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1 May 2023
Diversity, disparity and inclusion

To mark Deaf Awareness Week, Paul Nielsen shares his experience as a magistrate with hearing loss and gives some advice on how other magistrates can support colleagues and other court users who are hearing impaired.

Living with any degree of hearing loss doesn’t just affect people physically, it can also adversely impact our mental health, specifically our confidence and anxiety levels.

While issues with vision are usually self-apparent because text and shapes suddenly become blurred and out of focus, with hearing it’s not always so obvious—you often simply don’t hear what’s going on around you. My own hearing journey started when my teachers wondered whether I was being rude or just ignorant in class, because I was always the quiet one in the corner and was not actively participating in group activities.

Once my hearing loss had been identified, work then began to find ways of coping; this involved multiple surgeries and the trial of many hearing aids. While all this was going on, employment opportunities were missed and, along with those, my confidence was lost. I’d always wanted to join the emergency services, but disabilities were discriminated against, and I always failed at the medical stage.

During my hearing journey, there has been a significant improvement in hearing aid technology and attitudes have changed substantially towards people with disabilities. We are now recognised as fully able to fulfil roles traditionally not available to us.

These changes can be seen very clearly within the court service, with the magistracy now open to colleagues with a range of disabilities. Adjustments are made to accommodate individual needs and there is a strong willingness to ensure both disabled and non-disabled colleagues can work on an equal basis, side-by-side to deliver local justice.

Supporting court users with hearing impairment

During my 15 years as a magistrate, my own disability has enabled me to have empathy with colleagues and other court users. I always ensure that I check for any barriers to communication or other concerns they may face, and then do my best to help overcome these.

Colleagues who are keen to support other court users with hearing loss could look out for the following:

  • Does someone appear quiet or withdrawn and are they not taking part in the general conversation? If so, ask if they are ok and able to hear what’s going on in the room.
  • Does it look like someone is really having to focus on what’s being said in a noisy environment? If so, ask them whether they need the noise level to be reduced to something more manageable, and then accommodate those requirements wherever possible.
  • Does someone appear to be lip reading? If so, try to speak clearly and at a normal pace. Facing someone when talking really helps in this regard.
  • If you know an individual wears hearing aids or uses British Sign Language, please ask the court’s operations manager (or head of legal operations) to ensure they are linked into a working loop system and/or are able to access an interpreter.
  • If you know someone is hard of hearing, don’t be afraid to ask if you can do anything to help them. This could include helping them position themselves in the room so they can hear better and feel more involved.

Remember that hearing loss can be an invisible disability even if a person wears aids—these days they can be so well concealed that, unlike glasses worn to correct vision issues or walking aids to help with mobility, they are barely noticeable.

No barrier to being a magistrate

I can’t stress enough the confidence my hearing aid and other adjustments have given me. Rather than needing to sit with my bench colleagues on a particular side, I am now able to sit in the middle as a presiding justice in the knowledge I can hear well in a busy courtroom setting.

If I had one message for hearing impaired people who are interested in applying to be a magistrate, I would say: Go for it! There’s a wealth of support available, including that provided by the Magistrates’ Association’s magistrates with disabilities network.