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How One Deaf Man and Two Pals with Cerebral Palsy Got Down at Bonnaroo

There were somewhere between 500 and 700 handicapped people at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival this year. For the most part, they get down just like the rest of us, but it’s those slight differences that make their Bonnaroo experience that much...

Lauren Schwartzberg

Wondering how, exactly, disabled people enjoy music festivals might sound like an ignorant hypothetical at first, but have you ever actually been to an event like Bonnaroo? 

Even for those without any handicap, powering through this type of sensory overload still takes an immense amount of physical and mental commitment. For example, it's five times harder to shit thanks to long lines at janky Port-A-Potties, ten times harder to shower because you have to pay to wait for a chance at an ice-cold trickle, and a hundred times harder to sleep because well... you're a grown-up in a tent. Add in the crowded sea of sweaty youths, logistics—music festivals now require a degree in rocket science in order to see your ideal line-up perform on various stages spread across several acres—and of course, the yelling, touching, pushing, and squeezing that come with it.

So why are thousands of people willing to subject themselves to third-rate conditions to hear Skrillex's high-pitched scream from a spaceship 20 feet above his stage? Ostensibly, it's the music. But aside from the impressive cache of top-notch musicians they constantly manage to drag into Tennessee's backwoods, Bonnaroo has drugs, food, booze, and cushy music-festival camaraderie—in abundance.

After waching Holly, the amazing Wu-Tang sign-language interpreter, in person last year, I couldn't help wondering about the handicap experience on the farm. If deaf people come to feel the music, who else gives up the necessary luxuries of home for a long weekend of endless discomfort? As I chatted with Bonnaroo's head of accessibility, Laura Grunfeld, she told me, "People who come to festivals are fanatic fans, and so are people with disabilities." 

So as I made my way through "accessible camping" and Bonnaroo's other disability-friendly zones, it was surprisingly easy to find and chat with people who prove that events like these are most definitely not limited to the able-bodied. Among them, a girl with cerebral palsy who managed to destroy her wedding dress and successfully party with Brick Squad, a deaf hype man who might've invented the lyric video, and a guy who has absolutely no regrets about trekking through the mud to see Lionel Richie. 

Taryn is a Chattanooga native and eight-year Bonnaroo veteran with cerebral palsy.

VICE: How did you get that paint all over you?
Taryn Balwinski: This thing called Trash the Dress where you trash your wedding dress. I wore mine all day yesterday.

Were you recently married?
No, recently divorced—hence the trashing. I wasn’t going to bother selling the dress because I had to have it altered so it wouldn’t be dragging on the floor when I sit. I was like, It’s not going to work for anybody else.

Did you organize the event?
Yeah. I have this website called ConcertHopper.com, so I sponsored the event and got the word out through that. I also run this Facebook page called Forever Bonnaroo, so I advertised it on there, and this one girl was really excited about it—really gung ho. Her boyfriend emailed the Forever Bonnaroo page and was like, "I want to propose to my girlfriend at your event because she is so excited about it."

How’d it go down?
Meetups are kind of hard at Bonnaroo because it’s difficult to get everyone together, so it was originally going to be five girls, but it ended up just being me and her. We were throwing paint on each other at the fountain and cutting the dresses and everyone was walking up and asking, “What’re you guys doing?” We were throwing paint on them too. Then her fiancé got down on one knee, and we’re all like, "Turn around! Turn around!" She finally turned around and had this look of shock on her face. She started backing up saying, "Oh my god!" and kissed him and everything. Everyone was going nuts and giving her hugs.

I saw your post about being on stage with Waka Flocka Flame. How’d that happen?
I do street team for Track 29, the venue he was playing. My little sister, the girl who was in the picture with me, she’s actually a big Waka Flocka fan, so I got me and her some tickets. We were in the front row dancing when someone from his entourage came up to us and asked if we wanted to come up on stage.

What was is like?
It was interesting. He was all hugging on me and talking about me being his friend.

My little sister just jumped up there and started dancing like she was used to it, and I was like, Uh, awkward. I didn’t know what was going on! It was one of those memories that me and my little sister are going to be telling her kids and our grandkids when we’re older. It was crazy.

Who are you most excited to see here?
Kanye. He is my future ex-husband.

You’ll have to separate him and Kim first.
That’ll play itself out.

Mark is deaf and from Detroit, Michigan.

Ten years at Bonnaroo, huh? You must be a big music fan.
Mark Levin:
Yeah, I’m actually a musician myself. I perform and tour with a deaf hip-hop artist named Sean Forbes. I’m the guitarist, and I also hype and sign behind him. We’re deaf musicians, and we’re making a successful living like this—there’s nothing you can’t do.

What’s the deaf experience like at a nightclub?
It’s all about feeling. What most hearing people don’t understand when it comes to music is that you guys rely so heavily on your ears, but good music just doesn’t sound good, it feels good—the vibrations. You’re grooving in front of that speaker, and some music’s going, and you’re dancing, and you don’t know why. It’s because music feels good. You get so used to listening that you’re not actually feeling it.

It’s interesting that you work with a rapper because you’d think rap music in particular is mostly about the lyrics.
The deaf rap community has grown. I’m this guitarist in the background like, Where’s my spotlight? The deaf music community is very, very small, and I only know maybe three other deaf musicians. One kid is an England transplant living in Seattle now, another is an older gentleman, and there’s a deaf band called Beethoven’s Nightmare.

How do you make music accessible to the deaf?
I work with a nonprofit called D-PAN [Deaf Professional Arts Network], and we make word videos. They call it “cool captioning,” but I like to call it “phonetic captioning.” Sean’s first video was “I’m Deaf,” and the words pop out almost phonetically while he’s rapping. We’re always innovating, trying to stay one step ahead of everybody. Now you see lyrics videos all over the Internet.

Did you start the trend?
I don’t know when the artists picked up on it—I think the first time I’d ever seen a mainstream artist do that was Hype Williams’s video for Kanye’s “All of the Lights.” Personally I was really upset when that happened, because I had just met with a music executive to try to pitch our project. I showed him this, never seeing it anywhere else, and then next thing you know, two months later, Hype Williams comes out with “All of the Lights.” It was like, Did they jack that from us? Even so, it’s just really cool to see artists almost unknowingly bring that in.

Any other ways?
On my last tour with Sean we built a platform that you hook into the soundboard, and it vibrates to the rhythm of the music. It’s kind of like a subwoofer, but with very, very clean vibrations. It’s not like when you stand in front of a speaker and you get a whole mix. These things are made specifically to vibrate, like when you go to a movie theater and the chair rumbles. We make the music, and you’re feeling it. You’re seeing the the music.

Daniel, at his third Bonnaroo. He's from Alabama and has cerebal palsy.

What’s your favorite kind of music?
Daniel Nasca: I like soulful, bluesy music. We just saw Sam Smith. He was so good. I have a thing for Janelle Monáe. I’m waiting to see Elton John and Lionel Richie, though. One guy goes to me and asks, "Who are you here to see?" I told him Lionel Richie. He’s like, "What the fuck, man?" I was like, "What?" He was like, "Who goes to see Lionel Richie?" I was like, "This guy, right here."

How are the bathrooms for you?
The worst bathrooms at Bonnaroo are the accessible bathrooms.

No way. Why?
I don’t think they empty them out as much because there are not as many people using them, but it’s still that much crap piled on top of each other. Also, because they keep them locked, someone’s got to come and unlock them to empty them.

That lock is a gift and a curse.
Yes. It’s always open for us, but it’s always shitty too.