Welcome to Bennett's World: a collection of articles and references covering a wide variety of topics in which I am involved. I am a very political person but I have no allegiance to any political party. Follow me on twitter @colinhove

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

SAS Splendid Service for Db Passenger

Often programmes like In Touch (BBC Radio 4) concentrate on bad experiences by blind people while travelling by air. I wish to share my experience earlier this summer and show that things can also go well. This account was offered to the In Touch programme but they declined to use it. Text : My e-mail to the airline : Dear Sirs I attended the Helen Keller World Conference in Tampere, Finland from 2 to 7 June 2005 as a delegate. I have sight and hearing problems. My return journey between London Heathrow and Tampere was by SAS. The outward journey on 2 June 2005 was via Copenhagen and the return yesterday was via Stockholm. I cannot remember if I mentioned my sensory problems when I booked my flight via online agent ebookers. In any event, I have to say that the service afforded by SAS staff from the check in desk at Heathrow and throughout my travels was exemplary. I have some useful vision but guidance is always helpful. At all stages of the 4 legs of my journey I was treated with tact and understanding both on the ground and in the air. One hears stories of blind and other disabled people having difficult journeys and so I thought it would be encouraging for your staff to know that their efforts were well appreciated. I will mention in particular the help given to me when I arrived at Heathrow Terminal 3 about 10 pm last night. I was met by a gentleman wearing a navy blue uniform (an Englishman I think) who very patiently took me through Immigration, Customs and to the Central Bus Station. I think his name was Mr Howard. He is of serious demeanour and not too tall. With best wishes to your staff and long may these high standards prevail. Yours faithfully Colin Bennett Text: The e-mail response from the airline : Dear Mr. Bennett, What a good start to the day. Thank you so much for your e-mail just received. Your comments are greatly appreciated and you can be assured that I shall pass same to all our colleagues who were on duty (ground and crew staff alike) when you flew on 2nd June to Tampere (SK500/KF676) with a return on 12th June (KF483/SK1527). Our colleagues will be very pleased to know that their efforts were appreciated and recognised and again can I say on their behalf a very big thank you indeed for making the time to write to us. If ever I can be of assistance you are most welcome to contact me. Yours sincerely SAS SCANDINAVIAN AIRLINES www.scandinavian.net

Saturday, July 23, 2005

8th European Deafblind Holiday held in Varna Bulgaria

This is an account of my attendance at this holiday. It will be published, slightly edited, in the next issue of Talking Sense due in about September 2005 : It was hot and sticky and the passengers were waiting for the carousel to disgorge their luggage at Varna airport. We were becoming a little impatient as we had disembarked from a Balkan Airways flight an hour earlier. At last , our suitcases appeared. Someone recognised my holdall for me and I went quickly through Customs. Suddenly, my hand was taken in a firm grip and I heard a voice say 'Mr. Colin ?'. It was the 'Reception Committee' from the National Association of the Deafblind in Bulgaria. It consisted of the President, Dimitar Parapanov, his son , Svet, acting as his interpretor and a woman Bulgarian/English interpretor. I was led through the darkness and then taken in a school minibus to the Varna Boarding School for Blind and Deafblind Children on the outskirts of the City. It was exciting to be in a new environment and I got to bed at about 1 am. The Next morning my holiday began with a trip to the city of Varna with the interpretor and with the Finnish participants who had arrived 2 days before. It seemed a pleasant city but did present some difficulty for visually- impaired people: the pavements were uneven and had kerbs every which way. That was Saturday and the bulk of the participants were due to arrive on Sunday. We had magnificent thunderstorms on the Sunday which had been omitted from the program ! We had all arrived by Sunday evening and we had an introductory meeting that evening in the school refectory which had terrible acoustics. I was attending the 8th European Deafblind holiday (3-10 July 2005) being held in the Black Sea resort of Varna, Bulgaria. I was the only person from the UK as was the case when I attended the previous holiday (2004 in Sweden). Unlike all the other participants, I had no guide/communicator but I was greatly assisted by the fact that English and Bulgarian were the working languages of the holiday. Generally speaking this worked out for me. Supplemented by my sponging on other people's interpretors who all spoke English. The holiday was based at the boarding school which normally housed 168 visually impaired boys and girls from the age of 6 to 19. It was an attractive building, airy and spacious but with echoey corridors which are very difficult for people like me. I have Usher Syndrome 2 which means that I am a registered blind person with severe hearing loss ameliorated by two powerful hearing aids. I was able to explore the school and speak to many of the teachers who had come in , during their holidays. I was impressed by the facilities and the quality of the teachers. What interested me was that the pupils had the whole spectrum of sight problems including many who in the UK would not be at a special school at all. The concept of inclusive education does not seem to be popular in Bulgaria. The children were mostly boarders and I am told they were reluctant to leave the school and I can imagine that was so ! The quality of education seemed to be high as is the case throughout Bulgaria despite deterioration in the last decade or so. The Association had arranged a full program for us and on most days we were taken by hired buses to sites of interest. On the Monday, we were taken to 'Pobiti Kamani' Field of Stones which is one of the leading archaeological sites. On another day, we were taken to Tchururovo with its local museum and ethnographic centre. We also visited local resorts and cultural centres. We had many opportunities to see and hear Bulgarian folk dancing both in the School and elsewhere. A highlight for me was our meeting in Varna Town Hall with the City's Director of Social and Health Service and top staff. I had asked for this but was very pleasantly surprised to have that request met and that all the participants attended the meeting. We were able to put some searching questions and given frank responses. Dimitar was clearly delighted at this meeting as no doubt it put a question of blindness and deafblindness well onto the agenda of the local Council. Varna is the third city of Bulgaria in winter but the second in summer. It has a population of some 300,000 although the area seems quite big for that size. It is very leafy. I had last been in Bulgaria in 1964 when I drove through the country from Turkey to Jugoslavia. My lasting memory is of the tens of millions of newly planted trees in town and country. That foresight has clearly paid off as has the high educational standards which I noticed in the schools at that time. French was the main Western language then, English being hardly known. The opposite is true today. I have got to know quite a few Bulgarians and they are certainly very 'civilised' and exceptionally clean and healthy. The men are sturdy and strong and the women slim and very conscious of their appearance. Nearly all had black hair which most had streaming down their backs. Sadly, the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer which everyone acknowledges but seem resigned to it. Some students said that they are waiting for a Ho Chi Minh or a Fidel Castro but did not seem eager to do anything themselves! The population is told that accession to the EU will solve everything... There were 72 participants, including interpreters from 12 countries including Bulgaria itself on this holiday. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and commend the Association for hosting this holiday. However I think it would be in the interests of everyone to express some reservations. There was a problem with communication mainly due to the fact that most meetings took place in the refectory which was large and acoustically disastrous. The interpretor saw her role as acting for the President rather than for the participants which caused many of us not to hear her or to understand what was happening. We foreign participants had difficulty in communicating with the Bulgarians as we were reduced to talking to them in a variety of sign languages with limited success. What we needed was a small supply of Bulgarian/English interpretors. It was obvious that the organisers did not realise how much extraneous noise handicaps people with hearing problems. There were many young Bulgarians in the school and being young, they liked to play CDs, Television and radio, all at the same time and all the time. I have developed my constructive criticism elsewhere. A feature of the holiday was our access to various workshops in which we were able to see the good quality of the classrooms and the Bulgarian teachers. As for the food, it was simple but sufficient and went some way to explaining the obvious health of the population. We saw none of the terrible sites you can see in any Tesco store here with acres of tattooed flesh spilling out from inadequate clothing. As normal, we had the final dinner-dance on the Saturday night and the sad parting of the next day or two when we drifted back to our countries. I myself stayed in Varna until the following Friday. This was because I had taken a cheap charter flight instead of the expensive schedule flight but it meant I had to stay a full two weeks to catch the return flight. So , I spent the last few days in Varna failing to find a cheap hotel (despite the assiduous help of one of the school pupils) and so that was only a partial success. You can't win them all. I spent the last two days trapped in the most expensive hotel in Varna, the only one with vacancies; I was as lonely as a Bulgarian lesbian- of which there are three. I left Varna in the rain on 15 July.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Digital Hearing Aids

This article, slightly edited, will appear in the next issue of Talking Sense in about September 2005 : In recent years digital hearing aids have become the norm replacing analogue hearing aids which have been around since the 1970s. In April 2003 the government announced an allocation of £94 million to provide, over the next 2 years, digital hearing aids for all those in England who could make use of them. This was to be "rolled out" in three stages. When this arrived in your own area depended on whether you were in stage 1, 2, or 3 of the "roll out". Digital aids have been available privately for some years but at a typical cost of £2000. The NHS is such a large bulk purchaser that the actual cost of each digital aid to it is about £70. Essentially, the word digital implies that information is supplied in discrete electrical charges as opposed to infinitely variable electrical signals representing changes in air pressure which is what sounds are. In practice, we can expect much clearer sound and the ability to modify or control sounds to suit the aid wearer. In my own case, over a decade ago, I applied to my local audiology department (here in Brighton) for a pair of digital hearing aids as, at the time, priority was given to those who also had a sight problem. It may seem strange to younger people but until fairly recently it was the practice to provide hearing impaired people with just one hearing aid (although it has been known for many years that most people have two ears) even if their hearing loss in each ear was similar! This has always seemed to be indefensable. People with lung cancer have never been offered treatment on just one lung. After a long delay involving going to a NHS hospital in Birmingham and having my local NHS body set up a special budget for me, I finally obtained a pair of digital hearing aids. I mention this episode to illustrate how much things have improved in the last decade. Nobody should have to go through the nonsense I did then. It has to be said I am more determined than most and it must be that many people who could have benefited from a pair of hearing aids ( digital or analogue) previously did not get them. There is no doubt that digital aids do produce better sound. Digital hearing aids offer a possibility of fine-tuning the processor inside to meet the particular needs of the wearer. They can also cope better with the endemic problem of background noise. The fundamental problem with the NHS dispensing of digital hearing aids is that there is shortage of staff in the audiology departments of our hospitals. Many of them have not recieved enough training and lack experience. This is not a criticism of the staff but reflects the fact that for so many years audiology has been the Cinderella of the NHS. We need to press for yet more improvement in this area. Having said that, I want to state clearly that in my own local audiology department there has been a great improvement in the attitude of the staff to deaf people. Quite often in the past, staff have been brusque. I should point out that many of us with hearing problems are very 'cheap to run' as there is no possibilty of surgical operations to improve our hearing and apart from hearing aids, batteries and periodic examinations we do not cost very much. Now a few words about the aids themselves. They are rather flimsy. I have pressed for them to be made more robust. I am very careful with mine but I am aware that they could easily be broken as they are nearly all plastic. In the past, my aids have sometimes broken at a crticial place namely where the behind-the-ear plastic moulding meets the tubing that leads to the ear mould. When this has happened there has been an inordinate delay in getting them repaired. Another problem is that the plastic tubing gets hard quite quickly. This means that it is quite difficult to fit that tubing onto the 'tail' of the hearing aid. The end of that tail (the "spigot") is quite soft and easily distorts. One often has to disengage the tubing from that tail in order to blow through the mould to remove any blockage in the ear mould. I realise this sounds a bit disgusting but the bald fact is that if one has a foreign body, namely a mould, in one's ears 20 hours a day then the ear reacts against this by secretions which tend to block the mould. I was discussing this very recently with someone who has experience of the Danish NHS. She told me that hearing aid users are provided with a little tool that widens the plastic tubing. As far as I know English NHS patients are not provided with this. This might seem trivial but those dependent on hearing aids will recognise the mini-panic that can ensue when they can't get the tubing back onto the "spigot"! The digital hearing aids that I have are made by Oticon. There are several makes that your local audiology department can dispense. A big problem is that there is a huge waiting list for digital hearing aids in the UK. It seems there are about 1.8 million users of hearing aids in England and it was hoped that by April 2005 all of those who could make use of digital hearing aids will have been supplied with them. I do not know if this target has been achieved. I realise this is a subjective account of digital hearing aids and I would welcome other views especially if I have made errors.