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Charlie Swinbourne

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Charlie is a writer and filmmaker, and was responsible for the award-winning Coming Out, which sees "a deaf boy go to his hearing mother with a surprising revelation" - watch it to find out what it is. He then went on make his directing debut with Four Deaf Yorkshiremen, and followed it up with a sequel. You can check out Charlie's personal website too.

More from Charlie Swinbourne

The Deaf Tax

15th October 2010

Could Charlie's life be less expensive if he developed a personal toolkit for dealing with hearing loss embarrassments?
A man fixing a bike
Like Liz Carr, I've recently started cycling around our capital, hoping to get fit while cutting commuting time.

I was cycling like a slower, heavier, darker-haired version of Chris Hoy ... until the moment one of my pedals came loose and flew off into the middle of the road.

As I began to realise that leaving the bike in the back garden for two years may not have been the best way of maintaining it, I retrieved the pedal from the road and pushed off to my nearest cycle repair shop.
The lads behind the counter reacted as if I'd staggered into A&E with a messy fracture, and took the bike off me before enthusiastically inspecting the damage.

It felt like I was in a loud and busy sixth form common room when they collectively reported the solution and cost to me. I just about heard mention of a "worn bracket", and a "chain set". Something was £24.99, the other £39.99.

When I asked the difference between the two, everyone chipped in again. Sadly, through a buzz of chatter, I was unable to make out anything they said.

The word "Labour" was definitely mentioned ... but I couldn't work out if that was something that cost extra, was included in the price, or whether they were simply debating which of the Miliband brothers would win the Labour party leadership election later that day.

In the end they said a new chain set was "the best option in the long run," though I couldn't understand what was so difficult about simply screwing the pedal back on.

They told me the bike could be repaired by the end of the day. At least that was a positive thing. But when I asked what time they closed, I didn't hear the answer.

Losing patience and finding myself desperate to escape the white noise, I did something decisive. I said yes to the work. Within minutes I was travelling home on a bus in possession of an invoice for £85 that I didn't understand.

I felt stupid when I got back to my house. I decided to call the shop and ask them to do something cheaper, except I heard even less on the phone than I did in person. After 5 minutes of going round in circles, I ran out of patience, and agreed to all the work all over again.

As I put the phone down, it dawned on me that I was paying a kind of deaf tax.
The Deaf logo
I had no chance of negotiating a discount or checking what I was paying for, because I couldn't work out what they were saying. So I had paid up, just to get out of the situation. Twice. I paid a premium because I was deaf. But looking back, I realised it wasn't the first time.

A couple of years ago, nearing the end of my mobile contract, I had a call from the phone company. The salesman was offering me a new deal. He seemed very friendly indeed, but had a thick scouse accent to add to my communication difficulties.

Since he said I'd be saving £10 a month, and I heard his friendly tones say "you'd still be well within your limit" I eventually agreed to the change and got back to work.

I only realised the folly of my ways when I received my next bill in the post. That month I'd sent a few more texts than usual and boy had I paid for them. Instead of saving £10, I'd spent an extra £10. All because I didn't understand the detail of what I was agreeing to.

Then there was the time I decided to break with my Guinness habit and order a glass of wine in a posh London bar. The barman mumbled something and I said yes, guessing it was a question about the glass. Before I knew it, a full bucket of ice and a chilled bottle of wine I'd inadvertently agreed to were placed on my table. The wine was pretty good, but the £18 bill left a bitter aftertaste.

I'm not alone. One deaf mum I know recently managed to pay more than she expected when purchasing a designer dress for her baby. She got it in a charity shop and assumed it would only cost her a couple of coins. It was only on getting home that she realised it said £12 on the receipt. She'd paid by card and put her pin number in the machine.

She remembered afterwards that the checkout assistant seemed very keen to point out the label, but she thought the lady was saying what a bargain the dress was.
A chip and pin machine
When you're deaf, there are times when you know you haven't heard something - and there are times you have no idea what you've missed. It's a bit like Donald Rumsfeld's quote about "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" ... though in a far less dangerous arena than Iraq.

The only thing deafies can tackle are the "known unknowns" - the things we know we're not hearing. And for that, we need assertiveness.

So I've now resolved to tackle face to face situations differently. Next time I'm getting something repaired, I'll ask them to write down a detailed quote for the work. And more importantly, I'll actually tell them I am deaf, instead of muddling through.

Added to this, I'll specifically ask them to look at me as they speak so I can read their lips. From now on, shop assistants will have to work harder for my custom.

In the spirit of new assertiveness, I've even changed the voicemail message on my phone. Sick of getting messages from people where I could not make out their name, or the number to call them back on, my message now asks them to text me instead.

Although I'm sure I paid too much, I got the bike back a few days later in great condition. It rode like a dream. Gear changes were smooth, the pedal stayed just where my foot was, and I'd forgotten all about the problems I had in the shop.

In an annoying post script to my story, two days later, the bike was stolen from a train station ... but at least that had nothing to do with me being deaf.

Are you hearing impaired? Do you have any top tips on getting through those difficult communication situations? What do you say in order that you get your way and are confident you know what's going on? Or perhaps you've spent more than you intended and want to share.

Add to Charlie's toolkit by leaving a comment below.


    • 1. At 1:49pm on 15 Oct 2010, kabie wrote:

      I am not deaf; i am autistic but I can relate to some of the issues you raised. Under stress or in noisy / busy places I can find it hard to work out what people are trying to say. In the heat of the moment i'll often try to guess (wrongly) what was said even though i know it's far from sensible as a communication strategy. After reading your tip I'm going to change my answerphone message : even people who know me insist on calling / using voicemail when I've told them text only.

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    • 2. At 4:01pm on 15 Oct 2010, AndyfromCornwall wrote:

      One mistake that I realise that I have made a few times in the past is this one...

      Someone says "Do you want to do this...." meaning to take some opportunity of some kind.

      I hear "Have you done this?" and say "No".

      Golden opportunity shoots straight down the tubes.

      I know absolutely for sure that I have missed several very good opportunities in the past, simply due to misunderstanding the difference between "Do you want?" and "Have you done...?".

      Sometimes you can tell by the expression on the other person's face that you have got it wrong but other times you don't find out till later when someone says "I was surprised when you turned that down..."

      And I go "Turned what down...?".

      Too late...

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    • 3. At 10:27pm on 18 Oct 2010, linhas wrote:

      I`m hearing impaired since I was 3 years old and I`ve often been in those situations, sometimes just downright embarrasing! As Ive got older (and wiser!) I`ve been more upfront with people I tell them that I have trouble hearing, could they repeat things, or could just one person talk and not everyone. Sometimes people forget (collegues, family) but I keep at it, reminding them. i still go bright red when I tell them again I didn`t hear. I fiddle about with the volume on my digtal hearing aids until it helps. Also I`m trying not to aplogise for not hearing (still a working progress). I`ve found being honest and not worried or embarrassed really helps but it requires continuos work to remind people

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    • 4. At 10:27pm on 23 Oct 2010, John Howard Norfolk wrote:

      Oh I do sympathise.

      My big beef is the phone callers who refuse to speak to my wife on my behalf because of data protection concerns! I shout down the phone "I am deaf" and "Please speak to my wife instead".

      If you are deaf you constantly miss out on opportunities to "phone in" for competitions, or to order a subscription.

      However I did have one recent BIG ADVANTAGE.....

      I stopped my car on a single yellow line (naughty I know) to let my wife out to nip into one shop for something. A traffic warden pounced (OK - Civil Enforcement Officer) and wanted to talk to me. I wound down my window and politely explained I couldn't make out what he was saying as I was deaf. No luck. I repeated it saying I was waiting fo rmy wife about to come out of the shop behind him in next five minutes. Still no luck, so I opened my wallet and showed him my RNID card which has a printed simple explanation for him to read saying I am deaf and would he please write down what he wanted to tell me. Result....all smiles and he mumbled something like " no problem sir, have a good day". I guess he didn't have paper and pencil!

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    • 5. At 5:54pm on 27 Oct 2010, danie_taylor wrote:

      Regarding not being certain about what I'm being charged for because I'm not really sure what they are telling me; been there almost every week of my life!

      But I'm also visually impaired so when I have to telephone the internt help line and they ask me "what coolour is the light" my reply is "I don't know". This answer makes their computer terminal go haywire; I don't think that they comprehend that I don't understand coloured lights!

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    • 6. At 06:55am on 20 Feb 2011, nanna210kids wrote:

      just a little of what i have you relise if you wear earring aids you may be entitled to a free bus pass..i wear 2 aids and i rec one ..disabled pass 50p before 9.30 and free after 9.30..go to your local council office and they take your pitcure for the bus pass . is with you within 7days ...
      go on and try about time the deaf received a lttle help....

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    • 7. At 06:56am on 20 Feb 2011, nanna210kids wrote:

      if you wear earring aids go and get your free bus pass

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    • 8. At 1:32pm on 23 Feb 2011, RoseRodent wrote:

      Mine is more frequently turning down free stuff because I have not understood that it is free. "Would you like a complimentary glass of wine" easily becomes "Would I compliment if you got on my nine" so I assume they are talking about the glasses of wine (visible) and refuse. Only later did I realise they'd been free. Grump.

      And just missing out on things entirely because I can't communicate with them - phone us for more information. That's out then. I am finally starting to insist upon things I can deal with - call me at a pre-defined time when my hearing aid is plugged into the telephone and I expect to be in a quiet place, from an office not a call centre where other people will be yelling in the background and which hopefully will be on a better quality single phone line, and yes you *will* need to constantly repeat yourself for me, just get used to it rather than trying to get "a better line".

      I find it tricky to explain, say you are deaf and you can never call them ever, even on your best terms with your best equipment or your 'cover' is blown. Say you are hard of hearing and they think little is required other than to speak up a bit, so now I go for "severely hearing impaired" - seems to be working!

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