We would like to share with you another celebration of the achievements of deaf and hard of hearing people in our local community and today we are featuring Gwen Raggett MBE. Now a spritely 96-year-old, great grandmother, Gwen has been hard of hearing all her life though perhaps only being diagnosed during her World War II service in the Women’s Land Army aged 19. At that time, she was a charge hand for a group of 100 girls from all over the UK, working and living together in Redenham House, Weyhill near Andover. She recalls that some of the girls thought her aloof and stuck up, probably, she now realises, through her not always hearing or responding appropriately to their conversation and the tendency like many deaf people to withdraw from group social interactions. Her astute mistress and mentor noticed her behaviour and correctly ascribed it to her hearing loss rather than indifference or snobbery. Remarkably Gwen had excelled at school, even winning a scholarship to Talbot Heath Girl’s Schools that regrettably her parents barred her from taking up, partly through being unable to afford the cost of her uniform but also through a belief that a young woman’s place is in the home as a housewife and mother rather than pursuing a short-lived career. Prior to her diagnosis and the issue of smaller transistorised body worn hearing aids on the NHS, Gwen had relied on her naturally acquired ability in lip reading to follow one to one conversation. She acquired her first hearing aid in her late 30’s at the same time her younger son, George was also diagnosed with a mild hearing loss as a result of the national screening program set up in the 1950’s to identify school children with a hearing loss and hence to provide technical aids and educational settings best suited to their needs. As with many parents of deaf children then and still today, she was tenacious in her efforts to ensure the best possible outcomes for him. Of course, she had her own experience of deafness and so, well understood the issues of living and learning with hearing loss and the pros and cons of body worn hearing aids. She used this knowledge to challenge the perceptions of both medical and educational experts who did not have this first-hand life experience. Looking back, she was an early champion of raising deaf awareness in these institutions.
An interest in family history research and with support from her daughter in law led to the revelation that there is a long history of hereditary hearing loss In her family beginning with her great, great grandmother, Elizabeth Court, born in Weymouth and who was herself described as “deaf from birth” in the 1871 census when she was 39 years old, as indeed were several of her children. Prior to the 1871 census this information was not routinely recorded. Many of Gwen’s close relatives, brothers, nephews, nieces, grand and great grandchildren also developed hearing loss, seemingly starting from about 7–8 years of age. Such hereditary hearing loss is relatively uncommon, when statistically, 9 out 10 deaf children are born to hearing parents with no family history of early onset of hearing loss. Her own family would no doubt provide an interesting genetic study for this condition. Since her Land Army days from 1943–1949, Gwen has continued to dedicate herself to the service of others in the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, WRVS, (now homogenised to RVS) for over 55 years and with her work in Bournemouth Libraries Home Book service and further voluntary work with Stroke patients and their families. In 2004 Gwen received the MBE from her majesty the Queen for these services and only stopped when the Covid pandemic gave rise to local council policy of not allowing people aged over 65 to work in these voluntary capacities. Despite this, Gwen has kept herself busy corresponding with former colleagues and customers by letter, phone and occasional visits to drop off birthday and Christmas gifts. She has also been in demand to recount her personal testimony of her life in the Land Army for various projects and exhibitions to show case and record this important history for future generations. Her personal story has been included in a recently published book; “Remarkable Women of World War II” by Victoria Panton Bacon, The History Press (ISBN 978 0 7509 9996 0) Her illustrated story can also be found on the Women’s Land Army website. Gwen keeps herself up to date with the work of Wiltshire and Dorset Deaf Association that she has supported since it’s inception in 2007 and their signing choir, Significance, donating equipment and funding for social activities. She is one of many deaf and HOH people who have enriched the lives of their own families and countless others they have met in their life’s journey, ever cheerfully and uncomplainingly. All of them role models for all with any level of hearing loss that they too can contribute to their local communities and wider society when given the opportunity.
Gwen Raggett MBE