Spotlight on Strobe Lights

By Matthew Prudham

Leeds Festival, 2017, Saturday night. I wake up disorientated in the medical tent. Immediately, I sense that something has gone very wrong. Seizures were my worst fear, after five fit-free years and university starting in one month. The medics later confirm that I had experienced a seizure in the Kasabian crowd that evening. I was back to square one.

Strobe lighting is commonplace across all major music venues and festivals, but its life-threatening side effects are not well known. The presence of strobes at these events, prevents people with photosensitive disabilities, such as some forms of epilepsy and flicker vertigo, from accessing events and venues. While venues and production teams do support people with physical disabilities, it appears that they are either ignorant or reluctant to make change that would enable people with hidden, photosensitive disabilities to have the same access as a non-handicapped person.

I had never experienced a photosensitive seizure prior to Kasabian; now they are a risk.

Many festival attendees are aged between 16 and 21, when new epilepsy diagnoses are prevalent. Therefore, it is irresponsible for strobes to be used, as they can lead to life-changing circumstances from developing a new condition at a concert. I had never experienced a photosensitive seizure prior to Kasabian; now they are a risk. A 2019 study carried out by four Dutch neuroscientists at 28 EDM festivals of over 400,000 test subjects across the Netherlands found results of a potential threefold increase in
risk of seizures, and only a third of these seizures were due to substance abuse.

Image credit: Leonardi Samradi via Flickr

This case study is typical of occasions of first-time seizures at gigs: a 20-year-old spectator, undiagnosed with epilepsy, sleep-deprived and having consumed a lower quality of food than normal, suddenly suffers a short tonic-clonic seizure. In much rarer cases, experiences like these could kill. SUDEPs (Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy) can be triggered by the mere presence of strobes if other atmospheric conditions are right. Epilepsy’s amnesia adds further danger; a person who dies through a SUDEP may have their condition triggered for the first time, or just cannot remember previous episodes.

How do people with hidden disabilities go to concerts? Wallis Leahy, a guest
blogger for Attitude is Everything, discussed the unnecessary stress tha attempting to persuade the events manager not to use strobe lighting on what should be enjoyable leisure. At most gigs, I wear sunglasses and try to close my eyes and look in the opposite direction when strobes flash. Like Wallis, concerts are a large part of my life. I echo her remarks that lighting, when used safely, can be a great addition to the atmosphere at a concert. I disagree on principle with Wallis, however, that making the use of strobe lighting clear at the point of purchase would be a step forward – rather, this would exclude, rather than include, those with disabilities.

The concert industry takes advantage of these disabilities through their ticketing methods. At no point before entering the venue are you told that the concert will be using strobe lighting. There is no alternative, after entering the venue, than just to walk away, cheated of cash, and an experience ruined.

To include, rather than exclude people with photosensitive disabilities, strobes have to be banned.

What can be done to address this issue? The Epilepsy Society states that ‘if lights are flashing at between 3-30 flashes per second, they could potentially cause a problem for someone who is photosensitive’. Strobes often flash is this range. HSE England seems to allow strobe lighting to be implemented in shows, only being involved at base level of event setup. Their website links go straight to NHS guidelines on epilepsy and avoiding triggers, not providing any public guidance on the safe use of strobes. Just as with pyrotechnics and other stage effects, there should be an absolute assurance that lighting is safe. Right now, strobe lights mean this is not the case. To include, rather than exclude people with photosensitive disabilities, strobes have to be banned.

Image credit: swimfinfan via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.

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