Sound Advice at the Ear Foundation: going back to the start

Last Saturday was an incredibly special day for me. I woke up very early, and I was really excited to be going back to the Ear Foundation in Nottingham. This was the same place where I went for the intensive rehabilitation programme run by Hearing Link a year ago for people with a severe to profound hearing loss, and I had returned home feeling like a different person with renewed optimism and confidence.

Susan Hamrouge (the lady in the red dress in the photo) had invited me. She had been the facilitator on the Hearing Link course a year ago. She had asked me to talk about my own experience at a ‘Sound Advice Adult Day’, which was about peoples’ personal experiences of deafness. Susan works as a speech and language therapist and is a Director of the company ‘Sound Practice’ in Stoke-on-Trent. She has been a great support and friend to me over the last year, helping me with my talk and building up my confidence to deliver it in public.

The Ear Foundation is a charity which was founded in 1989 by Gerry O’Donoghue, a surgeon and Barry McCormick, an audiological scientist, to fund and provide children with cochlear implants, which were not available to children in this country until then. The first child, Michael Batt, was implanted the same year in an operation funded by Mrs Marjorie Sherman, who the main Ear Foundation building is named after. Since then the work of the Ear Foundation has expanded to what it is today, providing a bridge between cochlear implant centres in hospitals where the operations are carried out, and homes, schools and work where they are used. They now provide support, education, advocacy and lobbying to mainly children but increasingly also adult cochlear implant users.

There were about thirty-five people there, some with hearing aids, others with cochlear implants and also BSL users. I was asked to talk after the first speaker, Jan Sanderson (the other lady in the photo). Jan is a Programme Support Volunteer for Hearing Link, who I had also met on the programme a year earlier. When I listened to her talk then I had felt really moved and inspired by her story. She described how she had hit rock bottom when she had lost her hearing twelve years ago shortly before her daughter’s wedding. It had turned her life upside down and that of her husband and family too. She had spent eight years living in a world of total silence. Eventually, she had decided to turn her life around and she had a cochlear implant. She has devoted her life to helping other people affected by the deeply emotional impact of hearing loss and helping to raise deaf awareness.

Jan has worked on over fifty intensive rehabilitation programmes with Hearing Link, working closely with people with severe to profound acquired hearing loss. She described the joy she feels when she sees people gradually change over the course of the week from feeling depressed and isolated when they arrive to being much more positive and confident when they leave.

When I listened to Jan, I felt that I was no longer isolated and I felt a lot more inspired and empowered to go out and transform a very negative experience into something positive. Jan is a very warm, empathetic and down-to-earth person, who has had a big positive impact on my life since I met her and she is a true friend to me.

After my talk, there was a really interesting talk by a Deaf BSL user called Gloria. She signed so fluently and quickly that the BSL interpreter couldn’t keep up with her! She described how her Deaf parents brought her up and she went to a deaf school, but that her husband is hearing and while some of her children are deaf, others are hearing. She has led a very interesting life and has worked in Uganda for two years, helping to set up a deaf school there. She described how poor and difficult life is there, particularly for deaf children, who are often shunned and ignored by society.

Since returning to the UK, Gloria has been very actively campaigning for greater accessibility for Deaf BSL users in public buildings such as hospitals and within the NHS. Her current campaign is to help BSL users report crimes to the police when they often cannot communicate with them and explain what has happened. She has helped produce a brochure with some basic BSL signs to help the Nottingham police force understand and communicate with Deaf victims of crime, and she campaigns for BSL interpreters in public places.

Gloria’s talk led to a big debate among the group about accessibility to NHS services and the police among D/deaf and hard of hearing people. Everyone in the group agreed that many people working in the NHS and public services were  not very deaf-aware, and this made accessibility very difficult. They shared their personal stories of how difficult it was to attend GP and hospital appointments on their own because of problems understanding the doctors and communicating with them. Jan added that it had been her mission to improve communication and accessibility in public places for people with hearing loss by campaigning for change.

I personally feel really passionate about raising deaf awareness in hospitals and public services too as they are frequently inaccessible. For example, last week I had to go for a scan in a major London hospital and I was faced with a two-way intercom system to gain access to the building, which I couldn’t hear. This means that in future, I need to take someone else with me to help me gain access. I have recently given talks to audiologists in London about understanding the communication needs of deaf and hard of hearing patients, and hopefully after hearing my talk, they will try to become more deaf-aware.

I was keen to leave shortly after lunch as it was Cup Final Day and I wanted to get back home to see my team, the mighty Manchester City, wipe the floor with the lowly Wigan. I was sad to leave as I had met some amazing people who I had learned a lot from, but I was looking forward to seeing City lift the Cup. However, after seeing the shocking result of Man City 0, Wigan 1, I wished I had stayed in Nottingham where there was a lot more passion on display than among the Manchester Blues!

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