Charlie Swinbourne: Syringing goo into a journalist’s ears doesn’t raise deaf awareness

Posted on March 1, 2012

When I first read an article called ‘What’s it like to be deaf?’ on a Norfolk news website I thought it might be a wind-up. But it’s not. As part of Deaf Awareness Week, an audiologist at Specsavers really did show a journalist what it would be like to be deaf by syringing some goo into her ears.

Predictably everything went very quiet, the journalist could no longer understand what people were saying around her, and as she walked out onto the street, she realised that “losing one of your senses does make you feel very vulnerable.”

She felt like her “head was submerged in a bucket of water” and said that “every noise seemed distorted.” Then, in a shock revelation from a hearing person, she went on: “It’s astonishing how much sound rules your everyday life in ways you are not even aware of,” she said, “like judging the distance of people and vehicles.”

She was startled when she didn’t realise a van had pulled up inches behind her. More so when she couldn’t hear the phone ringing in her office. “Suffering from hearing loss made my job practically impossible,” she noted.

After six hours, she took the plugs out and reflected that “I was one of the lucky ones. I was warned exactly what would happen when the audiologists made me ‘deaf for a day’ and I knew that whatever they did could also be undone.”

Well, there’s the rub. She didn’t get any idea whatsover of what it’s like to be deaf. What she got instead was an impression of what it’s like as a hearing person to suddenly not be able to hear – which is not the same thing at all.

Six hours doesn’t give you much of a chance to learn to lipread, use sign language, or more simply, how to pick out as much as you can from the sounds you do hear. You haven’t got used to walking down a street while being visually aware of what’s going on around you, or changing the way you work to fit your needs.

You haven’t discovered, in short, how deaf people get by in everyday life.

I’m not saying deaf life is easy, and of course some people do go suddenly deaf, which is a traumatic, life-changing experience. But if you block someone’s hearing for half a day, the things they report finding difficult, or different, won’t be the same as the things a person who is deaf for life would tell you.

It starts getting a tad off-putting for employers thinking of taking on a deaf person when, based on those few hours experience, you say: ” it struck me how someone with permanent hearing problems might struggle in some lines of work.” Oh yeah? Which ones exactly? Granted, some jobs are more tricky for a deaf person to do, but have you heard of Access to Work, sign language interpreters, lipspeakers, or equipment to help you hear?

I’ve heard of awareness sessions where people thought they understood blindness by covering their eyes, or what it’s like to use a wheelchair by borrowing one for a few hours. But blind people and wheelchair users I’ve met always say the same thing: unless it’s your everyday experience, you don’t really know.

I’m sure the journalist’s intentions were good. I’m sure Specsavers’ intentions were good too – there is a big issue around people not wearing hearing aids who could clearly benefit from it, and this is what they were trying to highlight. But this wasn’t the way of doing it.

As the journalist herself said: “I also only had to experience hearing loss for a mere six hours. Others have it for life, of course.”

Exactly. That’s why you should be more careful not to patronise deaf people by engaging in what, in my view, is nothing more than a meaningless gimmick.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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