A tribute to Chester

Many colleagues who I have met at meetings, conferences, etc, will have met my beautiful hearing dog, Chester.

He is still very much with us – to clear that up straight away – but I no longer have him.

Giving Chester up was the hardest decision I have ever made. It’s difficult to explain but I would like to try. I want to pay tribute to a wonderful dog and companion, and to draw some closure under what was and still is a difficult and painful choice.

I applied for a hearing dog when I’d just finished university, in 2008. I was living alone, low in confidence, and missing everyday sounds like the doorbell. The waiting list was almost five years. When I got Chester in 2013 it was a wonderful surprise; it’d been such a long time. I’d moved house, had a partner (who loved dogs). He slotted in straightaway and became a wonderful companion and help. He was so well-behaved (although cheeky, especially around food!) and got on with everybody he met. I had to take him to Newcastle, including an overnight stay in a hotel, and to London, within weeks of getting him. I’ll never get over how calm he was on the tube, not even blinking when a train pulled in to the station. He caused a lot of raised eyebrows and laughs when I carried him on the escalators!

chester 1
A day in the office

He also helped me to feel truly okay about my deafness. I’d always been unsure or apologetic. Now that I had him there as a badge, all the time, it felt like a weight had been lifted. If any access problems arose I became very assertive; for example, I had some issues with certain people at my workplace not understanding the legal requirements to give an assistance dog access. I learned to – politely and clearly – state my needs and any relevant obligations. Chester helped me – and I helped him; we went for wonderful walks and runs together. He was a real outdoors dog and loved nothing more than sniffing for badger sets and (very unsuccessfully) chasing rabbits.

chester MPs
Meeting MPs at the House of Commons
chester 2
After the morning run

Although Chester helped me enormously, as the years wore on, I could never quite shake off the feeling that somebody else could benefit from him more. I’d received a second cochlear implant in 2010 and my hearing was getting better and better (it’s a long way off perfect, but I say that I ‘hear pretty well for a deaf person’). And, paradoxically, as I grew more accepting of my deafness, it felt it was less a part of me. I contacted the charity to explain my doubts and they offered a trial separation. I must add that these are extremely rare in the advanced stages of a partnerships. He went on the 21st September: his 5th birthday. I cried so hard, then felt a sense of calm. I didn’t know what would happen but I knew that I needed to try this.

I must stress here that having an assistance dog is a hugely personal choice, and that this blog post is in no way making a connection between hearing ability and the decision to – or need for – an assistance dog. For my part I am and always will be profoundly deaf.

To cut a long story short, I said that Chester should go to somebody else. He has another 5-6 working years left and he will be a blessing to whoever gets him. I had three wonderful years with Chester and he increased my confidence so much. They were not wasted years in any sense. He came everywhere with me, my little doggy sidekick, and made me feel it was okay to be just me, to be deaf. And dogs are wonderful, aren’t they? I’d never had one before getting Chester. They love unconditionally. They make you go out walking – rain, wind, or sun – and meeting people. You know most other dog owners by the names of their dogs, not the person. Chester was the most amazing alarm clock. He’d jump straight on the bed and paw me awake, knowing that another joyous day was just beginning, starting with a run outside and a large plate of biscuits!

Not having him is still strange. The house felt so quiet and empty for weeks. I do miss the doorbell occasionally. I have to buy special equipment, such as a flashing smoke alarm, and alarm clock (which I miss sometimes as I roll off the pillow it’s set to vibrate under!) Most of all, my identify without Chester feels different. The day after he went I had to go to a conference and I missed a lot of conversation. I realised that it was no longer obvious to people and I would have to start telling them once more. But I have the confidence to do so, whereas before I had Chester I did not. And that’s his wonderful legacy.

I still miss him every day but I am so thankful that I had him, and I’m truly gratified that he is going to be somebody else’s ears and companion.

Thank you, my lovely Chester.

chester books
A true library dog

chester

My mini survival guide to being deaf at a conference

I recently went to the UKSG 2016 conference, and it was pretty darned good. There are lots of excellent blog posts on it, including this one from the NLPN team, and myself and the other student/Early Career Professional award winners will shortly have an article out in the UKSG journal, Insights.

The UKSG conferences are huge. I mean, seriously – they attract nearly 1000 delegates from all over the world. The keynote speeches are held in a great big hall with a podium and video streaming, and the break-out sessions took place in a wide variety of teaching spaces. I met lots of librarians and information professionals, chatted to vendors and publishers, and attended social events. So what’s it like doing all of the above with less-than-perfect hearing? Here is my mini survival guide to being deaf at a conference.

  1. Preparation is king – hearing relies on guesswork. You need to know what’s going on around you. Familiarise yourself with the timetable; ask questions about the venue set-up; sort out travel routes in advance. Basically, take away any potential source of stress. Always pack loads of spare food and a hip flask. (Okay – the latter doesn’t strictly relate to hearing).

    Make Robert Baden-Powell proud
    Make Robert Baden-Powell proud
  2. Get to places early – bag the best seats. Sit where you can lipread, see the screen, take notes comfortably. An added bonus is that you look really keen – and speakers love people who sit near the front and look attentive. Major good karma alert.
  3. Tell people what works – if you’re with a group of people who want to sit at the back, just tell them! I found that once I explained, people were happy to sit nearer the front. I found that the vendor meetings were in a really noisy hall and many demos involved looking away from me at a computer screen. Again, I had to explain. It can be tedious – but the person you’re speaking to doesn’t know that you’ve already told ten people that day you can’t hear that great and need to lipread. So, keep smiling. It gets easier with time.
  4. Find the great communicators – some people are just ace at communicating. They speak clearly and concisely, and they usually keep conversation flowing in a group. They’re great people to chat to if you’re feeling a bit out of the loop, especially in a social situation – ask them a few simple questions and you’ll soon be back into the swing of things.
  5. Prioritise – and keep your chin up – no matter how well you prepare and advocate, you will probably still miss things. It sucks, but focus in what you can hear and experience. Conferences are mind-expanding places full of people with shared yet varied experiences. Ideas will pop into your head at random moments – ideas that you never thought were possible until now. Soak it up, and enjoy it. And my final tip…
  6. Employ stealth tactics – if all else fails, and you’re really struggling to follow a session, try following the conference hashtag on Twitter. If you can tweet to a few people in the session, even better – you will feel more connected again. Ask LOADS of questions: it’s great to be proactive and show an interest in others – and if you shape a conversation, you will have a better chance of following it. In social events, drink wine.
Ninjas
Ninjas! by Fiona Moore, available under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

 

 

 

Can a profoundly deaf person learn to sing (well)?

I’m taking a break from professional issues this Christmas to write about a very personal, special journey. I hope that my experience is useful to others as I found very little information when I started my exploration into voice production and deafness.

Voice – it’s a very personal issue, but how much do you really think about it? You open your mouth, the words come out. You may think about what you say, how you say it – but what about the mechanics of voice production? It’s something I’ve been interested in (to an almost obsessive extent) for some years.

I am profoundly deaf and my parents brought me up to function in a hearing world. I can lipread pretty well, don’t know any sign language, and communicate aurally and orally, using my ears and my voice. I’ve had feedback over the years that my voice is a bit… different. Well, it’s bound to be, isn’t it? Until I was 14 I wore hearingaids, and I could hardly hear myself speaking. As a result I used to produce sound very far back in the throat, and push a lot of air out through my nose as I spoke. This produced useful resonant feedback so I could tell a) that I was actually producing sound, and b) how loudly I was speaking.

I had a lot of speech therapy as a young ‘un, and, as an adult in my early twenties, I elected to go back. It was an emotional journey, with a wonderful therapist called Patricia, and I learned a lot about efficient voice production and how to produce different speech sounds clearly. I know my fricatives from my alveolars! In my sessions we used to talk about ‘coming forward’ – raising where the sound is produced in the throat, and projecting it clearly out of the mouth. I had an extremely weak soft palate and was given exercises to strengthen it, such as sucking and blowing through a straw, humming different vowel sounds, and humming songs into a glass of water (I quickly learned not to overfill the glass!)

I have two cochlear implants, which provide me with a sense of sound. I don’t hear through my ears. I hear through microphones, which transmit to magnets on the side of my head. The signals are pushed through to the internal implant. I have twelve electrodes, which play over and over, like a xylophone (these electrodes replace the missing hair cells in my inner ear, which can number up to the tens of thousands in a hearing individual). The resulting sound was very ‘robotic’ to begin with, like a series of beeps and buzzes, but over time the brain naturalises it. Learning to hear with an implant is hard work – it’s not like putting on a pair of glasses, where the sight is immediately corrected. 

I have always been musical. I started playing the clarinet aged eight and the piano a few years later, and have taken several music examinations. Last January I took the plunge and started attending singing lessons. I have never, in all my life, felt confident about my voice, about standing up in front of a group of people and talking (and believe me, I really do love talking!)

Lego opera singer
Lego opera singer by Ted Drake, available under a CC BY-ND 2.0 licence.
I discovered that I could hear pitch very well. I can hear the difference between notes, and the sharp and flat, with no problems. I even did a ‘tone deaf’ test and scored 100% – all thanks to my marvellous cochlear implants. But tuning my own voice has been difficult and frustrating and tiring, and ultimately wonderful as I gradually and oh so slowly get better at it. I have a piano at home which I use to tune, and my excellent singing teacher produces ‘phrase copies’ where I can sing along to sections of songs that she has recorded. It really helps to have a teacher with a singing range similar to mine (soprano). I have decided to take my first singing examination in 2016. I’ve set up a little music studio in my spare room where I sing, speak, hum to my heart’s content. I’m finally using my voice, and getting joy from it.

Can I sing?

Yes.

Can I sing well?

I do not know if I can reach the standard to pass a singing examination, but I’m having a lot of fun finding out. And that is a gift in itself.