HEARING loss is not a subject to which I had ever given a great deal of thought.
I always thought it was something to worry about when I got older.
But this naive notion was soon shattered when I volunteered for an experiment to see how I would cope if I suddenly lost my hearing.
I took on the challenge set by registered hearing aid dispenser Phil Spenceley, who runs the new Specsavers Hearcare store on Market Street - the first of its kind in the town.
As part of their Hearcare training, all 30 staff, including the directors, were put though the `deafness exercise', for which they had their ears blocked and then had to attempt everyday tasks.
The exercise aimed to expose them to the difficulties experienced by the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
Phil believes this technique is an important part of staff training, to help them understand and communicate better with people who come into the store.
So he sat me down and reassured me that the test would be completely pain-free. I wasn't convinced when he showed me how he intended to impair my hearing ability.
He injected a bright-green, Playdough-like silicone solution into my ears, which set like cement within minutes.
As I strained to make out what he was saying, Phil explained that I now had the hearing age of a 65-year-old.
Then he gave me a list of tasks and sent me outside.
The world seemed really eerie.
The familiar sound of bustling street noise was suddenly blotted out and replaced with a faint murmur.
Particularly unsettling was the fact that I could hear loud thuds coming from my own feet every step I took.
For my first task I had to go into the supermarket and buy a packet of crunchy biscuits.
The checkout lady looked at me strangely, probably because I had alien-like ears. When she could see I was hard of hearing she over- emphasised every word.
Another task was to ask for directions.
This one was interesting, as the man I asked decided that the only way to make me understand him was to wave his hands around wildly.
Speaking on the phone was a challenge. Even with the speaker volume on maximum I found it difficult to hear what my poor mum was saying!
I had to eat one of my purchased biscuits - and the horrible grating sound I experienced was almost enough to put me off for life!
Other tasks I had to do included booking an eye test, buying a newspaper and asking for change and making cups of tea for Specsavers staff.
The experience was a real eye- opener.
People do treat you differently if they see you have a `disability'. I now appreciate how people who are hard of hearing may be both frustrated and insulted by this.
Phil, who was himself deaf as a baby due to illness, told me that staff reactions to the experiment varied.
Some braved the whole hour; others quit after 15 minutes.
He said: "The experience made staff much more aware of the problems many people who come into the store face.
"In fact, I think more people should take the test.
"There is much less stigma attached to hearing loss nowadays. Hearing aids are smaller and can be quite trendy, as they now come in a range of colours.
"Hearing is an area most people tend to forget about. They don't generally have it checked in the same way they do their eyesight.
"But, unlike our eyes, our ears function 24 hours a day. So it is vital we take optimum care of them and have regular check-ups."
* Anyone can suffer from hearing loss, including young children, people who work in a noisy atmosphere, and people who have had some types of medical treatment.
* Some 9m people in the UK could benefit from hearing aids, compared to 2m who actually have them.
* Of the 2m who have hearing aids 500,000 admit to not wearing them!
* Hearing loss is a gradual process that may not be noticed until significant loss has happened.
* It is important to have regular checks; once every two years for the under-40s and once a year for the over-40s.