Meet the volunteer improving an integral hospital service for deaf people across Teesside

A hospital volunteer is improving a crucial NHS service for deaf people across Teesside by leading on deaf awareness training for volunteers at a local NHS Trust.

67-year-old Val Tait, from Bishopsgarth, is training volunteers at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust – where she also volunteers – in communicating with deaf or hard of hearing people.

Val has had hearing loss since she was a child – a disability that runs in her family. As she got older, her hearing got progressively worse to the extent that she now cannot hear sounds below 80 decibels.

A former teacher, Val called it a day in the classroom when she found she was struggling at work. She ‘lost a lot of confidence’ in leaving her role but retrained in hearing therapy and became a hearing therapist at Freeman Hospital in Newcastle and took on a freelance role as a lip reading teacher.

Following stage 3 breast cancer treatment, Val retired last year and has since volunteered her time in the very chemotherapy unit where she received treatment at the University Hospital of North Tees – where she now calls herself the ‘Macmillan tea lady’.

Val said: “The first thing that struck me when I was having cancer surgery and treatment was how marvellous all the staff were.

“I wanted to do something for them in return. If I was a millionaire, I’d have handed over a vast amount of money but I’m not so I thought to myself that if I got well, I’d like to volunteer and give something back to the hospital.”

Val’s surgery and chemotherapy treatment was successful so, committed to her promise to herself, she filled out an application to become a volunteer at the hospital.

Val continued: “When I was applying to be a volunteer, I was worried that being deaf might impact my chances. But nobody minded at all – nobody batted an eyelid.

“Obviously nobody suggested that I spend all day answering phones. It’s mostly just sitting down and talking and listening to the people undergoing chemotherapy and that can be so helpful.

“It’s been fantastic so far – it’s been a really positive thing for me to do.”

Val is just shy of her first anniversary volunteering at the Trust and has now taken on leading a deaf awareness training session to support other volunteers – with the ultimate goal of enhancing patient experience.

The deaf awareness training covers how to identify deaf people (for example, hearing aids and white sticks with a red band) and the British Sign Language fingerspelling alphabet. But her main priority is focusing on basic communication tactics – training the volunteers to speak a little more slowly and making sure they are face-to-face when speaking to facilitate lip reading.

Val said: “I left work where part of my job was running courses on deaf awareness and I wasn’t planning on doing it here but when the opportunity came up, I thought ‘why not?’

“It’s had a really positive response from the other volunteers so far.

“I’ve had a number of people over the years say to me ‘Oh, I didn’t realise you were deaf’ and it just goes to show how easy it is for deaf people to walk into a hospital and for volunteers to not know.”

The feedback from volunteers across the organisation has been wholly positive and the volunteers have taken Val’s training on board – with one volunteer in the chemotherapy day unit making a chart with pictures of tea, sugar and milk for a deaf patient to communicate how she prefers her cups of tea.

1 in 6 people in the UK is deaf or hard of hearing, making Val’s voluntary work an integral part of improving the volunteer service at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust.

Paul Wharton, volunteer coordinator at the Trust, said: “Val is the perfect example of how versatile and adaptable volunteers can be. Bringing their own skills and experience with them, they have become an integral part of our organisation and are an incredible asset in improving the impact our service has for the benefit of our community.

“Val’s fantastic work is proof of that and we’re proud that she’s chosen our organisation to make a difference at.”

For more information about volunteering at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust or to request an application form, please visit the Trust’s website.

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