Hearing access specialists
Hearing access specialists

A simple line drawing of a person next to a big lighbulb

Pippa Highfield of Ideas for Ears is searching for practical solutions to the barrier created by face masks

I had one of those rare light-bulb moments the other day. Suddenly, something became so obvious to me that I couldn’t believe I’d missed it before – it was laughable!

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you’ll know that I’ve been trying to find solutions to the new communication challenges that have been thrown up by Covid-19 for those of us with hearing loss. That is, how to make video calls more accessible and how to communicate with someone who is wearing a mask or face covering.

Both pieces have been well received and many people have shared their ideas, and anxieties, in response. One story though made me think again, and wonder if there was anything else I could be doing to help myself and others with hearing loss, or if I should just admit defeat.

Hit by a realisation

The story told of a patient who had just returned from an hospital appointment where she had been completely unable to communicate with the nurse. It wasn’t through a lack of equipment or initiative, but simply because the nurse didn’t have the time, or perhaps the inclination if I’m feeling less generous, to make it work.

It was then that it hit me. However much I do, I can’t solve all my communication difficulties alone. It takes two, or more, to have a conversation and adjustments usually need to be made by both parties. A willingness to acknowledge the other person’s needs is a must, but many other things can get in the way too.

Rammed home by problem acoustics

The point was rammed home to me later that day in a video call with three others.  It was yet another video call and yet another less than satisfactory experience. I could hear one person’s voice on the call clearly enough, but the other two, barely at all.

I plucked up courage – let’s acknowledge here that it does take courage to say something – and asked them what set-up they were using and what room at home they were in.  It transpired that both were in echoey dining rooms and neither had direct microphone input into their laptops.

Short of asking everyone to call me from a more acoustically-friendly bedroom and to use a headset or external microphone with their laptop, what more could I alone do?

I am only human – I get embarrassed

The final part of the light-bulb moment, was the realisation that I am only human!  And, whilst I did pluck up courage to speak up in that last video call, it still didn’t help me. Quite the opposite in fact. As my colleagues tried desperately to find solutions to my problem, I became more and more embarrassed, until I was completely unable to focus on the call.

“… I have an innate fear that my inability to hear properly somehow impacts on other people”

I have been told so many times by well-meaning friends, colleagues and strangers that I just have to tell people I have hearing loss and shouldn’t be embarrassed to do so. As if just telling someone is an easy thing to do.

I did not magically acquire a thick skin and a new pushy personality at the same time as I acquired hearing loss.  The truth is, I have never liked to make a fuss and I have always hated being at the centre of attention.  These are human traits that make me who I am.

“… the thought that someone else may be negatively affected by my needs is almost intolerable”

I also have an innate fear that my inability to hear properly somehow impacts on other people. Maybe that makes me human too, but the thought that someone else may be negatively affected by my needs, is almost intolerable. That might sound extreme to you, and perhaps it goes to the core of my self-confidence, but I have heard others express the same feeling.

So I don’t make a fuss, what I do instead, is work hard to ‘get by’.  I have some residual hearing, I lip read a little, I use contextual information, gestures and, of course, plenty of guess work.

But I was left questioning whether I was opting out in some way by settling for ‘getting by’?  If I continue to tell others that everything is fine and ‘getting by’ is OK, then nothing will change.  There has to be an appreciation of the problem before anyone will believe that a solution is needed.

The beacon of hope that can say it for me

Consistently clear speech, a steady speaking pace, no background noise and seeing the speakers face, all make it much easier to communicate.  The point I’ve already made though is that it can be very hard to ask for these things.

It can not only feel embarrassing and undignified, it can be very hard to do if you don’t have a confident, extrovert personality.   So is there another way?  Could and should these things be done as standard, for the benefit of everyone, and not just when an occasional, specific effort is made because someone has had the courage to request it?

Fantasy?  Perhaps not.  There is a phrase out there that says all this for me:  it is ‘hearing access’.

Hearing access: a phrase to love and use

Hearing access is the umbrella phrase that covers all the things that make it hard or easy for people with hearing loss to hear and follow the spoken word. At is simplest, hearing access can be compared to mobility access, which we all know includes wheelchair ramps, wide access routes, accessible toilets etc.

We need hearing access to be just as well known, and equally as important, as mobility access. If there is more awareness of hearing access then there will be more effort made to deliver it.

This includes subtle improvements like ensuring that people can see names written down in meetings, as well as the more obvious ones, like ensuring microphones, loudspeakers and hearing loops deliver good quality sound. Helpfully, the guidance for all these things is already available through the Hearing Access Protocol. 

My light-bulb moment woke me up to just how important hearing access is, but until it is fully understood and implemented, we are going to have to rely on being bold enough to ask for help. It is an uncomfortable position forced upon us all.

About Pippa Highfield

Pippa is a marketing specialist and cochlear implant recipient. Since acquiring hearing loss in mid-life she now uses her skills to raise awareness and help promote Hearing Access.


Are you bold enough to ask?  Have you had a Light Bulb Moment about your hearing?  You can use the comment box below if you wish to share your thoughts.

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8 responses to “Solving hearing difficulties:  Pippa has a light-bulb moment”

  1. I want to share my own “lightbulb” moment and, in doing so, hopefully offer support to you and to all others who have an acquired hearing loss, in my own case, age!

    My hearing loss was progressive, both ears, starting when I was in my mid-to-late 40s (late 1980s-early 1990s). Over time, it got worse – it saw me through the days of “analogue” hearing aids (basically, sound amplifiers) to the advancement into digital. (I am now totally deaf in one ear and, two years ago, had a CI installed in the other.) Thank God for the NHS!

    From those early days (mid-1990s and onwards) I took an interest in trying to better understand the consequences of my hearing loss such that I could make my own personal adjustments, environment and the like, so as to better “hear” what others were saying. That ‘interest’ resulted in me researching different hearing loss orientated sites with the object of me being better able to participate as an aware citizen. At that time (around 2008/9) I came across some joint research by the NHS and the RNID. It was a revelation eureka moment! What that research revealed was to the effect that, for age-related hearing loss and applying very marginal rounding, 60% of those aged 60 and over had a hearing loss; and it was 70% for age 70 and over, and 80% for 80 and over. (This NHS/RNID research did state that, for those percentages, about half of the individuals concerned would benefit from using hearing aids.)

    So, there I was, in my early 60s, and the lightbulb moment for me – at my then age, so far as my hearing loss was concerned, I was “normal”!

    From that time on, I “came out”! I stopped being self-conscious of my hearing loss and I became more involved in “life”. Without being aggressive about it, I started, and continue with the expectation of others to “match” me in making adjustments so that I could be a more participative citizen. Age-related hearing loss is normal: if I used a walking stick or wore specs (which I now do), hardly anyone looks upon this as being ‘odd’. And a progressive age-related hearing loss isn’t ‘odd’ either!

    • What a wonderful and heartening story – I really appreciate you sharing it with us Terence.

      It’s great to be able to re-frame your thinking in a way that helps to overcome and accept hearing loss.

  2. Whilst I agree that making hearing access more of an issue, like other disability access, we are dreaming if our hidden disability is going to suddenly be accepted as a problem while even hospitals doctors or even partners are not sensitive to our difficulties. Perhaps as the oercentage of people affected inexorably increases it might get easier but i think it is unlikely. I think it is up to us and technology to find solutions. Recently I saw a device which clips onto the glasses to help blind or partially sighted people. It reads things and tells the wearer what it sees and even recogniises the faces of friends. The cost is prohibitive..
    The technology to turn the spoken word into text is already here. See the many apps which are springing up due to the need for remote conferencing e.g Otter. The ‘leap’ to enable you to see what is being said in a pair of glasses is so tiny that I am incredulous that it has not been made, if not by Google, by Huawei for the billion hard of hearing ( and increasingly wealthy, Chinese) There is a fortune to be made by someone. Perhaps I should start a crowdfunding project !

    • I agree Keith, changing minds and behaviours certainly won’t happen over night. Perhaps as we advocate for ourselves we can, at least, start to raise awareness of the concept of hearing access though.

      You make a good point about speech to text apps – they have suddenly come to the forefront as there is a clear need for them, and not just amongst people with hearing loss. Maybe it’s up to us to create that demand and make it clear what new technology solutions would be helpful and useful?

      There’s an opportunity in there somewhere!

  3. What I find exhausting is asking the same people, time after time, to face me, look up, speak clearly and so on. If I can remember how you take your coffee, why can’t you remember I wear hearing aids?

    • I know exactly what you mean Josephine. Wouldn’t it be nice if these simple adjustments came automatically to everybody?

  4. I was told by a psychologist that those who feel socially threatened to speak up (as we all do to some extent) feel the same stress as if they were physically threatened. I think it helps to understand how hard it is to say something or feel like you are ‘putting others out’.

  5. That’s interesting – so the fight or flight response is at play?

    It certainly helps me when I read that there is science to support the way that I am feeling or thinking. Perhaps it’s then that we realise we aren’t alone.

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