THE BLOG

Making Jo Cox's Vision For A World Without Loneliness A Reality For Disabled People

26/07/2017 17:24
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I have been deaf since the age of four, having contracted typhoid on a family holiday in the 1960s. There was little understanding in those days of the powerful medication I was prescribed, and the side effects left me profoundly deaf.

Like so many parents, my mum and dad were absolutely devastated, but their fervent belief - which they instilled in me - was that with their support I should be able to do anything other children could do. As a result I did not allow my deafness to stand in my way, and have pursued the relationships, the family and the career that I have always wanted.

But sadly this is not the case for everyone with a disability. This month the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission launched an ambitious new campaign to highlight the scourge of loneliness for people with disabilities. Their research shows that 53% of disabled people report feeling lonely, rising to nearly 80% among disabled young people. These statistics should trouble us all.

Reading this report and seeing those stark statistics made me reflect on my own experience of being deaf. Loneliness can affect everyone, and as this report uncovers, particularly young people with disabilities.

All disabilities are different, and affect people in profoundly different ways. I have vivid memories of times when I felt left out as a child; missing the punchline of jokes was the bane of my life. You never want to be the odd one out, the one who doesn't fit in, the one who has to ask for special treatment.

I remember swimming with my friends one summer, having water fights and pushing each other into the pool. When I got home, my mum and I sat on my bed with the hairdryer for hours, carefully drying out my hearing aids. I should have taken them out first or told everyone not to push me in the water, but I didn't want to draw attention to what made me different.

In a noisy playground with children shouting, running around and playing games, it can be impossible for anyone to keep up, let alone a deaf child. I relied on close friends to let me know when the conversation had moved on from Grange Hill to Top of the Pops (we didn't have Gogglebox and Love Island in the 70s). But if you don't have anyone to support you and make an effort to include you, loneliness can quickly creep in.

I was fortunate to have a small, loyal group of friends who I relied on as I grew up. At university I was the only deaf student. I never went to the bar after lectures; it was too dark, the music was too loud and it was impossible to understand what anyone was saying. But when the bar closed and everyone would head back for drinks in their rooms where the lighting was better, I would go and join them.

I would never describe myself as lonely - but looking back over my life, I can see so many points where I have been excluded and isolated because of my deafness.

Even now, as a confident Chief Executive, I miss chatting to friends about the latest films because cinemas only have subtitled screenings at awkward times (who wants to go to the cinema on a Sunday morning?), weeks after the initial release. At my kickboxing classes, instructors still forget I don't hear them if they're not facing me - which can be a dangerous mistake to make!

One of the best parts of my job is speaking to deaf young people and their families about barriers they've faced and how the National Deaf Children's Society can help. We run deaf awareness sessions in schools, we train sports coaches and swimming teachers to be deaf-friendly, and we make sure the rights of deaf children remain firmly on the political agenda with our tenacious campaigning.

Working so closely with deaf children means I know full well that loneliness is a big issue to tackle. It knocks deaf children's confidence before they even start school, affects attainment throughout their education, and causes untold pain that persists later on in life.

But the first step towards solving the problem of loneliness for people with disabilities is talking about it. We need to talk about the reality of what it means, how it affects people, but also the small things each and every one of us can do to ensure that deaf and disabled people are not left out. If we can start that national conversation, we will be one step closer towards Jo Cox's dream of eradicating loneliness in society.

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