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Soapbox: I had to fight to get Access to Work funding for hearing aids

Photo: Andrey Popov/Shutterstock Photo: Andrey Popov/Shutterstock
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Being a hearing-impaired actor comes with its challenges, but none as difficult as trying to source government funding for discreet hearing aids. I discovered this last year when I was subjected to a drawn-out battle that made The Hunger Games look like a nice bit of downtime.

I started to lose my hearing aged 18 and now wear hearing aids in both ears. I cannot hear anything without them. Since I began working as a professional actor, I have worn in-the-ear hearing aids as I felt that the behind-the-ear models supplied by the NHS limited my opportunities on stage. I didn’t want the roles that I could audition for to be restricted due to the lump of plastic behind my ears.

The government’s Access to Work programme exists, according to its website, to provide you with funding to “help you do your job if you have a disability or health condition”. Unfortunately it seems that the government, much like my late Great Auntie Maureen, does not really see acting as a job.

I discovered this in 2014 when both of my hearing aids broke in quick succession, leaving me struggling with an old pair of behind-the-ear hearing aids. At that time, the acting work wasn’t bountiful and I was skint. I couldn’t afford to replace my in-the-ear aids and needed some urgent financial support. So I turned to ATW in the hope that it would pay for new aids to allow me to continue with my work.

If I had been an office worker, I suspect the application may have been quite straightforward. Not so much for the actor.

First of all I had to justify why I couldn’t use standard behind-the-ear aids. These are supplied by the NHS and would negate the need for ATW funding. It’s a struggle for ATW to understand how your appearance can affect the work you get, but I somehow managed to get through this stage with a letter from my audiologist stressing that behind-the-ear hearing aids with would severely limit my employability.

I then had to confirm how many days I had worked as an actor over the past year. I had worked 23 days in total, so was told that as I had worked 23 days of 365 days per year, ATW would seek to contribute 16% of the cost. With the total cost of the aids almost £5,000, this was a huge blow. And who was to say I would only work 23 days in the coming year? I might work many more. Trying to make ATW understand that acting work is ad hoc was frustrating – eventually the level of funding was only increased when I added my other work as a stage school principal to the application. This satisfied ATW, as I work a set number of days in this role, but pity the poor deaf actor who doesn’t have a second job to fall back on to and is desperate for financial assistance for much needed equipment.

To cut a long and very painful story short, I began my application in March 2014, and finally received my hearing aids in February 2015. Paperwork was lost, advisers left, offices were moved – and all the time I was struggling by with an old, inadequate pair of behind-the-ear aids and no confidence to audition.

Unless you are very successful, there will be times as an actor when you struggle financially. It would be nice if ATW could be a bit more understanding of this type of work when processing applications for funding. We actors have it hard enough in the workplace, we don’t need further obstacles affecting our employability.

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