Shona Hudson: How I became an invisible shopper and discovered the everyday challenges for a deaf shopper

Posted on November 17, 2014



Walking into any store any day of the week I look like just any other shopper.

I park up like everyone else, get my trolley and set off round the aisles looking for the special offers and something nice for my dinner.

But there is one thing I do before I enter the store that no one else will see …I switch the sound settings on my hearing aids (HA’s) down to the lowest level I can.

I know that once I step into the store I will be greeted by a cacophony of noise that sets my teeth on edge & threatens me with a stressful headache.

I will need to have my wits about me, as even with my HA’s on, if someone approaches me from behind or the side I won’t hear them and the odds are it will be an irritated shopper who has been quietly fuming because they have asked me to move!

I will be oblivious to in-store announcements, alarms and conversations around me but I will hear the noise of the freezers humming away & the air conditioning and this noise will drown out the very precious thing I want to hear – your voice.

And finally I get to the check-out, my eyes will take a furtive look to the till to try and see what my shopping bill will be.

Not being able to hear the cashier means I probably won’t know until I put my PIN number in what it is costing but that is easier than trying to guess what the cashier is saying so I avoid cash.

Then there will be all the questions about vouchers, cashback, bags which I confess I generally say ‘no’ to as many questions as possible in the hope it’s the right answer so that I don’t then get into a tennis match volley of ‘what’ who’ ‘sorry can you say that again’ and feel the irritation of the person behind with that look that says ‘I can hear clearly and I’m behind you in the queue, why don’t you listen, are you stupid or something?’

Welcome to my world, its unique. What I can or cannot hear is particular to me.

If you should meet a person with hearing loss, their ability to hear sounds may very well be quite different to mine.

My guarantee is that the one thing most of us have in common is that it’s extremely difficult to hear what people are actually saying.

I am one of the lucky ones …I don’t really have a problem with tinnitus and my hearing problems don’t affect my balance and my HA’s help me most of the time.

This won’t be true for everyone and it certainly is not easy for the casual acquaintance to work out if the person in front of them can’t hear, unless we tell them.

And hey at 7pm after a hard day at work , standing in a check out queue I don’t necessarily want to have to explain with everyone else just wanting to get me out of the way so they can pay for their shopping.

And so I contacted Tesco. Community Director at the Head office in Cheshunt. Wow, did I NOT get the usual corporate response – they asked me to visit them and explain why the shopping experience, something most of us take for granted every day, can be such a tortuous one.

Each and every person I have met at the head office and at my local store in Southam have been genuinely interested and it’s no surprise some of the people I met either know someone else with a hearing problem or they have one themselves. It affects a lot of us.

They wanted to know if they could do more so Paula Wales came up with the idea that I should meet Martina, the Community Champion and walk round the store with her.

From driving into the car park, getting money out of the ATM, being in the store & buying petrol. I did not even know I was oblivious to the in store announcements and fire alarm test until Martina told me.

The best bit of the whole day was meeting the Tesco team, who – once we explained what we were up to , wanted to know how they could help make the customer experience better.

The difficult bit is how they can help when it’s just not visible that I need some help. Not everyone is in a place where the first thing they want to say ‘is hello I am deaf, please face me when you speak etc. etc.’

So it’s a bit of a challenge but the first step is for any store to make themselves visibly deaf friendly- have hearing loops installed, make it obvious that you have them, let your staff know how they work. Remember that loops won’t work for everyone but they are a signpost that shows the store cares about all their customers.

So what did we learn as we walked round?

Never assume that a person can hear what you hear or even know what they may be missing. Give some visual clues if you need them to move or come to another till and remember if I can see your face and you can see mine you stand a much better chance of being understood.

We talked about how life could be made a lot better with just being deaf aware. And I know Hearing Link are working with Tesco on improving their loop systems.

So thanks for Tesco for showing an interest. Please remember I could only represent me and my thoughts and how I feel but I hope I represented that large group of people who have a hearing loss. As I said we are all different and we deal with our loss our own ways but for me shopping should be accessible and pleasurable for everyone – it’s a basic need.

At the end of the tour, Martina and I discussed the community rooms that they are encouraging local groups to use free of charge for community activities.

Something I would like to pursue myself for drop in HA clinics accessible to people who may be at work all day and can get their shopping and sort out their hearing aids at the same time.

Also we talked about new technology as Martina was interested in the listening device that I had with me called the Phonak Roger Pen, just one of many devices that help you to hear with your HA’s.

I am so looking forward to the new things being developed -smartphones that convert speech to text and google glasses with captioning which would be ideal for those that loops are not the solution.

I have been invited to one of their call centres to see how things work there and whether we can learn anything from each other …they handle 16 million calls a year. So asking a question and travelling to Cheshunt has started a journey…the quest is on!

Special thanks to: Greg Sage Community Director Tesco, Lindsey Paterson, Paula Wales, Lucy Buttler
Martina Fitzgerald & her colleagues at the Southam store – Lorraine, Nola, Mary & Colin to name just a few.

Shona Hudson has been partially deaf all her life, and works for Severn Trent Water as an Operations & Maintenance Manager (although she is currently on a ‘career break’ finishing in November 2014). After attending a Hearing Link self management programme , she is now a volunteer. Her aspiration is to can make a difference in how deafness is perceived & increase the visibility of support networks that are already there. Her journey to acknowledge my hearing loss took far too long, and she says: “if I can help one other person to get there quicker for themselves I will be happy.”

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