This week is Deaf Awareness Week and the theme for 2023 is “Access to Communication”. To mark the event, we’ve shared some information, tips and resources below, to help ensure access to communication in court for people with hearing loss.
Hearing loss is very common, particularly among older age groups. In the UK, it is estimated that 1 in 6 people have some form of hearing loss (that’s around 12 million people across the country). The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) estimates that “in the UK, more than 40% of people over 50 years old have hearing loss, rising to more than 70% of people over the age of 70”.
As hearing loss is so common, it’s essential that knowledge is shared to improve understanding of the condition and strategies communication partners can use to help others achieve Access to Communication.
Intermediaries and hearing loss
At Communicourt, we rarely work with profoundly d/Deaf court users who use sign language to communicate. These individuals may require a sign language interpreter and/or lip reader and, with this support in place, may not require an intermediary. When a d/Deaf court user also requires intermediary assistance, this is often provided by specialist d/Deaf intermediaries (like Chantelle De La Croix and Chris Bojas).
Communicourt intermediaries do, however, frequently work with service users who have different degrees of hearing loss.
Hearing loss is a term used when sound signals do not reach the brain. There are many different types of hearing loss and different degrees of severity:
- Mild hearing loss – The individual may have difficulty hearing speech clearly in a busy environment. They may struggle to hear quiet speech, especially soft sounds like “s” and “f”.
- Moderate hearing loss – The individual may struggle to hear speech at a normal volume and may require amplification (using devices such as a hearing loop).
- Severe hearing loss – The individual will not be able to hear normal speech and may only be able to hear loud sounds.
- Profound hearing loss – The individual will not be able to hear any speech and may only hear some loud sounds.
Hearing loss at court
The courtroom can be an especially challenging hearing environment, even for people who do not have a hearing impairment. Rustling papers, multiple people talking at once, large rooms, technical difficulties playing video evidence, sitting in the dock behind a glass window – all of these factors and more can make it particularly difficult to hear clearly at court.
For court users with hearing loss, these factors can make hearing proceedings even harder, adversely impacting their ability to follow legal argument and evidence.
Hearing aids and hearing loops are two devices which can amplify sound in the courtroom. Hearing loops can be used separately from or in conjunction with hearing aids at court. The court user can be provided with a hearing loop headphone set or can wear a device around their neck which broadcasts sound from the courtroom hearing loop to their hearing aid (when these are set to the ‘T’ function).
However, it’s important to remember that court hearing loops can be affected by feedback and background noise, so may not ensure clear hearing at all times. You can read more about hearing loops in this Communicourt blog (which includes a judge’s experience of using a hearing loop).
Strategies to support hearing difficulties at court
The strategies required to support an individual with mild or moderate hearing loss will vary from person to person and may be affected by any other communication needs they have. The following general tips may be of assistance in the courtroom and in private legal meetings:
- Learn more about the person’s hearing. Is their hearing different in different environments? How has their hearing loss previously impacted them in legal proceedings? What assists their hearing? Have they used a hearing loop before? What was their experience of this?
- Adapt the communication environment. The court user is likely to hear speech sounds best in a quiet setting, without background noise. A busy courtroom with loud typing and paper shuffling may be particularly challenging. Adjustments (like seating them closer to the judge and barristers) or repetition of key points may be required.
- Minimise background noise as much as possible. This might include turning off fans or buzzing equipment in the room, closing windows, or choosing a meeting room on the ‘quiet side’ of the building.
- Face the individual and ensure you have their full attention before speaking, so that they can see your mouth clearly. Visual cues like lip-shape can help support communication.
- Make sure everyone can see each other, round tables are best for meetings. Make sure there is nothing on the table obstructing your view of each other. Ensure there is good lighting in the room so everyone can be seen clearly.
- Speak clearly at normal speed, don’t slow down your speech as this distorts your lip patterns, making it harder to use visual cues to support hearing.
- Ensure just one person speaks at a time. It can be much more challenging to hear clearly when multiple people are speaking.
- Use writing (if your client has effective literacy), on paper, on a laptop screen or via text, to communicate information which the individual is struggling to hear.
- Repeat yourself when necessary, be patient, don’t say “it doesn’t matter”.
If the court user is using a hearing loop in the courtroom:
- Avoid hybrid hearings, if possible. These can cause feedback.
- Use a flashcard or agreed signal to allow the individual to indicate when they are unable to hear. The clarity of the hearing loop may fluctuate.
- Be alert to issues with interpreters and intermediaries. When wearing a hearing loop, the court user may not be able to hear their interpreter or intermediary clearly and alternative arrangements may need to be made. For example, permitting the court user to connect to the hearing remotely from a private room. This will allow the intermediary or interpreter to provide summaries or translations at a loud volume (without disturbing the court).
Further reading (legal)
- Communicourt blog – Hearing Loops in Court Proceedings: The good, the bad and the squeaky
- The Access Brief – Hearing loss in legal proceedings
- The Advocate’s Gateway – Planning to question someone who is deaf – this resource includes information relevant to court users who are d/Deaf but also features some useful information for advocates working with court users who have a hearing loss.
Useful services, charities and organisations
- British Deaf Association
- Royal National Institute for Deaf People
- SignHealth is a deaf charity run by deaf people (Text: 07800 003421, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org). You can access support via referral forms on their website. They offer:
- Counselling – psychological therapy service for Deaf adults delivered in British Sign Language (BSL). All of their trained therapists are either Deaf or fluent BSL users.
- Domestic violence support including referrals for Deaf IDVAS (Independent Domestic Violence advocates)
- Probation “Deaf link” project supports deaf people on probation
- Hearing Link – includes a list of useful organisations for adults with hearing loss (from BSL interpreted plays to lipreading skills classes)
- Action on Hearing Loss
- Royal Association for Deaf People