In the last three days I have participated in several discussions with Architects, large scale builders and people who manage public buildings on behalf of the NHS. All of these discussions have been on the same topic, how to improve the experience for people who are affected by hearing loss, but the views of these professionals, largely impacted by their own experiences have varied enormously. It is clear that at present provision for people who are affected by hearing loss is extremely patchy, in a manner that would be totally unacceptable if we could all see or hear how effective or ineffective the systems are. I work for a company that installs ALD or Assistive Listening Devices. These devices ensure that anyone wearing a hearing aid can benefit from greatly improved sound quality from public announcements or in any context where amplified sound is in use. In settings even where there is no amplified sound, ALDs can still be used to significantly improve the quality of sound that people who have hearing aids can hear. Examples of this would included public buildings such as St Michaels Church in Lewes which has an ALD system but no other sound reinforcement, or Schools where ALDs are provided in classrooms in a manner that would not be noticed by any of the students who are not affected. The most common type of ALD is the Acoustic Frequency Induction Loop System. These systems are fitted in many buildings, or in certain settings portable loop systems are available for use by people who are prepared to ask for them to be used.
My conversations over the last few days have included discussions with people managing large numbers of buildings, desperate to ensure that their provision is as effective as possible, but aware that they have limited budgets for retrofitting new equipment and also conscious that some of the equipment which has been fitted previously is not fit for purpose. There have been discussions with Architects and Building Professionals who are keen to ensure they do all they can to ensure that the most appropriate ALD is fitted into their new building, and some others who have dealt with far too many clients who have chosen not to include the ALD as a way of cutting down on the cost of their new building. It is inconceivable that these same decisions would be taken, even to save money in a situation where what is required are doorways wide enough for wheelchairs to be able to access the same building, or the use of paint to assist people with limited visibility from detecting the edges of a room or of stairs.
This is no more than the account of a few discussions I have participated in over the last 3 days, but there is something all of us can do. Our use of public buildings gives us the opportunity to ask building managers if they have an Assistive Listening Device and if so when was it last tested. This may seem a drastic thing to do, but one of the challenges for people who have hearing loss is that some people do not wish to draw attention to something that they have kept hidden from colleagues and relatives. It is no accident that modern hearing aids are marketed as if they really are invisible! Its easy to spot if a building has no access suitable for a wheelchair or if the carpet and wall colours lack the contrast needed for people whose sight is limited. However with hearing loops we really do need to ask a question, the more that we do the better prospects that builders will not be told to scrap the loop system in order to save a few hundred pounds in the context of a building that costs a few hundred thousands, or more.