GUEST BLOG: “Lighting is an access issue”

Posted on 19.05.2017

GUEST BLOG: “Lighting is an access issue”

Music has the biggest impact on my life, and I’m lucky enough to have a career in the music industry. I work in the classical sector and am exposed to live music regularly. However, I also have photosensitive epilepsy, and my experience of listening to live music greatly differs between classical and non-classical concerts. Outside of the classical concert hall I find booking and attending live music gigs a worrying and sometimes stressful experience.

Due to the uncertainty of if and when strobe lighting might occur, I find it difficult to relax amongst a crowd at a concert, and to me, festivals are completely off limits. If information about whether strobe lighting will be used is not offered, I have to make the decision to simply leave the venue, or stand away from the front of the stage/centre of the crowd, as a precaution in case of having to prevent a seizure if the lights do come on. I feel restricted to completely relax into the music and enjoy the environment.

I’ve lived with photosensitive epilepsy my whole life, but only had my first severe seizure when I started going to gigs at the age of 17 and was exposed to heavy strobe lighting. Thankfully the said venue was fantastic with me and actually banished strobe lighting on the regular music night I attended. This early experience filled me with confidence and reassurance that venues would always be accommodating to my condition.

Unfortunately this sympathy has not always been forthcoming. Most recently, at a concert where strobe lighting unexpectedly occurred, I asked the lighting manager if it was possible to turn them off because of my epilepsy. He did oblige, but surprisingly the lights were back on later in the evening. When I reminded the manager that I was still in the building, he responded with “You just have to have strobe lighting on for this one, don’t you?” I couldn’t believe that this staff member was comfortable to run the risk of someone having a seizure in the building because a particular song ‘needed’ the accompaniment of strobe lighting.

Whilst after so many years I am now relatively confident about what I need to do to avoid a seizure, being at a gig without knowing whether strobes might come on is highly unsettling. I now actually say that alongside being wary of bright flashing lights, I'm actually frightened of them. It's horrible to be in a busy dark space knowing that you could potentially black out with a seizure unaware of the care that you may or may not receive.

When I know for certain that strobes will be used I'm slightly more relaxed as I can prepare myself for it, place myself further away from the lights, and let the people I'm with know that if it gets too bad I might need to quickly get out of there. Not knowing if there will be strobes when a gig starts is like putting your hand in a dark box for three hours hoping that you won't touch something scary!

Lighting is an access issue and should be acknowledged across every genre of music, as strobe lighting can prevent people from experiencing live music without risk. If strobe lighting ‘must’ be used during a performance, comprehensive information regarding the severity and frequency of the lighting should be made available before point of purchase. Consumers must be given the choice to decide if they still want to attend and manage their condition to avoid a seizure before they are asked to part with their money. The pressure I face ringing ahead to ask about strobes, or trying to flag down the right person to ask at the venue, puts an unnecessary stress on what should be my leisure time.

I would urge music venues to consider their desire for strobe lighting; I completely agree that lighting can be a wonderful addition to enhance the atmosphere at a concert, but by sticking with colourful or non-flashing white lights, you can welcome everyone to immerse themselves in the music, switch off, and have a good time.

Guest blog post by Wallis Leahy.