Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Hear, hear!

A few years ago, I linked to a piece by Pete Brown in which he bemoaned the tendency in modern, crafty bars to remove all carpets and soft furnishings, leading to an environment in which all sounds were echoed rather than absorbed, thus creating an often unacceptable level of general background noise. Not surprisingly, I wholeheartedly agreed with this.

This view has now been reinforced by a recent report making the point that pubs with loud music and a lack of sound-absorbing materials can provide a very hostile environment for the deaf and hard of hearing. A common problem with mild hearing loss is that it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish conversation with people close by from background hubbub. Hearing aids may amplify the general level of sound, but they do little to help with this.

The report suggests that pubs should turn down the music and introduce more carpets, curtains and soft upholstery. They should also add more alcoves, booths and room dividers. That’s music to my ears! It points out the half of all over-65s have some kind of hearing loss, and I’d bet that most of the rest have at least small amount of degradation. I’m in my mid-fifties and, while I wouldn’t say I have any hearing problems, I do find it increasingly difficult to follow pub conversations when there’s a significant level of background noise.

The contemporary trend of pub refurbishments seems to very much involve replacing carpets with wood or parquet floors, and cloth upholstery with faux-leather. Personally, even if done tastefully, I find this a touch alienating. I like pubs to be cosy, but apparently that isn’t desirable now.

But the age profile of the potential drinking population is ever rising, and an attempt to appeal to an elusive youth market is going to be increasingly counter-productive. There have been numerous media reports about how the young are turning their backs on pubs and drinking, while older people have a growing amount of spare time and cash. Where pubs are busy, they’re often busy with pensioners.

I’ve always expressed a certain amount of scepticism about forcing pubs to make adjustments for disabled customers that in practice will be scarcely used. For example, I’ve criticised recent calls for all pubs that did not provide disabled facilities to be closed down. Many pubs are in historic buildings where such adjustments are simply impractical.

But, on the other hand, if you are redesigning pub interiors and introducing new features, you should take care not to make them less friendly to the disabled. Classic examples of this are variations in floor level and high-level posing tables. Someone in a wheelchair can happily engage in a conversation at a normal-height table, but with a posing table they’re isolated at a lower level. Likewise many people with mobility problems would struggle to climb up on to a high stool.

It also shouldn’t be forgotten that many people, while not officially registered as disabled, may have some impairment to their mobility. It’s a facile assumption that everyone who is disabled is in a wheelchair. In which context, pubs, please put your toilets on the same floor as the main drinking area! Failing to do so is maybe the most elderly- and disabled-hostile feature of all.


  1. I usually describe my hearing as dulled; I think it's always been that way, but I reckon the hard rock band UFO didn't do me any favours years ago. I've always noticed that when carpets, soft furnishings, wallpaper and curtains disappear, the noise level rises as sounds bounce all over the place rather than be absorbed. In order to be heard, everyone then speaks louder and the noise levels keep on rising until I can't hear a thing anyone is saying.

    I recall a pub which used to have a fully equipped disabled toilet which was up a couple of steps. Utterly useless for wheelchair users, and difficult for people who could walk only with difficulty. I wasn't sure whether this was tokenism, or simply not thinking things through.

    The suggestion of closing down premises that don't cater for people with disabilities is clearly ridiculous, but it might be reasonable to have system of authorised exemption from legal requirements on access on the grounds that the building cannot, or should not for perhaps historical or cultural reasons, be adapted. There is also the question of very small businesses for whom compliance with the law would mean ruination, although a means tested system of grants might address their problems. Such proposals would entail more cost and bureaucracy, but ensuring maximum accessibility for all people is surely worth that.

    1. That's basically what happens already - businesses are required to make "reasonable adjustments", but there are exemptions if impractical or conflicts with listed building status.


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