August 2016

Hear, Hear

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.


  1. I couldn't agree more. I'm mid-forties, my hearing is OK, but I've always found noisy environments tricky, and that's worsening as I age: in fact, I've just whinged about it, not for the first time.

    Additionally, I fall into the category you mention in the last paragraph: I'm not registered disabled, but can't stand for long periods, tend to need to lean on something when standing (so crowds of people standing at the bar ar a huge pain (literally)), find the chairs at posing tables incredibly uncomfortable, and find carrying more than 1 drink up and down stairs impossible, as I need a free hand. Modern pubs (or modern refurbs) can be bad in many ways for me...

  2. I agree on the disability comments. My wife has limited mobility, but is not always in a wheelchair. In the pub descriptions it would be nice to have more categories. For example, ground floor bathroom rather than only limiting the description to a fully wheelchair accessible bathroom. Another example is number of steps. We can manage one step, but not two or three. One step access would help a lot of people with mobility issues know whether they can enter a pub. When we first visit a town our first step is to visit all the GBG pubs to determine which ones work for us on our holiday.

  3. As a hearing-aid wearer I say hear hear!

    Acoustic design is another area where Wetherspoon score highly: no jukebox or piped muzak, carpets and sufficient sound-absorbent furnishings to keep ambient noise levels low enough for conversation.

    I have suggested acoustic design to landlords of two local pubs, but they say that carpet-less floors and blinds instead of curtains are more hygienic and easier to clean. I suspect that they're not really bothered about "a few deaf gits" - even though other customers have to yell at each other to make themselves heard.

    Maybe all the customers constantly tapping their phones are communicating with each other by txt?

  4. Just a quick note of appreciation re "Hear Hear" last month. Spot on.

    Maybe CAMRA should re-focus itself as the Campaign for Real Pubs?

    I've been reminiscing over Macclesfield's lost pubs with other "oldies" in my local, which has photos of Macc's erstwhile watering holes on the walls. We were wondering if CAMRA could create or sponsor something like a "lost / closed / re-developed pubs" layer in Google Maps that would show their locations on smart-phones? Like a Pokemon Go for real people..


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