One in six people is affected by a degree of hearing loss, which can range from mild impairment to profound deafness. It becomes all too easy for hearing impaired people to stay indoors when communication is difficult, which can lead to isolation and depression. Lipreading helps maintain a vital connection with the outside world.
Manchester Centre for Deaf Studies runs the only free lipreading class in the city of Manchester. It’s a small, but very friendly class, with students from all sorts of backgrounds, each with a different level of hearing loss. “Lipreading is an absolute necessity,” says their teacher, Michael Zuniga. “Numbers of classes have dropped in recent years, due to pressure on NHS budgets and local authority cuts. When Councils did offer lipreading courses, they often viewed them in the same way as leisure-time evening classes, yet what we do here literally changes lives.”
The group works and practices together, sharing advice and personal experiences. It’s sociable as well as educational and a great place to pick up tips, from finding a flashing-light doorbell to coping in crowds. Mary Allison teaches lipreading too. “We offer much more than just lipreading skills: we advise on hearing aid use, signpost relevant support groups and agencies and keep an eye open for new assistive technologies.
“Some people go for years without seeking help with their hearing loss. If you’re at all concerned, you can take a test over the phone. It’s not a formal assessment though, and you mustn’t buy a hearing aid based on any remote test outcome. Your next stop should be your GP, who will refer you to an audiologist.”
How can hearing people make life easier for lipreaders? “Firstly, make sure a lipreader can see you properly! Speak clearly – perhaps a little more slowly – and make eye contact. There’s no need to shout or to exaggerate your speech – that doesn’t help and can make a lipreader feel patronised.”
The Centre is about to begin a course for lipreading teachers, so I asked Mary what makes a good one: “People with a mature outlook, who have a warm, caring and professional approach,” she says. “We welcome applications from both hearing and deaf people.
“Being an effective communicator doesn’t depend on whether or not you can hear.”