A deaf man's best friend

Those with hearing loss miss out on texts arriving, the banter in the pub – and the fire alarm. But specially trained dogs can transform their lives, as Gillian Orr discovered when she spent a day without sound

Walking down a street in Hammersmith on a Tuesday morning, the hustle and bustle of a standard London day makes for a pretty typical picture. Van drivers are unloading their wares, families chat and laugh outside cafés, and double-decker buses whizz by on the road. But all I can hear is a faint din.

Earlier that day I made a trip to an ear specialist who fitted a device that simulates mild deafness. But it certainly doesn't feel mild. I am completely disorientated. It is as if someone has created a vacuum by placing a giant glass jar over my whole body. I can see what is happening around me yet I'm entirely removed from it all.

I've come to meet Philip Biggs, who works for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, a charity that provides life-changing services to the deaf. This week, its awareness campaign is launched and it is hoping to raise money for the non-Government- funded charity by having people sponsored to experience for a day what it's like to approach life without the full use of their hearing. "Hearing loss is probably one of the least understood disabilities," says Philip. "And people tend not to make allowances for you because it's invisible."

Hearing loss is on the rise in the UK and now one in six people suffer some form of deafness. The charity wants to highlight this often misunderstood impairment, one that often triggers feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Philip knows all about this. He suffered profound hearing loss 21 years ago at the age of 39. He still doesn't know exactly why it happened; it has been suggested that he contracted a bacterial infection that destroyed the nerve endings in his inner ear. It happened quickly and without warning. In the space of three months, he went from having perfect hearing to only the most residual.

Today he wears a hearing aid and has mastered the art of lip-reading. But perhaps his biggest assistance has come in the form of a nine-year-old labrador retriever cross called Marsh. For the last seven-and-a-half years, Marsh has been a central part of his life. Not only does he alert Philip when his phone and email goes off, but he shows him when someone is at the door and, rather more crucially, if a fire alarm has sounded. Fifteen years ago while on a work trip, the kitchen of his hotel caught fire in the night and all the guests had to be evacuated. Philip only found out about the fire the next morning at breakfast; he had slept through the alarm. Fortunately the fire was not too serious, but it worried Philip. With Marsh, he no longer has to feel scared of travelling on his own.

A renewed sense of independence is really one of the main qualities a hearing dog can bring to its owner. When Philip suffered his hearing loss he had been in the police force for 22 years. Because it was prior to the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, he was immediately dismissed from his job.

"Marsh gives me confidence to perform in what is predominantly a hearing world," he tells me. "It allows me to claw back a little bit of independence. I can work on my own, I can react to sounds that I can't hear and I can live my life as normally as possible because of him. I love him as a dog but he's also an integral part of how I live my life. If he's not with me I don't panic but I feel a little bit nervous, a little bit insecure. Marsh doesn't judge me; he just gets on with his job, alerting me to sounds that reconnect me with the hearing world."

Hearing dogs are trained from birth but it can be a lengthy procedure. They are socialised for the first 12 months of their lives before undergoing intensive training for 16-18 weeks. The dogs are taught specific actions for different alerts. When a noise sounds, Marsh will sit in front of Philip and put his paw on his leg. Marsh will then act out the corresponding alert. Marsh will physically take him to the door or to his phone (which is text-only), and for a fire or smoke alarm, he will lie down flat on the floor.

While the 2010 Equality Act means that all assistance dogs are legally allowed to accompany the owners wherever they go (with some exceptions such as hospitals), Philip says that hearing dogs are often not made the same allowances as guide dogs, blaming a lack of awareness.

"We're all raised with guide dogs and know about them," he says. "We can still see signs that say no dogs are welcome except for guide dogs. That causes some problems and staff don't always know that they have to let my dog in. I need him and, in any case, it's illegal [not to let him in]."

Fortunately we have no problem taking Marsh into a café. I try and order drinks, focusing on the server's lips, acutely aware of my own voice. People are chatting all around me but I can't really make anything out. Unable to join in, I feel a bit invisible. Philip's wife Judy turns to me and says: "You're playing the part well. You look completely out of your comfort zone." And it's true, I am.

"Hearing loss disconnects you from people," says Philip. "You've no longer got the wit, the sarcasm, the humour, the punch lines of jokes. You can't chat in a corridor after a meeting; you don't go down the pub with your mates any more because you miss out on the banter. Without normal communication you remain on the edge of social inclusion. What we try and make people understand is that a dog can actually reconnect you to sounds; it is absolutely life-changing. You isolate yourself because you can't perform in the hearing world. But if you can somehow remove some of that isolation, then everything becomes sunny again."

hearingdogs.org.uk/deaf-for-the-day

justgiving.com/deaffortheday

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

    Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

    Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

    £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

    £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital