Barrie Wickens is a Lipreading teacher who runs classes in Andover, Hampshire. He started losing his hearing over 10 years ago and now has moderate to severe hearing loss. In 2010 he attended his first lipreading class and was amazed by the support and skills available to him.
He was quickly approached by the lipreading teacher and asked to train as a teacher himself. “Three months later I was at the CityLit College in London on their teacher-training course,” he says. “I started teaching my own classes in Andover in October 2011 and haven’t looked back!”
In this interview we chat to Barrie about the benefits of lipreading classes, what to expect and how you can find a lipreading class near you.
Hi Barrie! Please tell us about your lipreading classes. What do they involve and what types of activities do you do? Can anyone of any ability attend and get involved?
There is no national curriculum for the teaching of lipreading. We study some specific lipshapes – like p b m – and then move into almost any subject that combines the use of words and phrases that use that particular lipshapes. In other words, we practise seeing normal speech while recognising particular shapes. This is important because we can learn how to distinguish sounds that look alike – such as pat, bat, mat. We learn how to manage our hearing loss in a hearing world and build self-confidence. Most classes last for two hours with a break for tea/coffee and relaxed chatting in an empathetic environment.
Anyone of any ability can attend and enjoy a lipreading class. In some large cities, with many potential learners, you can progress from one class to another. In most classes around the country there are learners of mixed ability. This means one can often join mid-term and become absorbed into the group quite quickly. Most of us, when we begin to lose hearing ability, instinctively start to lipread. Support from longer-term learners definitely helps newcomers.
One thing that always strikes me as a teacher, is how learners settle once they realise they are in a ‘safe’ environment; among others facing the same challenges and that by discussion much can be shared and learnt. Probably the most important benefit to be gained from attending lipreading classes is the confidence to overcome the social isolation that is so easy to fall into when our hearing declines. The combination of lipreading skills, communication coping strategies and information does bring back lost confidence. It can be life-changing to someone with a hearing loss.
Is lipreading a skill anyone can learn? What are the main challenges to lipreading and how do classes help people overcome these?
Almost anyone can learn to lipread. As in any walk of life, developing the skill depends on the effort put into it. There are some challenges because lipreading is not an exact science, but there are no exams, and most learners find the challenges fun, so classes tend to be relaxed and enjoyable for everyone.
Our ability to understand what someone is saying depends on many variables, such as how tired we are feeling, the lighting, whether facing the speaker directly, and the clarity of the speaker in terms of facial expression and body language. Some people are easier to lipread than others, and in the right circumstances a lot can be achieved by lipreading. But it is not a cure for deafness. Plus, every lipreaders has good and bad days. On a good day, one might lipread about 30% – 40% of what is said. On some occasions, one may do better, while on others one may not do so well.
Human feelings, concerns and interests and distractions such as noise, or personal worries, also come into play. Many of us have some residual hearing (the ability to hear some sounds), and by using that with knowing the context of a conversation, much can be achieved. Lipreading is simply one of several support mechanisms that people with hearing loss can use to improve their ability to communicate and participate in society.
From that perspective, you can see how lipreading is a subject that does require frequent practice. Going to a class for two hours a week in itself will not make someone a good quality lipreader. One can learn various strategies for managing hearing loss such as:
- where to sit in relation to light sources
- how to lipread in noisy places like cafes, pubs and restaurants
- how to ask questions so that answers are immediately understandable
- how to plan in advance of travel, which can also prove beneficial.
All of these factors can be used together to improve our ability to communicate, and in classes we learn a great deal from each other’s experiences.
How can lipreading skills help people with communication difficulties in everyday life?
Lipreading can dramatically improve how much of a conversation you understand, especially when used together with a hearing aid. It can help fill in the gaps in noisy social situations with friends and family and can give you more confidence at work, in education, or in making use of public services.
Lipreading classes provide the opportunity to practise social skills so you can develop the confidence to face the hearing world. Classes provide a means of exchanging ideas, information and experiences, with support from others who share similar experiences. This is great for helping you to understand how best to listen and look for all the clues to get the gist of a conversation.
Are there any tools that people can use to help with lipreading? And what about resources online?
There are some websites that can help with lipreading, depending on what stage you’re at. Most focus on lipshapes based on a particular vowel or consonant shape/sound, and these can helpful as additional support.
One of the most helpful websites is www.deafstrategies.org. It provides a variety of strategies that other people with hearing loss have found useful. Other handy resources include www.lipreadingpractice.co.uk and www.lipreading.org.
Some people can improve by studying television newsreaders with the sound turned down, until the picture changes while she or he carries on talking!
It’s worth noting that there’s lots of lipreading websites that are Australian or American. They are fine to use, and it’s interesting to see how we really are ‘divided by a common language’. However, accent can transform lipshapes – and that’s before you contemplate the different uses and meanings of certain words. So if you’re just starting out with lipreading, it’s probably best to stick to British resources.
How can people find a lipreading class local to them? Are they free to attend? Can they get in touch with teachers who run the classes before attending to find out more?
The Association of Teachers of Lipreading to Adults – (ATLA) is a good website as it lists lipreading classes around the UK. Some classes are free to attend, but it varies depending on where you are. You may need to pay a fee like £74 for a 10-week term of lessons. Others have subsidised fees. Some classes are independently run, but there are lots that are organised by colleges, educational associations or charities.
In many cases you will be able to directly contact the lipreading teacher, although most teachers with a hearing loss prefer text messaging and emailing. If a college runs the course, they will be your contact point, rather than an individual teacher. For more information, ask your audiologist, whether private or NHS, the local Adult Education Centre or the local library.
How can people qualify as a teacher of lipreading? Can you recommend any courses?
There is a serious shortage of Teachers of Lipreading to Adults, and ATLA has worked hard with other agencies to increase the number of teacher-training courses around the UK.
If you’re interested in becoming a lipreading teacher, there are currently teacher-training courses running in London, Manchester, Scotland and Wales. The best place to get initial information on these courses is the Association of Teachers of Lipreading to Adults (ATLA) website. You need to pay to do these courses, but Government loans are available to help suitable candidates attend these courses.