Alison and Margaret talk about isolation, exhaustion and exclusion – and how they are involved in a grass roots movement that is helping to stop them feeling this way. [Image shows Alison Delaney, back right, with Margaret Sparkes in front of her.]
With thanks to The Scottish Women’s Institute for permitting reproduction of this article, which first appeared in their magazine Women Together in September 2018.
Can you imagine a world where you were never in on the joke that is making everyone else in the room laugh? Or where you were surrounded by chatty, friendly people but excluded from the conversation? That world would be a very lonely place – and it is one that is often encountered by the 1 million Scots who have hearing loss.
Scottish Women’s Institute members Margaret Sparkes and Alison Delaney know that world only too well. The ladies, who are members of Buchlyvie Institute, live with different forms of hearing loss and have encountered isolation and exclusion because of it.
But now they want to help bring about change so that others won’t have to face the same problems that act as a barrier to enjoying aspects of everyday life that most of us take for granted.
Margaret and Alison are working with the group Ideas for Ears to roll out the Hearing Access Protocol – an initiative that aims to make meetings and events accessible to everyone, regardless of their hearing ability.
The Hearing Access Protocol has been developed by people with hearing loss and provides guidance on how to run events so that people with hearing difficulties – including those who are deaf – can follow what is happening and can play just as active a roll as those with no impairment.
Margaret and Alison hope that organisations such as SWI will adopt the protocol at monthly Institute meetings – as well as more formal gatherings at Federation and national level – so that no member ever has to feel like they are missing out.
Alison’s view of an ideal world
Alison, who lost much of her hearing very suddenly over a decade ago, spoke at the recent launch of the protocol in Glasgow. She said: “One of the things I wanted to make clear was the difference between hearing loss and other disabilities.
“If you have sight loss, you can wear glasses, and this lets people know that you have poor eyesight and it also corrects the problem. If you lose a limb, you can wear a prosthetic and this lets people see you have a disability and it also corrects the problem.
“Someone with hearing loss can wear hearing aids, but these are not easy to see, and they do not correct the problem. People think that if you have a hearing aid then everything is going to be fine – and it’s not like that at all.
“In an ideal world, I would never start off every conversation saying, ‘I’m sorry I am deaf, so I might need you to repeat things.’ I’d never get knocked over by a bike because the cyclist had rung the bell so far away that I didn’t hear it.
“And I’d never feel totally left out in a room full of friends who are laughing at a joke that I did not hear. But we don’t live in an ideal world: we live in a world that, for people with hearing loss, is full of constraints.”
The simple things that Margaret wants introduced
The Hearing Access Protocol contains a wide range of guidance on topics such as venue acoustics, correct use of hearing loops and the introduction of roving mics, along with tips for presenters and those who are talking at events and meetings.
Margaret, who has been involved in projects in her local area to identify suitable social venues for those with hearing problems, has high frequency hearing loss, meaning that she often cannot discern consonant sounds, only vowels.
As a result, she finds it difficult to hear in rooms where there is a lot of background noise – including her own Institute meetings.
She said: “There are so many simple things that can be done to assist those with hearing loss. For example, to enable lip reading, a speaker should face the room instead of turning away to talk to a screen or use a roving mic when there are questions from the floor.
“Many village and community halls now have hearing loops and sound systems, which is a very positive step forward, but it’s often the case that people don’t know how to switch them on. The equipment is there, but people won’t use it.
“I think the Hearing Access Protocol will be very useful to a wide range of organisations, and I would really like to see it adopted by SWI across all of its meetings, to make things more inclusive and accessible. It saddens me that people stop attending SWI because they find it hard to hear.
“If members stop attending then everyone suffers: not only does the membership of the group fall and lead to a situation where numbers are no longer viable, but the member also suffers because they become isolated, excluded and no longer able to be part of something they once enjoyed.”
Practical steps that Alison recommends
Alison has a hearing assistance dog, Lenny, and while he draws attention to her hearing problem, members of the public still find his role something of a novelty. One woman even thought that he was able to communicate with sign language!
She points out that making a venue “hearing friendly” doesn’t have to cost a huge amount of money, and that many changes can be carried out purely through education.
“The best thing an organisation could do is audit their venues and people’s experiences, but to make sure that the audit is carried out by those who understand how hearing loss affects people. A survey to capture hearing experiences is available on the Ideas for Ears website,” said Alison.
“When my local supermarket had a hearing loop installed I had to tell them that the microphone at the customer service desk was great, but they needed to move the microphone at the till. It was placed down the back of the computer screen, meaning the only thing I could hear was the buzz from the till.
“I’ve seen microphones placed next to air conditioning units, on top of printers and even next to a security buzzer, which went off frequently! There is a lot of education that needs to be done, but also a lot of people that can help.
“When I tell people that I am deaf, I wish that they would not only hear the statement but listen to it and understand what that actually means. My hope is that the hearing access protocol will start the process of change and make things more inclusive for all.”