There are few pleasures as universal as dining out with family and friends. Grabbing a pint in the pub with an old friend or going to dinner with loved ones are some of our favourite ways to spend quality time social time with our nearest and dearest. Far from being merely a place to eat and drink, restaurants, cafes and bars are social spaces - social spaces that across the UK we elect to spend our time, and our money.
The 11 million people in the UK living with some level of hearing loss are no different. However - like many other areas of life - people with hearing loss are frequently excluded from enjoying the same access to these establishments.
Our latest report, Speak Easy: Hearing the views of your customers, surveyed 1,461 people with and without hearing loss to get their views on background noise in restaurants, bars and cafes. While we knew this was a concern and an irritant for many of our supporters, we were surprised at what a universal nuisance and barrier to enjoyment people found it.
Of those surveyed, close to eight out of ten people had left a restaurant, café or bar early because of the noise; 81% had difficulty holding a conversation because of the high level of environmental noise, and - perhaps most significantly - 91% said they would not return to a place where the noise levels were too high.
While some background noise is both expected and to a certain extent desirable, our research suggests that background noise levels are increasing - making dining out or talking in the pub increasingly problematic for everyone, not just those with hearing loss.
Background noise in restaurants has been exacerbated in recent times due to contemporary design trends. Venues are tending to opt for sleek, industrial aesthetics with open kitchens and lots of hard surfaces and high ceilings. With tablecloths and soft furnishings increasingly out of fashion, it leaves venues with very little to absorb sound.
Think of the sounds you'll regularly hear in a restaurant: chairs scraping on wooden floors, clatter from the kitchen and patrons' cutlery. As these sounds reverberate around the 'clean décor', the music levels rise to compete, and peoples' voices further still as they vie against other sounds to maintain a conversation. Add poor lighting into the mix, not only are people with hearing loss confronted by a wall of indistinguishable sound, they must then often attempt to lipread in fashionably dim lighting.
What our Speak Easy campaign is certainly not advocating is clinically silent venues devoid of ambience and 'buzz'. Rather, Action on Hearing Loss as a charity wants to work with the sector to make their restaurants, cafes and bars more accessible for everyone.
The business case is compelling: the 11 million people in the UK with hearing loss today will be over 15 million by 2035 due to an ageing population. With the over-50s controlling more than two-thirds of the nation's wealth, venues that don't cater for the needs of such a huge proportion of the population are missing out on a massive amount of custom. Crucially, our respondents viewed noise levels as second only to quality of food when deciding where to go - for those with and without hearing loss.
The good news is that some very simple interventions can go a long way to improving patrons' experience in restaurants, bars and cafes. Discrete acoustic treatments for walls, soft furnishings, rubber caps on chair legs - bit by bit, these small adjustments can help absorb excessive noise. Quiet areas or tables with no speakers can be introduced so people no longer have to compete with music.
We want to work with restaurants, bars and cafes to help them become more accessible to the 11 million people in the UK with hearing loss, as well as countless others who struggle to maintain conversation when out. To find out more about our campaign and how you can get involved, visit our page here.