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Deaf sisters in One Direction interpreter plea have real case, but less of the victimhood

By Fionola Meredith

Published 22/05/2015

Sisters Lisa and Sarah Kelly
Sisters Lisa and Sarah Kelly

When I heard that two deaf sisters had bought tickets for the One Direction concert in the Odyssey Arena and wanted the venue to provide an interpreter, I'll admit I was puzzled. What is the point of going to a live music event when you can't hear the music?

Then I heard Sara and Lisa Kelly from Newtownabbey eloquently explain why it was so important for them to be there.

The young Kelly sisters told the Stephen Nolan Show that they have sufficient hearing to be able to experience the music, and since they are already big One Direction fans they know all the lyrics off by heart. What they need is someone to help them connect with the banter and chat spoken by the band in between the songs, so that they can really feel part of things. Ideally, the interpreter would be on stage alongside the band.

But Aiken Promotions, which is bringing One Direction to the Odyssey, said no. No interpreter, definitely not on the stage, not anywhere at all, in fact. The concert promoter said that "it is our considered view that the provision of a signing facility is not appropriate for this kind of performance". What's more, Aiken thought there was "limited prospect of this 'ad-libbing' of the act to be adequately reflected" and that any attempt to do so may not be "a true reflection of the performer's words".

Aiken is behind the times. Apparently it's not unusual to have interpreters at big live music gigs. For years organisers have been providing a much-appreciated service at Glastonbury, helping hearing-impaired festival-goers with an inventive mixture of British Sign Language, improvised hand gestures and facial expressions. Suzanne Bull, director of Attitude Is Everything, a charity that works to improve deaf and disabled people's access to live music, says that its contribution to the live music economy is significantly undervalued.

"There are 10 million disabled adults in the UK and almost 4m of them attended at least one gig in 2013/14 - a figure that doubled over six years while the number of non-disabled gig-goers remained relatively static.

"Every venue and festival we work with, without exception, has seen an upsurge in tickets and concessionary sales to disabled fans," she wrote recently.

So making things easier for people with particular needs is good business, as well as a decent thing to do.

I don't blame the Kelly sisters one little bit for feeling frustrated. But I have to say I'm disappointed that they dragged the 'D' word in so quickly. Discrimination. The moment you start talking like that, you turn the situation from a conversation and a negotiation into a down-and-dirty fight.

Not only that, you alienate potential supporters. There has been surprise expressed that so many of the responses to this story were hostile to the girls. Some people described them as "spoilt brats" and the like. That's too harsh. But if the Kellys hadn't couched their complaint in the aggressive terms of being actively discriminated against, I believe the reaction would have been far more sympathetic.

Another 'D' word invoked by Sara and Lisa was "devastated". Well, they're young. I can understand them being disappointed, but devastated is how you might feel if you lose your job or get diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. It doesn't apply to missing out on a few gabbled words from Harry Styles and the crew.

I think we're far too quick to shriek discrimination when things don't go our way, especially in Northern Ireland, the ancestral home of the Most Oppressed People Ever. Perhaps they feel it gives them status or adds validity to their claims, especially if the courts get involved. But what happened to sorting tricky situations out through dialogue, compromise and accommodation? Even deaf rights activists like Suzanne Bull say that the best way to get businesses to embrace positive access policies is "not to shame them, but to highlight good practice and the strong commercial imperatives".

I hope Aiken Promotions can find a way to help Sara and Lisa Kelly have a great encounter with the One Direction lads. If not, perhaps they can help themselves by bringing along a hearing friend who can interpret the brief joshing in between songs. Proactive problem solving is far more empowering than rushing to embrace victimhood.

Belfast Telegraph

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