisit the idea of interpreting music at the folk fest, and by 2013, a formal crew of volunteer interpreters had been put together. They focused on the family tent at first and have since branched out slightly to the other stages and workshops, and even onto the mainstage last year.
"We started talking about moving the interpretation around the site for two reasons: so people can experience all the kinds of music we have, and each stage has its own flavour, so we wanted to make sure people have a chance to experience all the different kinds of music but also have a chance to explore the whole site," says Karla Ferguson, volunteer resources manager at Winnipeg Folk Festival.
"I think it really adds to the performances; it is an art form, it’s more than just interpreting the words, they infuse the music into what they do, and it becomes… it’s very beautiful to watch, even for people who are hearing. And I think that’s the other thing that’s important for us to do as a festival is just more awareness to the hearing community that this is a need for people."
Folk fest has a Guest for a Day program, which gives different community groups the opportunity to check out the festival. The Deaf Centre of Manitoba and ECCOE have partnered with Guest for a Day, bringing a group of people from the deaf community to the festival for a day during which interpretation would be provided at multiple stages.
booking ASL interpretersClick to Expand
If any musicians or bands are interested in booking ASL interpreters for an upcoming show, here are the best local resources to do so:
ECCOE - Professional interpreter and intervenor services
www.eccoe.ca or 204-926-3271
For specific interpreters:
MAVLI - Manitoba Association of Visual Language Interpreters www.mavli.com
"I think the access to the interpreting services there is wonderful," says Sheila Motney, executive director for the Deaf Centre of Manitoba.
"Deaf people like to go to anything and everything, so folk fest is just one example. The vibe is so great there, the beats, you can feel it, you’re not just relying on auditory side, you can actually feel it, you’re a part of it, you can feel exactly what’s going on. Just like anybody, deaf people of course love, love music. And it’s an ongoing thing that we try to encourage more people to be a part of this and to go to the folk festival."
Folk fest acknowledges the ASL interpretation they provide is limited to certain stages on certain days at certain times. While the ultimate goal is to have most of the stages be deaf-accessible on a consistent basis, there aren’t enough resources to support that.
In Manitoba, there are approximately 100 working interpreters (there is no way of knowing an exact number, however), and more are desperately needed. Right now, many interpreters in Manitoba are working more than full time due to high demand.
"I think ideally we’d like to see it offered at all the stages at some point during the weekend. I don’t know that we have the resources at the moment to have an interpreter at each stage," Ferguson adds."You need two or three people at each stage and they trade off... I actually think we don’t have enough interpreters in town that can do it. So we’re kind of tapped right now with who is available to be at the festival."
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In Winnipeg, there are a select few musicians who have taken it upon themselves to make their shows deaf-accessible, and one of them is Joey Landreth.
Landreth — who just released his first solo record after spending the last few years as part of roots-rock band the Bros. Landreth — regularly has interpreters at his local shows, a move that was inspired by his partner, Anna Salgado, whose parents and brother are deaf.
"It’s become something through my partner, because of her family and her passion for the deaf community, that has also become a passion of mine as somebody who loves people who are deaf and in the deaf community, I want to be an ally to them. The accessibility is what it’s all about," says Landreth, who has also starting learning ASL.
From an artist’s or venue’s perspective, the perceived cost and increased workload of hiring an interpreter could be a deterrent, but the process is easy and relatively inexpensive for musicians who can fill venues such as the West End Cultural Centre or the Park Theatre or larger, he says.
A typical rate for qualified ASL-English interpretation for concerts in Winnipeg is about $40 to $50 per hour, and Stewart says interpreters generally spend anywhere from four to 20 hours prepping for each show, but charge for just a small portion of that — sometimes as little as two hours.
"The community of ASL-English interpreters in Winnipeg work at rates well below most qualified interpreters, due to high demand and a strong community desire for increased accessibility for deaf and hard-of-hearing people," Stewart says.
"The whole purpose of their job is to make life easier, so prepping a show with an interpreter is like… all you have to do is send the set list and the lyrics, they do their prep, don’t ask for anything, they don’t need space in the green room, they don’t want bottles of water," Landreth says. "So it’s kind of funny, I think a lot of people are reluctant to add a show expense, and they’re reluctant to add extra people in the green room... but it’s so not like that."
Salgado’s mother, Crystal Miles, is deaf and attends many of Landreth’s shows. She grew up with music in her home as a child and has fond memories of her father playing the organ for her, but says seeing a concert without interpretation isn’t worth the cost of the ticket.
"I do enjoy the beats and everything, but that’s about all I can get from it," she says. "Especially depending on where I’m sitting, if I’m all the way in the back and there’s no way to catch those vibrations or sound, they’re not as vibrant, so it’s not worth my money to spend money on concert tickets without an interpreter."
When bands do have ASL interpretation available, however, Miles says it’s "really inspiring"; a thought echoed by many in the deaf community who celebrate any step forward in terms of inclusion.
"The fact they are thinking about accessibility, thinking about deaf people and having everyone welcome, that is definitely very moving," says Miles.
"Most of the time when we see any sort of advertisements posting to the deaf community, when it says ASL interpreting is provided, we’re there, we go," concurs Routledge. "And I know most of the people who are in my deaf friend group who like music, we all go to live-music shows, and I know that if we went and we knew the event was for us and there was a space for us, it would be more fun."
The lack of ASL interpretation available at live-music events is just one example of limitations placed on those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing every day, Salgado says.
"For all deaf individuals who use ASL and for whom ASL is their first language, they never get to interact with the outside world on a daily basis in their first language. I think that’s something we all take for granted incredibly unless you know what that’s like," she says from Toronto, where she is in school training to be an ASL-English interpreter.
"It’s not even a matter of being able to learn the language and adapt yourself to the environment that you’re in, it’s that your environment chooses not to adapt to you. You’ve taken all the measures that you can to adapt to the world you live in and still people are unwilling to meet you halfway. And it’s not even halfway, it’s like 10 per cent."
Landreth says he, like most hearing people, originally wasn’t aware of how valuable accessibility is and how it is a regular theme in the hearing-deaf conflict.
"The communication barrier is so big, and not necessarily from deaf people to hearing people but the other way around; deaf people are really, really good at communicating with hearing people, but hearing people are often too weird about it to try and figure out how to do it."
"I have interpreters because I want you there if you want to be there, and you should be able to come if you can and if you want to. And that’s really, at the end of the day, what it’s all about," he says. "If deaf people don’t like my music and don’t want to come to my show, that’s OK, but I just want them to be able to come if they want to."