Jean Hewitt, inclusive environments consultant and director at the Centre for Accessible Environments, explores whether the needs of over 12m people with hearing loss in the UK are forgotten about in the design of new buildings and external spaces
At least one in six people in the UK are known to have some level of hearing “loss”. In addition, there are many others with hearing “difference” often associated with the onset of hearing loss or through neuro diverse conditions. Examples include acutely heightened sensitivity to some sounds or frequencies (hyperacusis*), which is not uncommon for someone within the autistic spectrum or someone with dementia, balance issues that can be mild to severe, sometimes associated with inner ear conditions (such as Meniere’s disease**) or varying degrees of tinnitus, which can be triggered by loud noise.
The numbers of people affected by hearing loss and/or hearing difference are quite significant.
Although most people with acquired hearing loss are older adults (40% of over-50s have hearing loss, rising to 71% of people over 70), there is also an increasing number of younger adults with noise-induced hearing loss through activities or environmental damage and one in 10 children have intermittent hearing loss through common childhood conditions such as glue ear.
There are many everyday challenges that are faced by deaf and hard of hearing people, but it is rare that built environment professionals, including planning, building control and designers, give any more than a few seconds’ thought to what they can do to help.
- High levels of background noise.
- Lack of hearing enhancement equipment such as induction loops, infra-red, radio or soundfield systems at reception counters, communication points and performance areas.
- Lighting that is insufficient for lip-reading.
- Poor acoustics: Typically, too much echo from hard surfaces, which is common in atriums and many newer glass and steel structures.
- Unexpected changes in level affecting balance and no railings or handrails for physical support.
- The ability to hear imminent danger such as moving traffic (particularly electric vehicles), a reversing forklift, a fire alarm sounding or even someone giving a warning shout.
These challenges naturally become harder to control in external spaces, where background noise is highly variable depending upon the time of day, activities taking place and sometimes weather conditions. Having building recesses and alleyways, pocket parks etc in busy city centres can provide a haven for someone distressed by high sensory overload, whether that is caused by rush-hour traffic, school home time or a howling wind.
Aside from having to visually concentrate on all surrounding circumstances while walking, a person with hearing loss will sometimes also need to manage impact on other senses, particularly spatial (sense of place/Kinaesthetic) and balance. Reducing trip hazards, removing low bollards etc is therefore important in preventing accidents and having something to physically lean on while trying to orientate or regaining balance can be critical – there is a desire to declutter our streets to make them more physically accessible but there is still a need for sensible placement of street furniture that can support people, such as a bench or some railings.
Clear wayfinding and signage is important as some people with hearing loss or who are neuro diverse may find it more difficult to ask for directions. Adding common symbols to directional signs helps people whose first language is BSL (as well as others who are not native English speakers).
Inside and out, sound absorption methods should always be considered at the design stage of any new environment. Sound-absorbing surfaces can reduce reverberation time to decrease the amount of echo in a space, thus limiting disturbance. Good acoustics can also improve local speech clarity, making communication easier and aiding concentration.
Noise levels in restaurants and cafes are increasingly recognised as a major concern for people using these facilities at different venues. An Action on Hearing Loss campaign launched in 2016, Speak Easy, stemmed from research finding noise levels in some restaurants topped over 90db – the equivalent of eating next to a motorcycle or lawnmower – and a survey revealing that over 43% of potential diners opted to get a takeaway instead of going out for a meal. Some 91% of those surveyed stated that they wouldn’t return to a noisy place.
Quiet areas/zones are always welcomed. Consideration should also be given to the potential for noise overspill from AV displays and music or soundscapes.
Absorptive finishes (such as wood, cork, planting, etc) can be used to minimise sound reverberation rather than an excess of hard surfaces (such as metal, glass and hard plastics). If there has to be an exposed soffit or glass ceiling, it is always possible to add hanging acoustic sails to reduce the reverberation.
In the external environment, the addition of carefully selected planting such as bushes and trees can deflect traffic noise, as well as providing a calming and pleasant visual appearance.
Keeping vehicles (including cycles) and people segregated as far as possible is highly beneficial to people unable to hear them approaching, and tactile indicators and countdown displays at crossings enable people with hearing loss to cross safely. None of the above considerations have a negative impact on others – an improvement that helps someone with a hearing difference invariably helps everyone!
*Hyperacusis is the name for intolerance to everyday sounds that causes significant distress and affects a person’s day-to-day activities.
**Ménière’s disease is a long-term, progressive condition affecting the balance and hearing parts of the inner ear. Symptoms are acute attacks of vertigo (severe dizziness), fluctuating tinnitus, increasing deafness and a feeling of pressure in the ear.