Transcript: BBC Radio London interviews Charlie Swinbourne on the boy asked to remove his hearing aids for school photo

Posted on June 12, 2015

Our editor Charlie Swinbourne appeared on BBC Radio London’s Drivetime show yesterday to talk about the story of the deaf boy who was asked to remove his hearing aids so that he looked ‘smart’ for his school photograph. Charlie was interviewed by presenter Eddie Nestor. You can hear it by clicking here (starting from 1 hour 23 mins and 30 seconds into the show) or read the transcript below.

Eddie –

A mother is furious after her six year old boy was asked to take off his hearing aid in his school photo so that he looked ‘smart.’

Alfie Durant didn’t want to wear his headband-style hearing aid the next day because he was embarrassed and shamed around his classmates. When his Mum called the school she was told they had taken it off because they assumed she would want to have his photo taken without it. Interesting, right?

Pallister Park Primary School – not in London but this story is of interest to anyone who has a child with a disability or a child who is ‘different” – has apologised for their insensitivity to the parents but it does give me the opportunity to speak to Charlie Swinbourne. He is a journalist who is also deaf and wears a hearing aid.

So your hearing aid, is it one with a nice headband like the one this boy Alfie was wearing?

Charlie –

No, it’s not. I’ve worn In The Ear (ITE) hearing aids, which is probably the most common kind, since I was about 2 years old. The kind that he wears, I think it’s a bone anchored hearing aid and the band keeps the hearing aid against the bone at the back of the head.

Eddie –

So Charlie, help me with this. I’ve just had a conversation with our News Editor, not on this subject, but the question I asked him is pertinent – do you get as upset about something if it’s done through insensitivity and stupidity as you do when it’s done via and through malice?

Charlie –

I think obviously, if it’s somebody who doesn’t mean to upset you, it’s less upsetting. I think in this case it really came across to me that the photographer who asked the boy to take this hearing aid band off, I think he probably wasn’t really thinking and being insensitive.

What it comes back to for me is the assumption a lot of people have that people are a bit embarrassed of their hearing aids.

I think that’s a real shame because, I mean, I’ve had stages of my life where I’ve probably felt a little bit embarrassed of them, I’ll admit that, but I came through those times and now I feel quite proud to be a hearing aid wearer, and I don’t hide them at all.

Eddie –

But here’s the thing, somebody is making a decision about whether that child should be shown in [a photograph] that’s going to be kept for years and years and years with the hearing aids.

Now, it if’s something that he wears all the time, who makes the decision about whether he keeps it on or takes it off for the photo?

Charlie –

It should really be… I know the boy’s only 6 years old but that they’d give the boy that decision –

Eddie –

No! I don’t like that Charlie. Let me tell you why I don’t like that, because you are saying ‘you are normal, you’re in this school with ‘normal’ children,’ but the minute you ask him about whether he keeps the headband on, aren’t you making a distinction that he is now going to be aware of?

Charlie –

No, what I meant is I wouldn’t actually ask the question – it would be, if the boy was having his photo taken and if the boy said himself: “Oh I want to take them off,” then if it came from him, then I’d go with that.

I don’t think the question should even have been asked in the first place. I do think it’s down to the boy and how he feels. I absolutely agree with you, I think by asking the question, he’s immediately differentiated, he immediately feels that something’s different, something’s a little bit ‘wrong’ with him, in other people’s eyes, and that’s what’s really wrong about this.

Eddie –

How do you talk to children about being different, without being wrong or bad? How is ‘different’ expressed?

Charlie –

I think that’s something every parent of a deaf child, every parent of a child with a disability has to work with.

It’s obviously good to talk about things, you don’t want to hide things completely, but as you’ve seen in this case if you ask a question in the wrong way, then it can really have an adverse effect and this boy has gone into school the next day not wanting to wear his hearing aids.

So I think it’s all about how you do it and I think if it’s all part of a wider conversation then it’s easier, but obviously in this situation the idea that him visibly wearing his hearing aids, that something was wrong with that, was really expressed to him by the way the question was asked.

Eddie –

Yeah but has his Mum – and I presume it’s Mum in this case – has she, you know, shout me down if you want to, has she made things worse? Why would you go to the press with this kind of story?

Charlie –

I’m glad that she went to the press because, well, I’m a deaf journalist, I write about deafness all the time, deaf issues, deaf culture and I’ve got a blog about deafness, and the thing is, so many people keep these kinds of incidents to themselves. They feel embarrassed, they don’t want to talk about it.

We actually need more people to come out and say ‘this has happened to me, it’s really not right’ or ‘this happened to my son.’ And then people can discuss it, and by discussing it, I think all of us can learn, you know, what not to do. And that can be expressed to a much larger audience.

So I’m really glad that she’s come out to a wider audience with this, and I think really we need to talk about it, we all need to talk about deafness so much more.

Because there are so many people who don’t wear hearing aids out of embarrassment. It’s often older people, there’s so many [of them] who would benefit from hearing a little bit more, who’d rather miss a lot of what’s going on around them, and I think that’s the biggest shame of all.

Eddie –

Charlie, always a pleasure. We’ll do it again, I promise you. Look after yourself.

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