Sound Advice lipreading at the Ear Foundation: a perfect day

My wife Joanna and I woke up early last Saturday morning to drive up to Nottingham for the Ear Foundation’s ‘Sound Advice Day’ and lipreading workshop. We were also going to their fundraising ‘Curry Night’ that evening, which looked good fun, and had decided to stay the night in Nottingham.

I was really looking forward to the day, especially because I had really enjoyed taking part in their last ‘Sound Advice Day’ in May. Lorraine Braggins from the City Lit in London had been invited to run the workshop there that day, so I was looking forward to seeing her. Lorraine is a Senior Teacher Coordinator for people with acquired hearing loss at the Deaf Education Centre of the City Lit and has twenty-six years experience of teaching lipreading. I know Lorraine from my lipreading classes at the City Lit.


We managed to drive up to Nottingham in just over two hours, so we arrived in time for the start of the workshop. Sue Hamrouge, who I know quite well, introduced Lorraine, who told us that she had never been to the Ear Foundation before, and she was really looking forward to the day. Lorraine’s sessions were very informative, as well as being fun and interactive.


The first exercise we did was like ‘Chinese Whispers’, whereby people in a line had to pass on a message to their neighbour without using their voice, so their neighbour had to lipread them. The message was passed all the way down the line, with the last person having to tell the class what they thought it was. Lorraine then told us what the original message had been and we all had a good laugh about how different the final message was to the original one. In some cases it had altered the meaning completely, whereas in other cases, it had only slightly changed.

Lorraine explained why lipreading was so difficult, as only about 35-40% of words can be seen at the front of the mouth and the shape of many sounds look similar to each other. This makes it really easy to misinterpret the meaning of what is being said. For example, “What am I going to do?” could very easily be misinterpreted as “It’s a lovely view”.

I know from my own experience how difficult it is to lipread and I still don’t think I’m much good at it. It’s like a crossword puzzle where we understand some words and then have to quickly try and fill in the gaps. We discussed in groups what makes lipreading easier, such as making sure the speaker is in the best light, facing you and speaking slowly but clearly, whereas lipreading someone who walks away from you while speaking, or looks away or waffles without getting to the point, can make it much more difficult. If the speaker has good deaf awareness and focuses on you directly, this makes it a lot easier to lipread them.

Many similar themes came from the different group discussions, such as how we use the context of what the speaker is talking about, how our brain works out the logic and processes the information, and we also use our eyes and the speaker’s body language to work out the meaning. For instance, “I’ve left the butcher in the bath” looks identical to “I’ve left the pushchair on the path”. However, if my sister was visiting me with her baby at the time, it would be more likely that it would have the second meaning rather than the first. I have used the context of this situation to work this out.

Joanna told me that as a hearing person she found lipreading people that day really difficult and tiring. She’s not used to it and she thought it was much more difficult than she had realised. I’m sure you get better at it with practice, but it is still like a crossword puzzle to me. After a while it is incredibly tiring concentrating hard on lipreading people and working out what they’re saying.

Despite this, we both really enjoyed the day as Lorraine made it fun and entertaining. At the end of the afternoon we played a lipreading bingo game, and when she called out (or at least mouthed the numbers without using her voice), we had to guess the number she called out and cross it off if we had the same number written down on our bingo card. The first person to cross off all their numbers would win. This time we guessed all the numbers correctly but the problem was that none of us had the same numbers to cross out. In fact, the game was taking so long that I wondered if we were going to be there all evening too! Eventually Lorraine called a draw between two people who had the most numbers. I think she was relieved too as she had a train to catch back to London.

I think we all came out of the workshop having learned something new. I made some new friends there too. I was also glad that Joanna had enjoyed it and had begun to appreciate how difficult lipreading really is.

The curry night was great fun too. There were about fifty people there at the Indian restaurant, including the Chief Executive Dr. Sue Archibold, the mayor, staff and volunteers from the Ear Foundation as well as users of their services. We sat at a great table and met some old friends, as well as making some new ones. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, and we all mixed together and had a great time.


Sue Archibold gave a welcome speech before the buffet and told us that after twenty-five years, the Ear Foundation had reached capacity and outgrown its current premises, so they were raising funds to build new, bigger and more modern facilities to help more deaf people and their families, which they hoped to have raised enough funds for to begin construction early next year.


There were many people there with varying degrees of hearing loss – some were profoundly or severely deaf, some were cochlear implant users and some had hearing aids. Some people used BSL,  while others used their voices and lipread people.

At first Joanna and I were a bit worried that our basic BSL skills would not be good enough to communicate very well, but we were soon put at our ease. The other people there were really friendly and warm and just wanted to talk to us. It was wonderful watching everyone at my table enjoying themselves, chatting away and breaking down the barriers to communication. I practised a bit of BSL, and found that it was starting to get a bit better as the evening progressed and I relaxed more. It inspired me to want to learn it again and improve my knowledge of BSL.

The next morning I wanted to head quickly back to London to be hack home in time for the Manchester City/United derby as I am a passionate Manchester City fan. Last time I was at the Ear Foundation, I rushed back to watch my beloved City in the FA Cup Final, but I probably shouldn’t have bothered as they had a shock defeat by the lowly Wigan. This time, thankfully, they demolished United with a 4-1 win, so I was over the blue moon. I had had such a perfect day and we had met some wonderful new friends in Nottingham. I now cannot wait for their next event, so roll on the Ear Foundation’s Christmas party! 









Propaganda: Power & Persuasion – innovative remote speech-to-text tour

This week I attended a landmark event with my wife Joanna. We went to a guided tour of the British Library’s ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’ exhibition, which was made accessible by STAGETEXT via live speech-to-text (STT) technology transmitted over the internet. This was the first time that I’d attended an event like this using hand-held devices and the first time that this access has been made available at the British Library.  I was really intrigued to see if it would actually work. I’ve attended quite a few conferences recently with remote speech-to-text captioning shown on large screens and I’ve found that a lot of the time it doesn’t work well because often the wi-fi connection is lost or there is a computer problem, causing the speaker to have to pause for long periods of time before the connection is re-established and the problem fixed. This causes a lot of frustration for everyone.


I needn’t have worried. We were all given our own hand-held tablets while the tour guide, Jude England, who is lead curator of the exhibition and Head of Social Sciences, spoke into a mobile phone, which was then transmitted simultaneously via remote speech-to-text onto our tablet screens. It all worked perfectly. This is in large part due to the careful preparation done beforehand by Roger the technical advisor at STAGETEXT, who on discovering that there was no wi-fi available in the basement of the British Library where the exhibition was being held, had spent the previous two days there setting up a temporary wi-fi connection and making sure that it would work well on the day.


Deepa from STAGETEXT and Ria from the British Library, have also worked hard at facilitating access for this deaf and hard of hearing group tour, something which they both feel very passionate about. I found it easy to look at the speech-to-text on my tablet while looking at the exhibits and listening to Jude as the hearing loop system worked really well too. It was possible to change the font sizes and colours of the text on the tablet, which also makes it easier for visually impaired people to read it. I’ve been on quite a few different tours now with lip-speakers and BSL interpreters, but this makes it so much easier for me, as I find trying to understand the lip-speakers really difficult and tiring. It was great that I didn’t have to rely on Joanna to explain to me what the guide had said afterwards and this was really refreshing.

The tour itself was really fascinating and insightful. Jude explained how the exhibition had been put together and what it was all about in such a way that when I walked round it myself after the tour, what she said seemed to make perfect sense as I really understood what the exhibition was all about. She started off by talking about the various definitions of propaganda and how this has long been debated. On the wall, there was a quote by David Welch, a British historian born in 1950, which I thought summed it up well: “Propaganda is really no more than the communication of ideas designed to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way”. Jude explained that propaganda has been around for centuries and has been used by governments and rulers from Roman times, to Napoleon and right through to the modern day.


The term was invented by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, and originated from the idea of ‘propagating’ messages, but it now has a negative connotation, and has been replaced by the softer term ‘public relations’.

Propaganda also cuts through boundaries and has been used extensively by many regimes and governments across the world. I was surprised by this, as to me, the term ‘propaganda’ conjures up images of Fascist or Communist rulers and dictators showing images of hard-working proletarian peasants or soldiers fighting for the cause in places like Russia, China or Nazi Germany, but this exhibition also showed posters from democracies such as Britain and the US, for instance the First and Second World War posters urging men to join up and posters from the British Empire of the 1920s showing a very wholesome young British family sailing on a British ship with India ahead of them and a similar one showing them on a ship looking at a battleship opposite in front of the Rock of Gibraltar.


Jude told us that this British Library exhibition focuses on the propaganda just used in the last century, showcasing items from the incredible 150 million items stored in the British Library. The last century has really been the age of propaganda, as mass communication via radio, TV, newspapers and the internet have made it an extremely effective and powerful means of communication to the masses.

The exhibition was divided into 6 main sections: Origins, Nation, Enemy, War, Health and Today. We were taken round each section and Jude explained what they were all about. The biggest section was the one on war, which was about how states make extensive use of propaganda to maintain morale during wartimes, to turn people against the enemy and to gain support from neutral nations. There were some great posters from the First and Second World Wars encouraging men to enlist to fight the War such as the famous American ‘I Want You’ poster and the British enlistment posters.


Also, there were some Nazi Germany posters. There was a really poignant one, encouraging “All Germany to listen to the Fuhrer with the People’s Radio”. The Nazis produced very cheap wireless sets to encourage the nation to listen to German radio, considered “the voice of the nation”, but the catch was that the radios were designed with limited range, which prevented ordinary Germans from receiving foreign broadcasts.


Another major highlight of the exhibition for me was the section on Health. Initially, I was surprised that health was considered to be propaganda and included in this exhibition. Jude explained that it was considered the most controversial section of the exhibition when they were planning it and a topic of much debate. However, as she talked about what this section was about, it did make sense to me that it was included and I found it really interesting.


Health, in a propaganda sense, relates to any public health message to the nation via a state, which relates to some aspect of a person’s health, for instance it could be to persuade people to cut down on drinking or smoking, to grow their own vegetables, as in times of rationing in war, to observe better road safety, as in the British children’s ‘Tufty Club’ or the ‘Green Cross Code Man’. They also showed posters from the famous 1980s AIDS campaign, which significantly reduced the rates of transmission of AIDs.


The final section was about propaganda today. The main message of this section was to show how the internet and social media is being used to transmit powerful messages instantly and globally without respecting any barriers or limitations. Jude asked the question of whether social media is a force for good or not. Sometimes it is, such as when it was used during the recent Arab Springs and sometimes it isn’t, such as during the recent London riots. Whether it is or not, it is an incredibly powerful force, transmitting messages with a speed and magnitude that has never been possible before in human history. As an example, the exhibition showed Barack Obama’s famous Tweet “Four more years” after he won his most recent US re-election, which has been the most re-tweeted Tweet ever (well over half a million times).


For me, having lost my hearing fairly recently, this tour was the most accessible that I’ve been on so far. I liked the fact that I could glance at the exhibition while reading the hand-held device. I realise that good preparation and hard work are key to making tours like this seamless, and for that I commend Roger from STAGETEXT. I hope that there will be many more remote speech-to-text guided tours of major exhibitions around the country as it has great potential to increase accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people.