Empathy and experience: meet our hearing-impaired IT Volunteer

AbilityNet has a friendly network of volunteers who provide IT support to older people and disabled people of any age to help them use technology to achieve their goals. Our volunteers are a skilled and diverse group, many of whom are disabled themselves. Recently AbilityNet caught up with Iain Wilson, one of our volunteers in the midlands, to get a first-hand perspective on how his own hearing impairment informs his experience helping others as an AbilityNet ITCanHelp Volunteer.

Iain Wilson (IW) is also the AbilityNet (AN) Warwickshire County Co-ordinator, a role which involves locallPhoto of Iain WIlsony spreading awareness of our vision to create “a world in which digital services are equally accessible to all”. See what Iain has to say about the importance of both technology and empathy below…

Interview with an AbilityNet ITCanHelp Volunteer and County Co-ordinator

AN: Hi Iain, thank you for catching up with us. To start would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a bit about your background before becoming a volunteer?

IW: My name is Iain Wilson, I’m the AbilityNet County Co-Ordinator for Warwickshire. I’ve worked with AbilityNet for around two years; prior to that I worked for nearly 40 years in the Hi-Tech industry; for Ford Motor Company, HP and Microsoft. 

AN: That’s a lot of fantastic experience to bring to our team of volunteers! How did you first hear about AbilityNet? 

IW: I had heard of AbilityNet through Microsoft and, when I retired, I heard that they were looking for a County Co-ordinator in Warwickshire – as I live there, it seemed a good fit! 

AN: We think it’s been a good fit too! We’re lucky to have a very diverse network of volunteers, many of whom have a disability themselves. Would you mind telling us a bit about the nature of your hearing impairment? 

IW: It probably started due to old age! – possibly working in noisy factories – it’s quite a common issue, you start to lose higher frequencies, so I really struggled in noisy environments, I couldn’t hear people right next to me (usually my wife and family!) and started zoning out of conversations. 

AN: It sounds like communication became quite difficult, how do you overcome that day-to-day?

IW: My hearing aids enhance higher frequencies and make a big difference in either noisy environments, or softly spoken people. They also really help in one to one conversations with people, face to face or on the phone – so help me with my elderly clients!

AN: And we’re very pleased it enables you to volunteer! In two years with us you must have helped quite a few people… What are some of the most common things you help people with?

IW: A lot of clients have rather old e-mail addresses and the email hosts will change something, meaning the client needs some changes to configuration! Printer setup is quite common, along with Apple iCloud issues. With iCloud, there is quite a small free storage limit, and when the iPhone backs up it uses quite a lot of storage, particularly for pictures. The client will then get a message that the iPhone cannot be backed up, which causes worry! 

AN: A big part of being an AbilityNet volunteer is putting the clients at ease. Do you think your own experience as somebody with a hearing impairment has made you more aware and able to accommodate the difficulties some disabled and older people face?

IW: It has definitely made me more sensitive to other disabilities, like sight – I keep my language quite simple and always check for understanding when I’m talking. Otherwise, I also try to make sure people can see me speaking. Whilst I don’t lip-read, I know that because of my hearing impairment it helps me to know whether people are speaking or not, so I try and be wary of that when with a client, to make sure they are as comfortable as possible during the conversation.

AN: That’s great to know. Now, for anyone reading this who also has a hearing impairment, do you have a favourite piece of assistive technology which helps to make your life easier?

IW: My hearing aids are blue-tooth enabled – they link with my iPhone and allow me to modify the volume using my phone, answer phone calls through the hearing aids and follow Google maps just by listening to instructions through my hearing aids…I can also secretly listen to sport, no one knows! 

AN: Sounds brilliant! Thank you, Iain, for your hard work and for sharing your experience with us. Just one final thing, to a disabled person who is reading this, realising they could use their IT knowledge and personal experience to help others, what would you want to say?

IW: I would strongly encourage any disabled person who has some technical skills to consider volunteering. There is a high degree of empathy involved in the role so being disabled and understanding how technology can help is a big advantage.

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