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."
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