23 September 2019

Opening the world of sound: lipspeakers


When someone tells you that they are deaf or hard of hearing, how do you respond?

One of the commonest questions people ask is ‘Oh, so do you lipread?’. And if you say ‘Yes’ the person will often shut down further discussion and carry on as normal, perhaps because they feel they have ‘ticked a box’ and we have found a way round the problem of deafness. We lipread. Simple right? Er, no!

About 60% of spoken English words cannot be understood by lipreading. So even the best lipreader in the world has to use an awful lot of educated guesswork to understand what is being said. Then there are the many variables which can make things more a challenge such as:

  • how well the person articulates sounds and opens their mouth 
  • how good the light is (and how good the lipreader’s eyesight is)
  • where the speaker is in relation to the lipreader
  • whether there is a lot of visual distraction in the background.

The vast majority of deaf people in the UK have acquired their hearing loss, often in adulthood. People born Deaf face very different barriers and may prefer to use British Sign Language as their primary means of communication. For sign language users interpreters can provide good access to spoken language. But most lipreaders have had no reason to learn sign language, so this provision could not help them. So how can the hundreds of thousands of English users with hearing impairment access spoken language? One answer is – use qualified lipspeakers.

Jane has worked with lipspeakers for over 20 years, having accidentally discovered them in the mid-1990s through someone who had been a student of her Mum. Though awareness of lipspeakers is increasing, it is still too common that people who become deaf do not know that this fantastic support is available. Only recently, a new client of ours with recently acquired hearing loss was able to see a lipspeaker at work during a meeting with Jane and Hormoz and asked ‘How would I have known about this otherwise?’. 

Jane decribed her first experience of having lipspeaker support as ‘like the sound being switched on’. She said that she had not realised until that point how much strain she had been under trying to make sense of spoken language  - and that was when she was a full-time lecturer of English as a Foreign Language herself! After that Jane used lipspeakers for all larger meetings and any important discussions with unfamiliar people. She said:

'Put simply, without lipspeaking support, I could never have used and developed my skills to the full. I would not have been able to work as a diplomat, manager, trustee and director. I would have had the privilege of an independent life and rewarding, varied career. It is no exaggeration to say that they have transformed my life.’

We spoke to the Chair of the Association of Lipspeakers (ALS), Beverley Roberts. We first asked her what lipspeaking is. She described it as ‘a highly specialised skill that makes the spoken word visible. [Lipspeakers] facilitate clear communication between deaf and hearing people. They also foster social interaction and offer an element of empowerment for everyone in the conversation.’ Anyone with hearing loss who has experienced the sharp isolation of not being able to get a joke everyone else is laughing at will no doubt agree wholeheartedly with that.

Lipspeakers are trained to be able to silently relay sounds. They repeat without their voice what a speaker said a fraction after they speak and will often use natural gesture and finger spelling (a special visual alphabet) to show, when important to understanding, some sounds which cannot be seen.

We asked Beverley why she thought lipspeaking was important. She said it was about the real-life impact on people who use lipspeakers. She gave the example was an NHS patient who said 'I'm able to make informed choices about my treatment as I "hear'" all the information the doctor gives me via the lipspeaker'. Imagine the risks if you received partial information from your GP. 

So how do you arrange to have a lipspeaker to support you? The lipspeaking profession is young and currently is a small group compared to the potential clients they could benefit. We have included a link above to the ALS which provides a reference source to qualified registered lipspeakers. The UK also has one specialist booking agency, Lipspeaker UK directed by Lesley Weatherson who is an experienced lipspeaker herself. Their website includes a video clip demonstrating and explaining what lipspeaking is.

We asked Lesley why she decided to set up Lipspeaker UK. She said There wasn’t a specialist provider of communication support that seemed to understand that lipspeakers are not sign language interpreters, that there are so few of us to support many lipreaders across the UK and that a central booking service was needed to coordinate who goes where, with whom and when. Less travel and more lipspeaking!’

As a long-term and ongoing beneficiary of lipspeaking support, Jane believes that there is huge scope for the profession to expand and develop. A further comment by Lesley at Lipspeaker UK confirmed this.

‘The professional teaching of lipspeakers has increased in response to the demand for lipspeaking. There are simply not enough of us to cover all lipspeaking bookings. More students, more qualified professionals, more bookings filled and an increase in requests creates a positive circle of demand and supply.’

It would be wonderful if this blog could help spread the word about this relatively unknown and life-changing service. So if you find this blog useful and interesting, please share it with people who could benefit from it – including people who work in larger organisations or providing services to the public and who may want to make their services more inclusive. And if you would like to have a conversation with us about how Result CIC has used lipspeakers, please get in touch.

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We are Result CIC, a community interest company. We work with people who feel marginalised or excluded to become more confident about their abilities and to fulfill their potential. We also work with Directors, Managers and CEOs who need support to bring about positive change in terms of diversity and inclusion in their organisations. We each have personal experience of the issues affecting the people we work to support, including disability, immigration, mental health and sexuality. We have also worked in senior positions in industry and government.

Our vision is a society where every individual can achieve their potential, feel fulfilled and make a valuable contribution. 

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