Deaf Life20th May 2014

Deaf Motor Bike Paramedic Helping Save Lives on the Streets of London

Deaf, Richard Webb-Stevens works for the London Ambulance Service and patrols the streets every day waiting to respond to emergency calls

by Sarah Lawrence

During City Lit’s Deaf Day, I was delighted to chat to Richard Webb-Stevens of the London Ambulance Service. With access to health services being such a big issue for many deaf people, I was pleased to learn that Richard, who is deaf, is a motorcycle paramedic, a job he has been doing for the last six years.

Born in Hemel Hempstead, but brought up in Chipperfield Village, Richard was diagnosed with Bilateral sensorineural loss from birth. In one ear, Richard has congenital loss and the other is from a trauma during birth, when the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. Richard wears two behind the ear, NHS issued hearing aids. “My loss is mainly mid-high frequencies of 70-115db, which means that I struggle with conversation, telephones and TV,” Richard explained. “I rely heavily on lip reading even when I have my hearing aids on.” The only deaf person in his close family, Richard was brought up in a hearing world and had many of the experiences suffered by deaf children trying to fit into mainstream.

Richard had his first hearing aids when he was about 5 and like many deaf children, me included, he didn’t like wearing them because they were uncomfortable and made him look different. “I grew my hair over my ears to cover them when most of my friends had short fashionable styles,” said Richard. Attending mainstream primary and secondary, Richard’s experience was typical of so many deaf children at the time. The only deaf student in Primary and one of only two in secondary school, Richard was bullied because he was ‘different’. Whilst Richard considers his teachers were very supportive and accommodating, he missed out on a lot of instruction and “scraped through academically”.

Learning to play the guitar and thereby play an active role in school life through plays and band performances, Richard found that if he did learn lines, he could speak in front of people without looking like a fool and having them laugh at him. Being brought up in a family with a strong military service background, Richard’s earliest work ambitions were to join the armed services. Aged 16, he applied to the Army, RAF, Navy and the Marines, all of whom turned him down because he failed their hearing. Whilst this was not a surprise to him, it was nevertheless disappointing, but he felt he had to give it a go to avoid thinking ‘if only’ for the rest of his life. 

With his ambitions for a life in the armed services quickly assigned to the trash can, Richard’s desire to serve saw him set out to be a nurse. Beginning his training as a general nurse in Charing Cross Hospital, he failed the course 18 months in and had to leave. Not one to sit on his laurels and still keen to ‘look after people’, Richard became a lifeguard for two years before finding a job working with adults with learning disabilities in residential care. Two years on still wanting to work in the NHS, Richard joined the London Ambulance Service and he has not looked back since.

Richard is glowing in his praise for managers and colleagues in the London Ambulance Service describing good levels of support. He puts the good relationships he has enjoyed down to 2 things. “ I have always been honest about my hearing loss,” he tells me. “That means I tell people to face me when talking to me and ask them to repeat if I did not hear or understand. The second thing I have done, is to try and come up with solutions to problems or barriers myself, rather than ask others to do it for me.”

“For example, we were going to use the Genesis II radio system. It uses an ear piece and microphone to allow us to use the Airwave radio while riding and dealing with patients. For me, this was a potential problem because of my hearing aids and cannot work without them.

I looked into the system and saw that the moulded ear mould had a vented baffle hole to allow the users to hear residual sound while getting hearing protection at the same time. I wouldn’t need this baffle as I hear with my hearing aids so I thought why not use this hole to attach my hearing aid via the tube as per my normal hearing aid mould:
So I e-mailed my audiology department, who said it won’t work…
So I emailed the hearing aid company, who said it wouldn’t work…
So I e-mailed Genesis and Sepura, who said it wouldn’t work, and you guessed it…
So I e-mailed the company making the ear moulds for us, who thought it wouldn’t work but were willing to try for me.”

“When the moulds arrived I swiftly attached my hearing aids to them via the tubes directly into the baffle holes and did a radio check. The result was amazing, Hey presto, in spite of multinational companies telling me it wouldn’t work they did indeed work! I was now able to independently hear the radio communications and my surroundings through my hearing aids and it was even better than before.”

A late convert to British Sign Language, Richard started learning about 4 years ago. Despite wanting to learn BSL for some time, it was actually Richard’s wife, who is a Registered Sign Language interpreter, that finally got Richard to take the plunge. Wearing hearing aids for 16 hours a day, Richard explained how uncomfortable that can be, so he started taking them off when at home. That meant his wife could not communicate with him, so both using BSL seemed the obvious solution. Signing up for Level 1 at Harrow and then Level 2 at City Lit Richard was began using BSL at home every day, helping him learn the language quickly. Richard now uses BSL regularly in work, either through operational requirements or during the community work he undertakes as well as socially when out with Deaf friends.

Approaching 16 years with the Ambulance Service, Richard spent 9 years on ambulances and for the last 6 he has been a motorbike paramedic. Working out of Waterloo, he usually works 12 hour shifts responding to a wide range of emergency calls in Central London. “My job is to get to calls quickly,” Richard explained, “getting through the congested areas or difficult to access areas, so that I can assess and treat a patient before the ambulance arrives. When I first arrive I rely on my hearing aids combined with lip reading to do my job.”

Communication in London can be problematic in any case, with the Ambulance Service encountering over 300 languages. Richard openly explains that he is deaf and explains that he needs to deal with someone face to face, have background noise turned off, or needs people to leave the room if they are too noisy. However, being an experienced lip-reader, in very noisy environments, Richard is sometimes able to understand what someone is saying, when his hearing colleagues can not.

Keen to improve deaf awareness, Richard is a member of the London Ambulance Service Deaf Awareness Forum which was set up four years ago by one of his colleagues, Mark Weller. The Forum aims to improve deaf awareness amongst staff as well as forging links with the deaf community. Richard was asked to talk on a London Ambulance Service information video explaining the Emergency SMS service, but only agreed to do it when he was given approval to do a BSL version as well. The BSL video is still available.

An excellent advocate for the deaf community, Richard gives up a lot of his own time to visit schools, clubs and events where he gives talks about being deaf in the ambulance service, how he overcomes barriers and how he makes communication work in such a high pressured situation.

Whilst Richard’s job is literally a matter of life and death, there are also funny moments. He told me how he once attracted the attention of a group of paparazzi waiting outside a famous Mayfair Hotel, when, whilst in the act of rescuing a lady who had fallen onto a 4th floor ledge, his trousers ripped, giving the eager photographers something unexpected to focus their cameras on!

Still boyishly enthusiastic about his job, Richard gets great satisfaction from the variety his role provides. This has included attending calls to famous places like Buckingham Palace and Downing Street to being an out-rider for events such as the Olympic cycling road race and appearing on BBC’s See Hear. Communicating easily with Deaf BSL users in need of emergency medical help, Richard also smiles when people learn he can sign, but weren’t expecting it. “I went to meet my wife who was interpreting at a teenage health conference run by the National Deaf Children’s Society NDCS. While I waited, lots of teenagers and adults came out of the building. They saw me and my paramedic bike and took pictures as lots of people do, so I singed to them. Their jaws dropped and they ran to get their friends and brought them to meet me. They were amazed that I could be a paramedic with hearing aids and also that a Paramedic could sign.”

A keen advocate for the 999 SMS Service, Richard was helping people register for the service whilst at Deaf Day at City Lit. “The EmergencySMS service is an add on to the existing 999 and 18000 services that are available in the UK,” Richard told me. “Your SMS text message will be connected to 999 through the Text Relay 18000 service. A relay assistant will speak your SMS message to the 999 advisor, their reply will be sent back to you as an SMS message. If you send another SMS text message the relay assistant will read it to the 999 advisor and send their reply back to you.”

“When I first went to Deaf Day and represented the London Ambulance Service on my own, I decided to advertise EmergencySMS as it seems to be the UK’s biggest secret and I have been publicising it ever since. The EmergencySMS service enables Deaf, HoH & speech impaired to contact the four 999 services throughout the UK: Ambulance, Police, Fire Brigade and Coast Guard via a mobile phone text message. My aim is for all deaf/HoH & speech impaired people that struggle or can’t make a voice call on a mobile to register and know how to use EmergencySMS in the same way hearing people know about calling 999. I still meet people that don’t know about it so it still needs publicising.” 

Answering my question about giving advice to deaf people about first aid, Richard said, “First aid is a really important skill that everyone should have. Always remember your own safety first before helping someone else as you can’t help someone if you end up getting hurt too. Get help by making a noise or flashing a light or running to someone close by if possible. If it is a life-threatening emergency such as chest pain, breathing problems, unconscious patients, severe epilepsy or accidents then use your mobile to text 999 to EmergencySMS which I explain in this link - - When looking after a patient keep things basic with ABCs which means checking the patient’s Airway, Breathing & Circulation in that order. Always try and reassure the patient to help put them at ease while you wait for help.”

Not one to sit and do nothing for long, Richard is a keen cook and delighted in telling me about his chance meeting with his heroes, ‘the Hairy Bikers’ at a motorcycle show a few years ago. Richard is also a self-taught guitarist. He cannot read music but plays by ear, working out how to play songs by listening to them through his hearing aids and direct input shoes which give him the best sound he has ever heard by amplifying the frequencies that he can’t hear well through his hearing aids. Richard’s wife enjoys singing, so if you are lucky you might just come across them doing a gig in one of their local London pubs.

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Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / Deaf Life

20th May 2014