Sophia P-H: Help me with my research into User Experience Design for deaf people

Posted on March 27, 2017

I was born hearing, but had mumps aged four which resulted in almost total hearing loss in one ear and high-frequency loss in the other. I was so young when it happened, that as I grew up I never thought anything about it.  Because I’d already learnt to speak, and could hear a bit, I wasn’t treated any differently from any of my friends and I didn’t know anything different; it just was how it was.

Throughout school, I would simply make sure I sat at the front to be near the teacher, and at some point I must have started to lip read, since this is now something I do as second nature and miss acutely if someone covers their mouth or moves so I can’t see it.

I had regular hearing check-ups, but other than that there was no additional support offered/available until, just before my GCSE’s, my audiologist said that new technology meant I could try hearing aids.

They helped a bit, in class, watching tv, but they were uncomfortable so I only used them when I reallyneeded to. I got a bit of light-hearted joshing from my classmates about being their grandma, but mostly people were just interested and wanted to try them on.  After a while they lost interest in it and things carried on as normal.

After university, I got my first job in a TV production company in central London making commercials.  It was a fast-paced environment and an exciting and nerve-wracking time.  I started with good intentions to use the hearing aids as much as possible – in a new job you want to make sure you don’t mishear and make a fool of yourself, right!? – but in reality, my role involved spending a lot of time on the phone which meant that to avoid squeaky feedback I was continually taking out the aids to take or make a call, then putting them back in again, time and time again, which was tedious and ultimately made my ears sore.

Over time, I stopped using the aids, and instead just told people I was ‘a bit deaf’ so they needed to be loud & clear with me; make sure I was facing them; to get my attention before they spoke.  It just seemed a practical way to deal with the issue and I guess I was lucky because everyone was great about it and by and large made an effort to do as I’d asked.

Cut to 2017, twenty years later.  I now work in brand design with a small-ish team and I still tell people I’m ‘a bit deaf’ although I know I hear less than I used to and now have the addition of pretty-constant tinnitus.

I rely on subtitles on TV and have a bed-shaking alarm clock to wake me in the morning, but really, my day-to-day working life hasn’t changed a huge amount from back then in that production company.

Over the last few years I have become interested in the discipline of ‘User Experience Design’ (UXD), which is essentially the process of enhancing a user’s satisfaction with a product or service by using design to maximise the usability and accessibility that the product/service provides.  The growth of ‘tech’ and its potential for helping people of all walks of life interests me greatly.

So, I recently enrolled in a UXD course and on the first day sat at the front of the class to be near the teacher, as I always did at school.  Imagine my surprise when the class began and I found that whilst 20% of the lesson was the teacher talking & presenting slides, the other 80% of it was group discussion and questions to/from the class.  I couldn’t hear a word of what most people were saying; couldn’t get line-of-sight to see their mouths and generally had a bit of a rude awakening as to my hearing situation.

The technicalities of how we’re working on helping me hear in class is another story, but the experience has meant I have had to start changing my understanding of my own identity.  Looking back, growing up, I didn’t associate myself as either deaf or hearing.  I was somewhere in between.  Beth J Wilson, PhD puts it very well when she says  ‘too deaf to be hearing, too hearing to be deaf’.  That was me; a bit different from other people – but everyone’s unique…right?

But now, for the first time, I’m learning about d/Deaf & HoH culture and trying to work out how I fit into it.  I’m reading the Limping Chicken and Shari Eberts and innumerable other blogs and finding so many things that resonate it’s like having all my experiences – and what I now realise is my arsenal of coping strategies – listed off, one-by-one, before my very eyes..

Above all it’s ignited a determination to find a way to bring together my hearing loss and my interest in UXD’s potential to help people.

So, when it came for us to choose our final course project, I elected to investigate the issues that hard of hearing people like me experience on a daily basis – particularly in group activities – and to try to come up with some possible new solutions.  Whether I’ll strike ‘solutions gold’ is yet to be determined, and ultimately this is just for the purposes of a course, but to give it my best shot, I need the opportunity to learn about other people’s experiences.

I’m acutely aware that millions of people have, and have had, similar or worse life-changing hearing loss experiences than mine; I know I’m not special & I’m not the only one.

I also know I’m not the first hard of hearing person to be interested in UXD, nor the first UXD to be interested in the challenges of being hard of hearing, but that doesn’t matter; I’m going to give it my best shot and who knows what I might discover.  I’m looking forward to finding out.

If you can help me with my research, just email

Thanks for reading!

Sophia says: “I was born hearing and became partially deaf in early childhood. I never thought much about it – I was just someone who heard less-well than most other people – but a recent experience has started me on a new journey of self-discovery; a new interest in my hearing loss and in the vibrant world of d/Deaf culture.
“In my day-to-day work as a brand producer, I partner with designers and marketers to make-real their ideas for new brands.  Outside of work I’m interested in architecture and the affect of the built environment on people; how design plays an increasing role in shaping our understanding of the world and how the rise of ‘tech’ innovation is bringing the promise of new solutions to old problems.”

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