Magical words from a grandson: After 25 years of silence, Lord Ashley can hear again thanks to a new implant

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The Independent Online
WHEN Jack Ashley first returned to the Commons after losing his hearing in 1968, he was appalled by his helplessness. 'As speakers made their points, there was for me total and unbelievable silence. Each Member on his feet appeared to be miming . . . At that moment I felt in my heart that I had begun a lifetime of tomb-like silence. I took a final look around the Chamber before leaving for home and my family, and to prepare for my resignation.'

He did not resign, and went on to 24 more years as an MP, in which he made himself one of the country's leading campaigners for the disabled and disadvantaged, before transferring his activities last year to the Lords. If total deafness was an obstacle, he overcame it with determination.

Now the most famous deaf person in Britain is rediscovering sound. Out walking recently with his four-year-old grandson, Harry, he remarked on some flies on a pond. 'I wasn't looking at him, but I heard him say, 'They're not flies]' It was magical.'

Mostly he does not hear words, only indistinct sounds which he is learning to use as a supplement to lip-reading. 'I'm beginning to hear again. It's like hearing a short-wave radio signal from 1,000 miles away. You can just hear something, and the longer you listen the more you can make out.'

The secret behind this change is a device set into the bone behind his ear, with a tail about two inches long leading into the inner ear. This is called a cochlear implant.

It works like this: a microphone worn behind the ear picks up sounds and relays them by wire to a 'speech processor', like a small personal stereo carried in the pocket. This selects sounds useful for understanding speech and relays them, via a transmitter above the ear. From there the code goes to the implant where the sounds are converted into electrical signals and sent to 22 electrodes along the tail, which curls into the inner ear. These signals travel to the brain where, all being well, they are recognised as sound.

It is the last stage that Lord Ashley's brain, for so long unused to interpreting sound signals, is having to re-learn. Moreover, the signals it receives are not the ones it knew before. 'There are just 22 electrodes in the implant and they can't substitute for the thousands of hair cells in the inner ear which would normally do the job. The sound is inevitably very distorted.'

To learn how to understand this distorted sound, he is attending regular rehabilitation sessions at the Middlesex Hospital, where the operation was carried out.

In two months he has made great progress. In his living room in Epsom, Surrey, he gives a demonstration. He closes his eyes, and at his request I say a sentence slowly: 'I had a terrible journey here.' What he hears, he explains, is something like: 'I ha te jen he.' When he hears it again, eyes still closed, he works out what I have really said.

It has not been easy. When the implant was first switched on, on 27 July, he was bitterly disappointed. 'Pure gobbledegook,' he scribbled. 'Just Pz-Pz-Pz-Pz - no resemblance to the human voice.' By 9 August, his notes show, the situation was transformed: 'Couldn't believe it possible that I followed Pauline (Lady Ashley) recounting the events of an average day for some 80 per cent of the time. I could anticipate one or two things - like the things we had for breakfast - but others were by no means obvious.' And there has been progress since then. One morning recently he was busy turning on the device when Lady Ashley asked: 'Is it all right?' Without looking up he replied: 'Yes.'

He is enjoying surprising his friends - 'Bloody hell, you heard me]' said one recently - but among his greatest pleasures is a sporting one. He says that the last voice he heard before going deaf in 1968 was that of the rugby league commentator Eddie Waring. Waring has died, but now Lord Ashley is listening to the rugby commentaries again.

'I can just pick up a few words - 'a wonderful pass' and 'that breakthrough was superb',' he says. He has also taken a liking to the presenter Eddie Hemmings. 'It's almost a circular thing, back through Rugby League and with a bloke who looks just like Eddie Waring.'

His voice, which he himself was unable to hear for so long, has also changed. In the past it was sometimes flat and sometimes sing-song; now he speaks with better intonation and modulation.

He is using that voice to drum up support in Parliament for money to make the operation available to all who could benefit from it. 'Any totally or severely deaf person who needs a cochlear implant should have one. It's up to the district health authorities and the Government to make this possible,' he says. To date, the Government has funded six centres to carry out implants for three years, but that money runs out next April.

About 250 implants have been carried out in Britain in the past decade at a cost of pounds 25,000 each, and official figures suggest that another 5,000 people could benefit from them. This includes most people who are totally or severely deaf, with the exception of adults who were born deaf.

According to Graham Fraser, Lord Ashley's surgeon at the Middlesex, after the age of six people who have never known speech are usually not capable of developing it.

Lord Ashley believes implants could transform the lives of the great majority of severely deaf people.

But he has never let deaf issues dominate his life. Tomorrow the House of Lords resumes business after the summer recess and he has a question on the first day's order paper. It is about British nuclear test veterans.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)