Hearing access specialists
Hearing access specialists

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A contributed article by Alan Blue

A ten-minute talk back in 2016 is leading to something exciting!  A small group from our local University of the Third Age are helping to formulate guidance that could transform the way organisations across the UK run meetings and events.

Sally Shaw, director of the social enterprise Ideas for Ears, gave a short talk as an add-on to a General Meeting of Forth Valley U3A on 19th February 2016. It was a plea for help in exploring hearing and deafness issues and although I wasn’t at the event, I spotted her request when it was later published in the newsletter update.

Having had hearing problems for many years, and now wearing hearing aids that had not worked properly since 2011 when I finally admitted defeat, I responded to her plea and offered my help on behalf of the Forth Valley U3A.

Exploring hearing issues in public places

Sally was designing a system to obtain feedback from people on how well and easily they were able to hear and follow conversation and discussion in different situations. She was interested in people’s experiences in any public place, including meetings such as a General Meeting of the U3A. To help her, at the next General Meeting I placed out on tables and chairs an early version of a feedback sheet produced by her organisation, Ideas for Ears, to see how the audience responded.

It resulted in two motivated FV U3A members sharing their contact details and agreeing to join me in meeting up with Sally to discuss our experiences. We have been meeting up regularly ever since, forming an ad hoc FV U3A ‘hearing hub’.

Our ‘hearing hub’ has provided important support

With our assistance, Sally’s ideas developed to a database and digital app to be used to gather feedback from people across Scotland, and then evolved to the creation of guidance to make meetings and events more accessible to people with hearing loss. Her overall focus, and that of Ideas for Ears, is to find ways to make it easier and more enjoyable for people to remain involved in social, cultural, learning and work activities.

Our hearing hub of three became a group of five and was replicated by another hearing hub involving three further Forth Valley members and a Callander U3A member. They too began meeting up regularly with Sally, both groups being small enough so we could all hear effectively but also lively enough for good discussion.

Our regular meetings have assisted Sally to, in her words, “stay grounded and in touch with real experiences people are having.” It has resulted in Sally adapting her ideas and making various changes of approach, which are still developing.

Focusing on meetings and events

The current main priority for Sally and Ideas for Ears, is to find ways to transform the experiences that people with hearing loss have when they attend meetings and events. People everywhere are struggling to hear and follow things as well as they need or would like to. This is often caused, not by their actual hearing ability, but by the hostile hearing conditions presented by the acoustics or noise in the venue and/or the way things are run e.g. no microphones or misuse of equipment used in large meetings.

Sally has been consulting widely about the difficulties people have, and is reaching out to the U3A as a prime target because of our age profile. Despite people’s belief to the contrary that they have perfect hearing, it is a fact that hearing loss comes to the majority of people with age.

Creating a protocol and guidelines to transform experiences

To change and improve things, we have helped Sally create a protocol for meetings and events, and to generate additional guidance setting out specific information on how to make sure things work well. The resulting document provides clear, straightforward help for those who organise meetings and events and those who attend, speak or present at them, or promote them.  Consultation on the document will continue until 15 April 2018.

Over recent decades, a tightening of health and safety legislation means all promoters and presenters at meetings and events have to give some form of briefing to say where the toilets and point out exits in the event of an emergency. This crucial information is typically given through verbal instruction with a visual format very often not part of this process. This is just one element of talks and discussions that can be missed by people who have hearing difficulties and or only switch on the T loop as a talk commences which results for them missing introductions and key issues.

We have assisted and guided Sally to come to the view that more emphasis needs to be placed on hearing-related issues at meetings and events. We have also encouraged a view that better practice needs to be adopted throughout the whole country through a raising of general standards everywhere. The protocol and guidelines are a practical step towards this.

An invitation to the entire U3A

Sally hopes that the entire U3A will get involved and by doing so, show the U3A to be a forward-thinking and inclusive organisation. Most of the membership is aged 60 plus, which statistically means that around 60% of the membership will have some degree of hearing loss, even if for many it is fairly mild.

All U3A members should be able to take up learning and discussion opportunities and should not be excluded because of their hearing ability. Through our work with Sally, we have discovered that many of the barriers and difficulties that people come up against can be removed in fairly straightforward ways, and the improvements that result can actually benefit everyone.

By embracing the new protocol and guidelines, the U3A has the chance to help bring about a massive change throughout society. This process may take time and may even require stronger legislation to force things through, but for the U3A, there is no need for force because it is in our own best interests to promote access and inclusion for all our members.

Hilary Jones of the U3A Plus group has suggested that we tell members of the U3A about our activities to help bring about change.

How you can help

To get involved, you can:

  1. Recommend your U3A branch adopts and implements the new protocol and guidelines when it is published in May 2018.
  2. Promote the protocol and guidelines to other organisations and people of influence
  3. Create a U3A hearing hub to encourage discussion and shared learning around practical challenges created by hearing loss and solutions.


If you would like to know more, please make contact with Sally and she’ll pass your details to me.   You can also reach Sally at 07739 581059.