Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 2016
Contemporary pub designers ignore the needs of the deaf, and of people with other disabilities
A FEW years ago, the well-known beer writer Pete Brown 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. I have to say I wholeheartedly agreed with this.
This view has now been reinforced by a recent report produced to coincide with Lipreading Awareness Week, which makes 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 certainly music to my ears! It points out that half of all over-65s have measurable hearing loss, and I’d bet that most of the rest have at least a small amount of degradation. I’m in my mid-fifties and, while I wouldn’t say I have any major hearing problems, I do find it increasingly difficult to follow pub conversations when there’s a substantial 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 prefer pubs to be cosy, but apparently that isn’t desirable now. And it greatly reduces the ability of the pub interior to absorb sound.
The age profile of the potential drinking population is ever rising, and any 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, especially at lunchtimes, 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 felt that recent calls for all pubs that did not provide disabled facilities to be closed down were going too far. 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. Pubs should be welcoming and accessible to all their customers.