THE Scottish Government wants Scotland to be “the best place for British Sign Language (BSL) users to live, work, learn and visit”.

Since the introduction of the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015, the everyday lives of Scottish deaf people have certainly improved, but there is still work to be done. Edinburgh is a world-renowned festival city, yet to date the access for deaf people to this cultural event has been patchy and unco-ordinated.

As a deaf BSL user, my overriding memory of the Fringe is one of feeling overwhelmed, but wanting to be part of it all. Deaf Action, where I have been CEO since 2017, wants to change this.

We have been a pioneering force at the forefront of the community for nearly 190 years and don’t do things by halves, so just making the festival season accessible with the add-on provision of captions and BSL/English interpreters didn’t feel enough.

Instead, we’ve added an extra dimension to this year’s season – the Edinburgh Deaf Festival, which takes place from 12-19 August 2022; a week of deaf culturally-specific events alongside an accessible festival season.

Deaf culture has a proud place in Scotland in terms of language, history and heritage. As home to Deaf Action, the world’s first deaf organisation, it feels right that Edinburgh should celebrate, promote and raise visibility of deaf culture and awareness of deaf issues.

We want deaf visitors to the festival to be able to go to a performance with an interpreter or captions in the morning, watch a deaf artist in the afternoon, and socialise in our bar in the evening. The best of both worlds.

For too long, deaf people have had to attend performances at pre-defined, often inaccessible times – such as subtitled cinema screenings at 10am on a workday. We want to change this by creating a customer-driven access service, so have developed an ‘interpreter on demand’ service for the festival season.

This means that deaf people can choose the performances they want to see, at the times they want to see them, and request an interpreter for that performance.

Throughout the planning we’ve been clear that we want integration alongside a cultural celebration, drawing the deaf community into the other festivals to sample and enjoy the season in its entirety.

This is reciprocated for festival-goers who aren’t deaf, who can book to see deaf performers in a regular festival venue, and to be transported to a deaf world for an immersive experience. This gives mainstream audiences the opportunity to learn more about our rich culture.

This is an incredibly exciting year for deaf culture. We have seen a deaf actor, Troy Kotsur, win an Oscar, a deaf contestant – Rose Ayling-Ellis – win Strictly Come Dancing, and a deaf contestant – Tasha Ghouri – on Love Island, all normalising sign languages, deaf voices and hearing devices.

We also have a new law, giving British Sign Language protected status across the UK. More and more people are taking an interest in deaf culture, and we can’t wait to welcome them into our world.

We expect the impact of Edinburgh Deaf Festival to last far beyond the end of August, when the performers have returned home. The number of people who will have seen deaf performers, interpreters and captioners in action will have grown and subliminally they will take this experience with them, maybe using this in their work or social lives.

Deaf young people will have seen deaf adults perform and have aspirations, providing a sense of identity, of belonging to a wider community of people “like them”.

Deaf performers will have had a much-needed opportunity to join the circuit, hone their skills and meet other performers. Festival planners will be more aware of the barriers deaf people face and will make accessibility provisions for their diverse audiences.

Early career interpreters will learn new skills from experienced interpreters that they can adapt and take back to their work in the community. It will empower deaf people to take pride in their cultural identity and ownership of their culture, and their stories.

I’m grateful to our festival partners who have been taking strides to make their events more accessible to deaf people this year. This feels like a real turning point for deaf festival-goers, where we won’t be an after-thought, but instead brought into the fold.

Being deaf and from a family which has many generations of deafness I’m excited to be able to combine all that is the Edinburgh festivals with a celebration of my own culture and heritage.


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