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What is it like to be deaf for a day?

PUBLISHED: 18:00 05 May 2010 | UPDATED: 10:15 02 July 2010

Dan Grimmer

Isolation, confusion and frustration are just some of the feelings deaf people experience on a daily basis. Very little is known about deafness, yet it is one of the most common disabilities and affects at least one in seven of the UK's population.

Isolation, confusion and frustration are just some of the feelings deaf people experience on a daily basis. Very little is known about deafness, yet it is one of the most common disabilities and affects at least one in seven of the UK's population. Health reporter Sarah Hall takes to the streets of Norwich to discover what it's like to be deaf for a day.

Before I embarked on my mission I had never experienced any problem with my hearing so had absolutely no idea what it would feel like to have my hearing impaired.

Even though I had been told by experts from Norfolk Deaf Connexions - a voluntary organisation which provides a range of services to support deaf people and their families - that social events and public environments for people who are deaf were really difficult, I think I underplayed just how hard everyday situations really can be.

Laden with hardcore earplugs generously given to me by the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital's audiology department I was only able to experience a fraction of what a deaf person would go through but it was sufficient to give me an insight.

First stop was The Mall Norwich. I had been told shopping centres were really difficult for deaf people to navigate and I could see why as soon as I went in.

I was aware I was surrounded by noise but I couldn't really hear it properly. This made me feel very vulnerable and strange from the outset.

People seemed to be moving much faster than they normally do and almost immediately people were in my way and I was in theirs because I suddenly lost all spatial awareness. I went to step on to an escalator and almost missed the first step - my balance was totally out of sync.

There were teenagers messing about at the bottom of the escalators. This would normally be an activity I would automatically ignore but I felt slightly threatened because I didn't have my full range of senses should the unexpected occur. If they ran up behind me I wouldn't hear, if they shouted to me I would not be aware of it. Within five minutes I had become insecure and a little paranoid.

I had a number of chores I had saved up especially for this task. One was to post a card needing a special delivery. The dreaded Mall Post Office at lunchtime had suddenly become 100 times more daunting than usual.

The place was unsurprisingly packed with at least 40 people either waiting in queues or asking staff for help. The new(ish) ticket queuing machine - where you grab an allocated number and consequently wait your place in line - was not working properly so there was an assistant giving people the tickets.

She looked at me sympathetically when she had to question me twice about what service I needed. When I did reply my voice echoed in my head to such an extent I felt I was getting a headache. Duly sat in the long queue I had a chance to regain my composure and was able to observe the people around me. There were quite a lot of people with disabilities - one man in a wheelchair, another woman helping a little boy on crutches, but they are all visible disabilities. When you are deaf you are invisible - nobody knows unless you tell them.

So when I was asking for my stamp I immediately told the cashier I was hard of hearing. “Oh” she said. “Sorry, shall I speak a little louder?” This was, of course, helpful for me, but of little benefit to some one who is totally deaf.

The direct short conversation I had with her was not too intimidating but I was constantly aware of the noise around me. I kept looking behind me because it felt really disconcerting not to hear exactly what was going on.

Task number one completed I went to Boots Chemist to buy a few cosmetics. Feeling a little more confident I waited my turn casually in the queue, only to be tapped on the shoulder by another customer telling me it was my turn - I hadn't heard the assistant calling me.

When I did get there she looked at me inquisitively - I don't think she thought I was deaf but wondered if I was on some sort of drugs and by this stage I felt like I was.

But for the purpose of the challenge I had a look round a closing down sale in Faith. Twice within two minutes two separate people bumped into me and apologised. It made me realise this wasn't just coincidence - people were bumping into me because I was in their way as I was not aware of their presence close to me.

I asked a question about the sale but it appeared to come out wrong and two of the young assistants looked perplexed while another spoke to me as though I was five years old.

So far a lot of strange glances and sympathetic behaviour - but no real noticeable prejudice.

On to Dorothy Perkins where I had to exchange a necklace because the clasp had broken. I told the shop assistant I was hard of hearing and got a very nice, again sympathetic exchange and he spoke slowly, exaggerating every word which helped but I found quite amusing. In Pret a Manger I ordered a coffee. When I didn't hear the assistant ask if I wanted to “eat in or take away” I found her rather impatient and slightly rude. I was imagining how frustrating, annoying and disappointing this must be for a deaf person who has to deal with this every day.

I went into several other shops and it was the same feeling - one of feeling very isolated from other people and not at ease with myself at all, while shop assistants are friendly you can see it is also frustrating for them. However others were lovely and really patient.

What I found most surprising was my inability to function properly. The partial temporary deafness made me feel ill at ease which seemed to hinder things I take for granted such as walking through shopping centres, asking questions in shops, ordering coffee, taking stairs, getting my purse out of my bag and having general conversations.

Apparently if you are born deaf you function very successfully in other ways and your other senses are stronger but when you suddenly lose a sense the others seem to go off balance too and that was something I really did not expect.

I can see why a shopping centre is one of the worst places to go and it is hard to describe being in a noisy environment but not properly hearing the “noise”.

My experience is just a modicum of what people go through so it gives me such a tiny glimpse into the lives of deaf people but enough for me to think in the future.

If some one doesn't hear you the first time you speak to them - they are not always being ignorant or rude - they may be deaf and deserve a greater understanding.

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