Blog: Jean Hewitt talks about hearing difference and urban design ahead of the Acoustics, Light and Contrast conference

Published: 14 Sep 2016

Jean HewittWhat does hearing difference mean in the context of urban design? Jean Hewitt, Director of Centre for Accessible Environments, talks about the impact of hearing and balance impairment when designing spaces ahead of CAE’s sensory design conference, Acoustics, Light and Contrast on 26 September.

“The difficulties of ear, hearing and balance conditions are often overlooked in urban design, particularly given the limited amount of control that is possible in open environments and the wide variety of largely uncontrolled noise sources.  There are over 12 million people with hearing loss in the UK and the difficulties experienced are only broadly understood.  The spectrum of associated conditions have just as much significance in open spaces, for example, common conditions such as tinnitus (affecting 10% of the population) and hyperacusis[1] , particularly experienced by people with hearing loss, as well as other neuro diverse conditions, such as people with autism. The loss or change in hearing often impacts on other senses, particularly spatial sense.

The ear gives us our balance and it is not often taken into account that some medical conditions combine loss of balance and differences to hearing – a significant combination for inclusive urban planning.

I’ve often heard it dismissed that vertigo and other balance conditions are not “real disabilities” and that common childhood conditions such as glue ear[2] only require consideration in learning situations.  From my own experience, I can say that this is absolutely not the case. An inclusive built environment is critical in managing these differences.

My own children suffered from glue ear and their ability to hear changed dramatically at times. Intermittent conditions can pose greater risk to people not accustomed to making additional safety checks that people with permanent hearing loss can learn.

In design terms, hearing approaching vehicles is a particular issue (especially electric vehicles), and people with balance conditions may have a greater need for rest points. Features as simple as a railing for support can make a huge difference – but these are rapidly disappearing in our new “clutter free” urban landscapes.

Conditions such as Ménière’s disease[3] can resulting in fluctuating mild to profound loss of hearing combined with occasional or regular loss of balance, often experienced alongside tinnitus and heighted sensitivity to some frequencies. The loss of balance can be mild or very severe, in some cases causing unexpected falls and the inability to get up.  Balance attacks can be brought on by high levels of noise, and tinnitus is often triggered and exacerbated by high noise levels so poses huge risks in busy traffic environments.

There is little escape from noise levels. Wearing earphones to play music, removes the ability to hear important warning sounds such as the beep of a car horn, or a vehicle reversing so is far from the ideal solution. It’s ironic that people without hearing differences choose to cut off their sense of hearing in this way, and the near misses evidence what happens if we rely solely sight.  People with dual sensory impairments know that controlled crossings give live tactile information – but others will not know that this useful aid has been built in to urban spaces.

Asking directions is not an easy option with loss of hearing, so good signage and wayfinding aids are a must.  Sat nav applications on mobile phones are helpful but divert our sense of sight from what should ideally be a multi-sensory approach to navigating streets.

Safety is always a primary consideration in design. Over the last few years we have witnessed the designing out of recessed shop doorways and alleyways.  However, such features can be welcome havens away from a busy road for someone who finds noise levels overwhelming, so appropriate alternatives must be considered.

Alternatives could include managed courtyards, pocket parks and other community spaces. These would contribute not only to the sense of place and identity, but also for our general wellbeing and the avoidance of distress exacerbated by urban environments. Particularly for anyone with any condition affecting the ears.

Fortunately many new street designs include wider pavements and alignment of street furniture such as lampposts to the outer edges, to keep pedestrians away from moving traffic. This is a very positive step.

True community engagement rather than box-ticking consultation is the key to achieving a sense of belonging and community attachment alongside safety and comfort for all. This requires advance planning and resourcing to cater for a spectrum of additional needs. Sadly, in respect of hearing and sensory design, this seldom happens.”


Centre for Accessible Environments is a leading UK authority on inclusive design. Learn more about sensory design in more depth at Acoustics, Light and Sound, a conference, on 26 September in central London. Tickets are still available and cost £50+VAT for non-members.

Feeling Good in Public Spaces, a series of events about the needs of people with sensory impairments featuring Jean’s expertise, was organised by the ARCC.

Additional notes:

[1] Hyperacusis is the name for intolerance to everyday sounds that causes significant distress and affects a person’s day-to-day activities.
[2] Glue ear commonly affects 8 out of 10 children by the age of 10
[3] Ménière’s disease is a long term, progressive condition affecting the balance and hearing parts of the inner ear. Symptoms are acute attacks of vertigo (severe dizziness), fluctuating tinnitus, increasing deafness, and a feeling of pressure in the ear.