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Sally Shaw from Ideas for Ears aims to raise awareness about the way workplace cultures can exclude the many people who find it harder to hear as they grow older.
The most common changes we all face as we grow older is in our eyesight and hearing, yet issues with our hearing are underrecognised and often ignored, says Sally Shaw.
She developed hearing loss in her mid-20s and then worked for several years for a hearing loss charity, talking to people who faced many practical challenges that she felt could be addressed.
Five years ago she set up Ideas for Ears to work with employers and others to raise awareness of hearing issues among employees, customers and service users and the wider impact this might have. Her focus is on what can improve hearing access.
“We are working on explaining what good hearing access means, to adequately hear the spoken word,” she says. It is not just the extremes she is interested in, for instance, when someone becomes deaf, but the areas in between where hearing ability decreases and people struggle to make out certain words or lose parts of a sentence.
Sally speaks about how hearing changes as you grow older and the ability to hear higher and mid frequency sounds decreases. Some are more affected than others. She sees this as something that will become more of an issue as the workforce ages and thinks employers need to be more aware of it.
“We need to make it feel more of a mainstream issue so we remove the sensitivities around it and people can talk about it. People are often not talking about the issues they have because it is so individualised,” says Sally.
She thinks it is not so much the loss of hearing that is the problem as an environment which doesn’t encourage people to come forward if they have hearing issues that is disabling.
“We are disabled by things that can be fixed,” she says.
“Employers should not assume that people will be able to hear things. Hearing access should be part of their communications policy. You cannot assume that what you transmit will be received. They need to consider things like acoustics, noisy environments, for instance, in open plan offices. These things have an impact on productivity as people with reduced hearing need to work harder to process and understand what is being said,” states Sally, adding that it also has ramifications for people’s confidence and efficiency.
She believes we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg where hearing problems are concerned as she says many won’t have told their managers they are struggling due in part to fears about ageism or because they don’t want to admit it to themselves. Sally says it can take people up to 10 years to admit they have a problem. “The majority will be under the radar,” she says.
Sally adds that aspects of the modern office might make things worse, for instance, audio calls of varying sound quality. Such things are easily fixable with better equipment, however, and she thinks improvements in things like text transcription apps will also make a difference.
The main thing, however, is for employers to be aware of the issues and their impact. “It’s about creating an environment that is inclusive so people can do their jobs and be productive. It’s not just about deafness. If we just focus on individuals who are deaf there are many people we will be missing out in between. We need a holistic approach. The benefits of this will be widespread.”