Accomplishing accessibility: how hard can it be?

Siobhán Walsh discusses the barriers in place towards people with epilepsy in Dublin

Recently, I was lucky enough to score tickets to Noah Kahan’s sold-out Dublin concert. In order to enjoy the concert, as soon as the bridge of ‘Your Needs, My Needs’ began, I promptly put my coat hood on (backwards) to cover my entire face until the song was over. Confused? I assume everyone else around me was too … I swear, I’m not (entirely) unhinged. I’m just epileptic. 

To avoid the triggering of a seizure by intense strobe lights, I resorted to my coat hood. It worked – no seizures in front of Mr Kahan – but as I left the concert later it struck me what an odd position I had been put in. 

As far as I could see, there were no warnings about strobe lights. None in the venue, none in any emails I had received about the concert, not even any on the tour’s website. The only reason I even knew about that specific song was because Noah Kahan had posted a reel on Instagram from another gig that instantly set off my alarm bells. By then, I already had tickets. Now I knew that there was definitely at least one song with intense strobes but I had no idea about the rest of the set list. Googling yielded no results, so I emailed the venue, who gave me another email to contact, who gave me another, who said they would liaise with the tour team and get back to me. The week before the concert I emailed again (twice) having still not heard back and getting increasingly worried about whether I’d have to sell my tickets. 

(Tired yet?)

In all fairness, when I did get a reply it was exactly what I needed: correspondence from the tour’s lighting director laying out which songs were safe for someone with photosensitive epilepsy and which were not. They even provided some descriptions, such as certain songs having colour changes or bright flashes. Off I went with my hood covering my face and managed to safely attend the concert.

“It is astounding to me that a major theatre could have such lax accessibility policies”

It might seem like the bare minimum that the lighting team knew about the lights for the show, but this was one of the few times I’ve actually received useful and specific information. Over Christmas, I was planning to go with my family to a show in one of Ireland’s leading theatres. Having noticed a “this production may contain flashing lights or smoke” warning on the website, we reached out to get more information. (Frustratingly, in my experience, a lot of productions and venues slap strobe/flashing light warnings onto anything that uses light or smoke effects, when strobe is a very specific speed of flashing light. A lot of times, shows with these warnings contain no strobe lights at all. It’s a bit of a Russian Roulette.) We were first told that the show was okay for me to go to, then when we followed up asking for details of the lights (such as what was provided for Kahan’s concert), someone else replied and said it was absolutely not safe for me to attend before eventually refunding our tickets. I’m not sure if it was a particular staff member or general disregard for patron safety, but it is astounding to me that a major theatre could have such lax accessibility policies.

I have had better luck with other theatres. When I reached out to another theatre’s accessibility-specific email, I was given the timings of flashing lights in a recent production of Blood Brothers. After some digging (and contacting a head office in London), I was able to get similar information for an unrelated production of The Commitments. Both of these shows had strobe light warnings. Neither contained any actual strobes. After reaching out directly to the management of a smaller artist I love, I was told the performance was extremely strobe-heavy and therefore unsafe for me. Again, there was no warning online. Instead, I had taken the initiative to reach out after seeing clips on social media. 

Having only been diagnosed in 2022, this is all still new to me, but in my experience, there seems to be no uniform respect for or understanding of accessibility information. The majority of the time, it has either been inaccurate or entirely absent. 100% of the time I have had to request the information. I have never been able to access it easily myself. I have to repeatedly disclose my medical condition to strangers who rarely seem to understand it, despite working in one of the few fields (except medicine) in which it is imperative to consider people with photosensitive epilepsy. On one memorable occasion, I asked the organisers of a college society event whether there would be strobe lights at their live event. In response I received a screenshot of a text from a society member reading, “I have no idea so just tell her yes”. It shouldn’t have to be said, but if you are responsible for organising and promoting an event, you should be aware of what machines you or your team are using at said event, regardless of whether you are an amateur organisation or not. 

It should not be this hard. As proved by Kahan’s concert, the information is there. At every event there is at least one person who is responsible for lights, for their programming and operation, usually synchronised with whatever’s happening on stage, be it a concert with a set list or a play with a script. Having to fight tooth and nail to get an answer – an answer which is often something along the lines of ‘we don’t know’ –  takes half the fun out of going to anything. I’m not naive. I’m not going to nightclubs or concerts where you might expect very intense effects. I am just asking basic questions which no one seems to have the answers to. 

It is honestly ironic how inaccessible accessibility information is. And this is just one perspective. I am a relatively able-bodied person who has only had this diagnosis for a short time. How difficult must it be for people with more complex needs than me? Just because we are disabled doesn’t mean we should be rendered incapable of enjoying life. Putting aside the accommodations we should be entitled to, providing the facts for people to make an informed decision is the absolute bare minimum.

Do better. 

Siobhán Walsh

Siobhán Walsh is Deputy Societies Editor for Trinity News and is currently in the final year of her English Studies degree.