Alec Shelbrooke is the Tory MP for Elmet and Rothwell in West Yorkshire. An image of him in this position, but with his eyes shut was circulated yesterday on social media initially by the BBC. The journalist suggested that Mr Shelbrooke was dozing during the debate on trade union reforms. It is an understandable mistake to make if all one had to rely on was that one image. However it is clear from this shot credited to the Sun, that Alec was simply sitting in an unorthodox position attempting to get his ear close to one of the speakers built into the bench. The reason is that Alec is partially deaf and he was straining to hear what was being said in the debate. If this was a debate which was likely to sway the votes of Mr Shelbrooke and any other MPs with untreated hearing loss, their inability to hear speakers adequately could have a profound impact on a matter that affected millions of people or the national economy. Surely the understandable fuss over the BBC photograph is masking a much more concerning issue that really does need debating.
It is estimated that within the UK, some 10Million of us are affected by hearing loss although only 2M people have hearing aids fitted. If as seems likely, the House of Commons and House of Lords have effective Audio Frequency Induction Loop Systems fitted, any MP or Lord with an appropriate hearing aid would benefit from this technology (although they may miss the asides from MPs or Lords whose words are not picked up by the many microphones in the two Chambers and various Committee rooms). If one was to lift Alex Shelbrooke out of his seat in the Commons and place him in a boardroom or other workplace, he would be at a severe disadvantage and may even put the person concerned at physical risk. Rather than getting angry at a mistaken BBC tweet, Mr Shelbrooke could have a proper diagnosis for his condition, either via the NHS or through private practice to have what seems to be a necessary intervention. This could lead the way for his colleagues to follow his example.
Hearing loss is often termed one of the hidden disabilities, many of the 8M people who have not had a hearing aid fitted but who struggle to understand what is happening around them are potentially putting themselves or those around them at a severe disadvantage, yet their colleagues may be totally unaware of this. Equally the failure of some places of education, places of work or social settings to install effective Assistive Listening systems such as Audio Frequency Induction Loop Systems means that those who have had their hearing loss diagnosed and treated may continue to be at the disadvantage that Mr Shelbrooke so effectively illustrates in this photograph. The same applies to those who when faced with a microphone to speak into, ask (not through the microphone) if it is ok if they choose not to use it. What they and most of those present will be unaware of is if there is a loop system attached to the sound system. It is deeply unfair for people with hearing loss to be obliged to insist on the use of this very basic technology which would almost certainly benefit everyone present. Anyone who attends a reputable public speaking course will know that the microphone is not for the benefit of the speaker! Thankfully for MPs the microphones are carefully placed throughout the Chamber and they cannot choose to switch them off!