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My experience of u3a and hearing loss

  • 27 July 2023

Melanie from Wokingham u3a, shares her experience living with deafness and some tips on how u3a can be more accessible.

woman wearing hearing aid

I joined u3a when I retired a few years ago, having worked all my adult life, first in the caring professions and latterly as a university lecturer. I am profoundly deaf and was born with a significant hearing loss diagnosed when I was six years old, but was given no support when a child and had to make my own way through the education system and life generally. I taught myself to lipread and just got on with it, having my first hearing aid fitted in my early twenties.

I was very keen to work in the caring professions, but after graduating with a relevant degree and voluntary work experience, I found it impossible to get a suitable job because of my deafness. This predated the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the subsequent Equality Act 2010 and so it was perfectly legal for potential employers to use my deafness as a reason not to interview me or to turn me down at interview because I was deaf.

Eventually I got a job working with deaf people and was sponsored to study for a professional qualification. I enjoyed continuing education, the experience of group learning, and the mental challenge and over the years alongside my career, gained a masters degree and various further professional qualifications mainly in education. I also valued having students placed with me as their ‘practice educator’, as part of their professional training. Eventually I moved into a training role and then became a university lecturer and published academic writer.

On retirement I wanted to continue to learn in a more informal setting with opportunities to meet others with a similar goal. I joined u3a a few years ago and now attend Tai Chi weekly and have established a group for people who have a hearing loss.

It's important for u3a to be welcoming and accessible for people with hearing loss, especially as most people with a hearing loss have acquired it in adulthood, specifically in the ‘third age’ when it becomes most prevalent, and at a time when social activities and social inclusion are important for health and quality of life.

The research evidence shows that people are reluctant to acknowledge and disclose that they have a hearing impairment, and feel awkward and embarrassed about asking for reasonable adjustments to be made. They experience marginalisation in groups and may eventually stop attending. I firmly believe that the u3a has not only a legal duty to be accessible but a moral one too as it is an organisation catering to older people and open to all. For this reason I was very pleased to become a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee when invited to join in 2023.

I am encouraged by the interest in the hearing loss group from local u3a members, it now has a committed membership who offer mutual support, information and advice on relevant issues. We meet in a private room to minimise background noise, and have talks and discussions, as well as outings to local places of interest. My Hearing Dog accompanies to meetings of the group, and two other members bring along their Hearing Dogs. The dogs not only alert us to important sounds in the home such as the doorbell, cooker timer and alarm clock, but also provide companionship, enhance confidence and help to break down the barriers between deaf and hearing people as they are very popular when out in public and spark conversations. Being registered assistance dogs they are able to be with us in settings which would not normally be welcoming to dogs.

Although the group has been very successful it is important for other u3a groups to cater for the accessibility needs of deaf members so that we can be fully included in groups which are of interest.

Simple hacks to enhance accessibility include:

  • a quiet meeting environment away from background noise
  • good lighting for lip-readers
  • chairs arranged in a circle or semi circle so that everyone’s face is in view and in larger meetings if a circle is not possible, questions from the audience should be repeated by the main speaker who can be seen by all
  • the speakers should use a loop system and have a lapel mic where possible, if using a handheld mic this should not be held in front of the face
  • a good loop system may help some, but not all, people
  • speakers should always face the audience and not move about to enable lipreading.
  • A copy of presentations or speaker’s talk should be available in advance or certainly on the day.
  • I would suggest that u3a’s have tablets or phones available for use in larger meetings with speech to text apps set up.
  • Auto-generated captions should be enabled for virtual meetings and sessions.
  • Most importantly ask what the deaf member requires and make reasonable adjustments; this is a legal requirement as well as being good practice in encouraging inclusion.

The u3a EDI committee is currently updating a presentation package which will be delivered nationally and in regions. A downloadable handbook to support u3as is also in development and together they will be a valuable source of advice on inclusive practice.

How have you made been made to feel welcome and included in your u3a? What has your u3a done to support everyone to feel like they belong, regardless of background, ability and race? We’d love to hear your stories – please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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