Article

The Joy of Textphones

Saturday 17 September

 Ah, the old textphone.

Great giver of communication and transformer of unintelligible sound into understandable, readable words. I do love mine, though, sadly, not everyone does. My brother and at least one friend won’t use it, although two other mates battle on with it gamely. (One no doubt because I once answered and spoke to her on a standard phone for a good ten minutes thinking she was someone else completely.) Then there’s the pesky problem of automated systems, which ask you to press a number according to the level of your frustration. You find yourself bellowing over the options, hoping the poor operator will have caught the one you want. (Off the scale frustrated and about to punch a hole in the wall, thanks for asking.)

Recently, after swirling endlessly round an interminable black hole to rearrange an appointment at a big London teaching hospital, no-one seemed to be able to find me, and I began to think my records had been irretrievably lost. Finally, finally, after governments had fallen, and empires had been lost and won, I got put through to a secretary in the reproductive health bit – for it is there that I am a patient. No, I am not telling you any more. It’s not relevant to the tale, and, anyway, don’t be so nosy. The woman concerned clearly didn’t get on with Text Relay from the start. I explained that I was just trying to rearrange an appointment I’d had to cancel the previous week, and was calling because I’d not heard about the new date.

She came out with the remark: “We don’t have any deaf patients in this department.” I read the words twice to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating. Nope, I wasn’t. Those really were her words. Right, so what was this? Some sort of policy of deliberate exclusion? As it happens I identify as severely hard of hearing rather than actually deaf, but we’ll let that one go. Just as I was finishing reeling from the initial shock of these words came offensive remark number two: “If you’re elderly, you don’t need reproductive health anyway.” Now this one really did feel like a blow to the solar plexus, being so wrong on so many levels. First up, the offensive and erroneous assumption that because of my poor hearing I had to be old and doddery. As it happens, I am middle aged – my drinking and dancing till dawn days (such as they were) may be long behind me, but, even on a bad day, I don’t think I could be described as elderly. Secondly, surely even if I were old, there could be aspects of the care this hospital department provided which I may have needed. (Ovarian cancer anyone?)

As if all that were not insulting enough, next thing I knew the operator was telling me that this individual (and the operator had a few choice adjectives for her) was not giving her name, and going to stop the call. Outraged on my behalf, the operator then called back and we were put through to someone helpful who swiftly got me my new appointment. I hate to let fairness get in the way of a good story, but I have to begrudgingly admit that the way the hospital responded to my subsequent complaint, quickly and decisively, was OK. All right, all right, it was really quite good. Within hours I’d received an initial email apology, then a few days later I was invited to meet one of the suits at the hospital, who apologised again, expressed suitable regret at the incident, and was generally infuriatingly sympathetic and reasonable. The individual concerned will be disciplined and trained in equal opps. Again only with the greatest reluctance, I feel obliged to give the other side of the story, as related by the suit, which is that the text relay operator was allegedly speaking so loudly at the hospital secretary, and that was why she couldn’t or wouldn’t prolong the call. More worryingly, she also flatly denied making Offensive Remark Number Two, which I know she did make. Of course, it’s impossible to know how much truth, if any, there is in that allegation.

But the whole sorry incident, in which no-one came out especially well, also served as a depressing reminder of how ill-trained and ill-advised some people still are when dealing with those who can’t hear, and how much of a struggle even sorting out something very basic as a rearranged appointment can sometimes be.

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