Jo Milne, who made headlines around the world after undergoing life-changing surgery to have cochlear implants fitted to hear for the first time in forty years, has joined forces with a north east bus company to launch an innovative and unique campaign to improve awareness of hidden disabilities such as sensory loss, chronic pain and mental health.
The campaigner and author from Gateshead, who has Usher Syndrome, shared her emotional experience of listening to the first sounds of music and words to audiences of millions across the UK and worldwide. The YouTube clip of the moment Jo heard for the first time instantly went viral, touching hearts across the globe. With so many people unaware of the reason behind the implants, since that day Jo has been working tirelessly to improve awareness of hidden disabilities such as deafblindness.
While overwhelmed at being able to hear at last, Jo’s condition means that she is now losing her sight and knows all too well the challenges that many people face every day as they travel around the region. Keen to improve understanding for those with conditions like her own when using buses and trains, she contacted local public transport operators in April last year, including Stagecoach North East, to explore possible ideas and support for a campaign.
Jo said: “As Usher Syndrome is virtually unheard of, I felt there needed to be a campaign to change perceptions of hidden disability from a different angle and a hard hitting approach. Since my diagnosis of Usher Syndrome 12 years ago, I felt so alone due to lack of awareness, even my own GP had to Google information on Usher Syndrome.
“I myself have faced challenges on public transport and there's still a long way to go regarding hidden disability. I've always believed the general public and public transport staff aren't being ignorant or hurting our feelings, it's because they simply don't know. Once someone is aware, it stays with them and people are very keen to understand if companies teach them.”
The challenges facing people with hidden disabilities, especially when using public transport, can be distressing, as Jo explains: “We are all at fault with stereotyping disability and judge people by what we see. For me Usher Syndrome means I am deafblind yet if someone were to watch me board a bus or train using a white cane, and then start reading a newspaper or using my mobile phone to text, the look of disbelief is so obvious! Not all deafblind people 'look' deafblind and it's the same with chronic pain, mental health and various hidden disabilities. This impacts our daily life and can make you feel like a 'fake' and lowers self esteem. It's hard enough living our disabilities and then to face added challenges can make it tough.”
When Stagecoach North East responded to the request, Jo wanted to know how the local bus operator was training drivers to understand hidden disabilities and the impact these have on people’s travel experiences. While delighted to hear this was covered in the driver induction programme alongside on-going training for all bus drivers, she was quick to offer her help and support with improving awareness and the Stagecoach team jumped at the chance to bring Jo on-board.
Working in partnership with the marketing team at Stagecoach North East to create a series of thought-provoking designs, the result has been a new internal campaign ‘Challenging perceptions’ which uses eye-catching posters asking drivers not to judge customers on what they can see. The posters will be displayed around the company’s six north east depots and focus on three of the main types of hidden disability; sensory (sight and hearing problems), anxiety disorders and chronic pain conditions.
Launching the campaign at Walkergate bus depot in Newcastle, Jo said: ‘Stagecoach has fully supported my campaign from day one and we made a pact to make this happen.I think the posters are absolutely fantastic. When I saw the finished designs, they actually shocked me at how powerful they are, which is exactly what we set out to do.We have had some excellent feedback so far and I think these posters deliver a great visual message and offer real impact, and I am excited to hear the response from the drivers as the campaign gets underway.
“I am delighted with the support from Stagecoach North East and honoured to be involved. I don’t believe that a campaign which highlights Usher Syndrome and with an aim to change people’s perceptions of hidden disability has been done before in the UK. We live in a society that does try its best to respect and understand one another. I hope this opens one's mind to the world and the many different people living in it, before making hasty judgments. Not all disability is visible but attitudes and lack of awareness are".
Paul Bradley, Stagecoach North East Training and Development Manager, said: “Our training has been developed to help our drivers understand the challenges faced by many of our customers every day. When Jo got in touch, we could see real value in using her experiences and expertise to help us devise an original, creative and high impact campaign to serve as a prominent reminder of this training.”