Ni Gallant: How much can people learn about being deaf from an ‘In their shoes’ day?

Posted on April 24, 2013

One of perhaps the nicest things about being a student on a Health Course only campus is the universities ‘In their shoes day.’

The basic idea is that every student should have the opportunity to experience life from the point of view of the client/patient/service user they are working with and therefore, hopefully, have some empathy with their situation. The university hopes that this experience will encourage students to become deaf aware, wheelchair friendly or just plain aware of what it might be like to live day in, day out, with a disability.

A few months ago I had the opportunity as part of my Social Work Skills module to spend the afternoon in a wheelchair pootling around the university while knocking into people and objects, as well as shouting at the Student Union shop staff when I discovered they’d blocked all the aisles, making them inaccessible to wheelchair uses.

Hats off to the university, other than the shop I couldn’t find a single inaccessible place – even the library aisles were wide enough for me to wheel myself along, although reaching up for books was an almighty pain. I discovered lots of things about myself through the exercise, including the fact that I’m probably the most fiercely independent person in my lecture group – I outright refused to be pushed around in my wheelchair and instead wheeled myself everywhere, though the only place this was difficult was getting in and out of the lift!

I also had a good chuckle with my friends when my university lecturer told me that I couldn’t use the blindfold and thus be “deaf-blind” as the university hadn’t risk assessed for this. Although this was funny in a way, it also irked me as many of my friends are deaf-blind, or are becoming deaf-blind through Ushers Syndrome, and I felt this was something I really wanted to experience in a simulation context – fully aware that this would not be the exact day-to-day experience of my deaf-blind friends.

Today it is the turn of my nursing student friends to “step in their shoes” and become deaf, blind, on crutches or a wheelchair user.

I met up with them on my way to an appointment and was amused to see that every one of them had chosen to become “deaf” for the day. I suspect a lot of cheating will take place, but it was funny to see them struggle to hear in the group setting and to see their frustration at the things I so often feel frustrated by. I expect that the experience they’ve had is similar to the day to day experiences I have with my hearing aids in, as they all said they could hear a little but not fully, and that speech was extremely muffled and unclear.

I remember a while back there was a whole stream of media coverage surrounding journalists and reporters who all decided to become ‘deaf for the day’ and experience what life is like as a deaf person. The Limping Chicken’s own Charlie Swinbourne reported on one of these attempts and wrote extensively on how these experiences of deafness could never match up to the real deal; and on one level I believe he’s right.

My friends’ experiences of “deafness” are exaggerated by their inability to communicate, so becoming “deaf” for a few hours will not allow them to learn to lip-read, to sign (better than they already can) or to fully adjust and develop the coping mechanisms deaf people learn throughout their lives.

The simulation resembles, if anything, the frustrations that must be felt by older people with age-related deafness or by those who become deaf suddenly as a consequence of illnesses such as meningitis. However, at the end of the exercise my friends can take out the ear-plugs and go back to being their “normal, hearing selves,” choosing to either learn from the experience or, in some cases, more likely forget.

Yet there is a part of me that hopes that they have learnt from the exercise; certainly from their comments so far I can safely say they’ll never take lip-reading for granted ever again. And I hope that in some way it will build on the deaf awareness skills they already have, and that they will be more mindful of the trials of group conversations and how background noise can further add to the frustration.

It may be wishful thinking but I’m glad that my university is at least attempting to ensure that future generations of nurses, occupational therapist, speech and language therapists and social workers have at least some idea of what it means to be deaf – and will therefore have hopefully developed a degree of awareness and sensitivity towards the issue.

DSCF3771Ni Gallant is a Contributing Editor for the Limping Chicken and a deaf teen who has just started university. This year she was on the NDCS Youth Advisory Board and she also runs a Youth Group for Worcestershire deaf teens called “Deafinity.” She writes a blog ( about life from a deaf teenagers perspective and says that “somehow what I said resonates with other young people – so I carried on!”

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