World Hearing Day 2023
How can we preserve our hearing?
There are unavoidable factors such as viral/chronic ear infections, meningitis, rubella, measles, genetics, cytomegalovirus infections or age related deafness or ototoxic medications. In these instances, there is no way of preventing being deaf. Once you lose your hearing, you lose it.
People using headphones or ear buds to play music loudly, going to loud concerts or working in very noisy environments on a regular basis should take appropriate precautions. Without ear protection, these things will lead to hearing loss and sometimes total deafness.
Is your role in the laboratory impacted by being deaf?
Hardly! My ears don't work but my brain does...
However, I am profoundly deaf. This means the quietest sound you can hear is more than 90dB. In my case it's 120 decibels - which is the equivalent to a jumbo jet taking off. I was diagnosed profoundly deaf when I was 13 months old after contracting meningitis at 6 months old. I then got it again 3 times in one year when I was 10 years old. This unfortunately finished off the remaining hearing I had.
I was brought up to lipread and didn't learn to sign until I was 8 years old. I am lucky to have the flexibility to change my communication fluidly, from using speech, lipreading, to basic sign language, or writing things down if needed. Not many deaf people are able to adapt their communication in this way.
Some days I struggle with concentration fatigue (which is very common with lipreading). This is due to the intense concentration needed for lipreading over a long period of time. The best remedy is to break up lipreading sessions into manageable time-frames or use other methods of communication such as gestures, body language, writing things down, or sign language.
The main disadvantage is not being able to use the telephone because of patient confidentiality. We have Relay UK which enables us to make phone calls via an operator who relays our typed messages to voice and vice versa. Unfortunately, due to the nature of patients' information being shared, it is not currently recommended for us to use it (despite RelayUK operators being bound to Official Secrets Act). There is a work around - by buddying up with a work colleague to make a phone call to share results with a health professional.
I would love to see new technology being developed that enables us to discuss cases with health professionals without using a third person - using a highly secure web chat that offers deaf professionals the option to type, speak and read.
Another challenge is group meetings. I only have the capacity to lipread one person at a time so it can be difficult to keep up with the fast flow of conversation in groups. Group conversations are like watching tennis, constantly moving your head to focus on someone then moving to the next. That's where concentration fatigue kicks in fast. The majority of us struggle in group situations.
I offset this by involving a lip-speaker (using lipreading with some signs/fingerspelling to differentiate certain words that look similar on the lips) or a sign language interpreter (I like to have the choice) so I can partake in meetings. In situations when I meet people for the first time, I use communication support because I have to take time to familiarise myself with their lip patterns and for them to "tune" into my "deaf" voice and speech.
Sometimes when there is no input requirement from me, I use remote speech-to-text captioning, which is like a live subtitles typed out by a palantypist. The advantage of this is that I get the notes afterwards and I don't get concentration fatigue.
I get my communication support funded by the governments' Access to Work scheme. Not many people actually know about the scheme - so do use it if you need it.
What would your advice be for colleagues who are deaf?
For the newly deaf, my advice is don't panic, and don't struggle in silence or shame. There are lots of resources and advice out there. It's a matter of looking in the right places and for the right people.
There are so many different options in terms of communication. There are lipreading classes (where you get to grips with lipreading) and British Sign Language courses. If you are finding that you are struggling, get in touch with Access to Work and ask for a workplace assessment. The assessor will make recommendations for you, such as assistive technology, a buddy system for phone calls and communication support.
My advice is to test as many things as you can (for some of them it may not be possible but do inquire) because you never know what will work really well for you. If you do not know where to get communication support, I recommend using NRCPD registered communication professionals because they will be insured, trained in every setting and formally qualified - but there are agencies that provide interpreters/lip speakers too.
It helps a lot if your workplace undergoes deaf awareness training (ideally taught by a deaf trainer so you can get their perspective and their lived experiences). This helps your colleagues become more aware of deafness (particularly, in terms of communication) so that they can meet you halfway.
Online groups are useful too. In my spare time, I work as an admin on a Facebook group called "Pardon? I am deaf" along with other deaf volunteers. We have helped thousands of people come to terms with their deafness and empowered them by informing them of their rights, signposting them to the relevant agencies and technology, and helping them make friends who are in the similar situation so that they do not feel alone.
RNID - helping people with hearing loss for more than 100 years. Key achievements include successfully lobbying the NHS to provide free hearing aids in 1948 and hearing-screening for newborn babies in 2000.
WHO - there are over 1.5 billion people with hearing loss, 12 million in the UK, it can range from hard of hearing to profoundly deaf, affecting one or both ears. Deafness is a social disability and is a spectrum, affecting communication in the majority of people, leading to social isolation and loneliness. Often deafness can be mistaken for dementia in older people, hence the need for hearing screening. Deafness comes with an increased risk of mental health issues.