Deaf community feeling excluded at Renaissance Festival after decades of free accessibility

The Minnesota Renaissance Festival is about to kick off its seven-weekend run in Shakopee. But members of the deaf community feel like the festival is excluding them.

For 30-plus years, volunteers carried the load of making the festival accessible for the deaf community. But when they told the festival’s ownership the interpreters should be getting paid — and not just in turkey legs — they got nothing but silence as a response.

In the suburban Shakopee field where castles rise out of the dirt, Leslie Yount found a joy she wanted to share.

"It all started probably 30-35 years ago," she said.

Yount is deaf, but she enjoyed the medieval, Shakespearean banter of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival — the biggest of its kind in the U.S.

She organized a group of costumed volunteer interpreters for a Deaf Day every year — working for comp tickets and small food vouchers while drawing dozens of visitors who otherwise couldn’t follow most of the staged events.

"It means a lot to the deaf community," said Jason Hawkins, the CEO of ASL Interpreting Services. "It took something that was inaccessible to many people and made it accessible."

But… to be or not to be doing it for free? That was the question. Yount felt like something was rotten in the state of Denmark when organizers asked her to kickstart a second Deaf Day during the seven-week run.

"I started to get fed up, and really kind of saw that interpreters deserved to get paid," she said.

She worked with Hawkins to offer a discounted deal for interpreters in line with what the Minnesota State Fair offers. They say the Renaissance Festival didn’t joust with them over the request. Organizers just went silent.

Yount is frustrated about investing so much of her time without compensation only to have the drawbridge lifted for her and her community.

"The interpreters need to get paid," she said. "They need to open up their event to disabilities. They need to break down these barriers and these walls and just let us in."

A Renaissance Festival organizer told FOX 9 they’re still looking at a possible Deaf Day this year but haven’t figured out how to get interpreters yet. They’re hoping to know more within a couple of weeks.