Going to university with a hearing difficulty

Denise Gilligan wasn’t sure if she would be able to go to university and train as a paramedic with a hearing difficulty, but found that it was easier than expected 

August 9 2018
going to university with a hearing difficulty

Although I was born with full hearing, I caught measles when I was six years old, which resulted in a 70 per cent loss of hearing in both ears. I’ve been wearing hearing aids ever since.

Becoming a paramedic was a dream from quite early on. I was a competitive camogie (women’s hurling) player in Ireland, and we often ended up in A&E. I would notice the ambulance staff bringing in patients.

When I was 18 years old a good friend was killed in a car accident. Around that time, I realised that being a paramedic was exactly what I wanted to do. But it seemed impossible – it was a career I thought required perfect hearing and all-round perfect health.

I put it to the back of my mind, working in other jobs for many years, and eventually I moved to London. Although I did some sales jobs here and there, it really wasn’t what I wanted. One day I came home thoroughly exhausted and disillusioned. I decided to google “deaf paramedic”.

I discovered Richard Webb-Stevens, a paramedic with the London Ambulance Service. I contacted him and when we met, it turned out that his hearing was worse than mine. He had been diagnosed with bilateral sensorineural loss from birth. But he was so good at his job that he became the first deaf paramedic in the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service. Richard encouraged me to apply for some experience. So, I did, and worked as an emergency transport attendant for three years with St John Ambulance.


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During that time, I went to an open day at St George’s, University of London, where I met Chris Baker, the head of the paramedic science course. He listened to my story, looked at my experience and recommended doing an Access to HE course.

I would 100 per cent recommend an Access course to anyone who has been out of education for a while. It can open so many doors, not only by giving you the credits you need, but by boosting your confidence. 

However, I was always fighting the voice in my head that said: “well, I can do this bit, but I probably won’t get a place at university”. But in the end, I got all the credits that I needed and out of my five university choices, I got five interviews.

I got three offers, from the University of Greenwich, St George’s and the University of Hertfordshire. I chose St George’s because I knew Chris Baker and he had shown me around the set-up. There is a high-tech simulation suite here, plus fully equipped mock ambulances, and the course involves lots of placements.

The most important thing is that I’ve never been treated differently here. It’s a supportive environment and I’m the same as everybody else.

If I’m in a lecture, I always sit near the front so I can see and hear as much as possible. If there’s a question from the back, that’s when I might miss things. I have lecturers who repeat the question clearly so I can get ready for the answer. I’ve also been provided with note takers who tap away on a laptop and then send me the scripts. But if I ever struggle, I just ask a colleague. My fellow students are great; they help me with academic issues and I help them with life experiences.

I have now done two ambulance placements as part of the course. I was initially nervous but when I’m at work, I am resilient and can show empathy easily. When I’m with a patient, I usually let them know that I have a hearing impairment. The patients are generally brilliant, particularly the elderly, who can identify with me. One lovely woman asked me about my hearing aids, went to a drawer and gave me four packets of hearing aid batteries she had spare as they were the same type. I can use a stethoscope fine, but need to take out my hearing aid and focus hard.

Taking the university route was the right path for me because it takes three years to become a qualified paramedic and gain a BSc, whereas if I did my training via an ambulance trust it would take about five years. I’ve just turned 40 and feel like I’ve finally found my calling. Putting my feet up at the end of the day thinking “I’ve made a difference” even to just one person is a great feeling.

It goes to show, to anyone who might be in the same boat as me: don’t let anything stop you.

Read more: Best universities for medicine

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