A new set of ears

After writing a couple of articles on deafness, which have focussed primarily on the challenges and continued struggle for equality, I wanted to finish off with a positive piece that highlights the improvements and positive changes.

My wife Zana has struggled due to her Deafness throughout her life and has constantly relied upon others for assistance with mundane tasks that we take for granted. This in turn can be a disheartening experience, resulting in loss of confidence and independence (which is likely to be common amongst many who suffer with a disability).

However, she has been incredibly fortunate with a solution that aims to improve her quality of life. I’m sure that for many people the mention of disability and assistance conjures up images of guide dogs for the visually impaired. I doubt that many of you will have encountered or heard about ‘Hearing Dogs for Deaf People’ though.

Zana applied for such assistance on Star Wars day (May the Fourth) five years ago. She was told at the time it would likely be a long wait due to their increasing demand by hearing impaired people and the small numbers of dogs fully trained to fulfil this role. Her rationale for one was that she relied upon our kids and me to be her ears for so long, meaning that when the kids start to fly the nest there’d be times when she was at home by herself. Isolation is a common issue faced by many with a disability.

In this instance an assistance dog is trained to become the hearing-impaired person’s guide to important sounds. Upon hearing such sounds the dogs alert them to this by ‘nudging’ the recipient and usually also taking them to where this sound has come from by use of a specific gesture.

This would then enable Zana to know such things as somebody knocking the door or ringing the doorbell; the cooker timer sounding to signify food is cooked; an alarm clock telling her to wake up or a smoke alarm informing her of possible danger. Despite realising that this would potentially mean my own P45 (as many of these tasks I have provided over the years), it was one I supported 100%.

Five long years later, Zana now has her assistance dog; Flora. The wait itself was not helped by COVID-19 (yet another way it impacted our daily life) and her insistence that she wanted a cute, brown Cockapoo! Other brands for assistance dogs are available; Poodles, Cocker Spaniels and Labradors, however she knew I’m still uneasy with larger dogs (following numerous incidents as a boy) and thus a Labrador might not work.

The long wait was also down to numerous, detailed questionnaires and vetting processes to ensure that each assistance dog is matched very closely to the person’s needs and personalities. You wouldn’t necessarily think about that at first, but it enables and ensures as close a bond between a hearing dog and Deaf person as possible. Now that Flora has become a member of the family I can see some similar traits between them, such as Flora carefully walking around muddy puddles as neither likes getting their feet/shoes dirty or both having an early evening nap as they get tired from their continuous concentration (Zana having to lip read everyone and Flora to remain ‘on call’ in case she is needed).

Being the recipient of an assistance dog also makes you aware of how incredibly hard they all work for the benefit of the disabled person they bond with. Like most dogs, Flora appears to spend a considerable time asleep in her bed(s). However, it only takes the slightest sound or movement form Zana and she’s alert and next to her. She’s constantly amazed at how good Flora’s hearing is, immediately raising from her seemingly dreamlike state by simply detecting the slight noise of Zana moving in a chair. 

Assistance dogs can accompany the individual they’re helping everywhere they go. They usually wear the same jacket that you’re familiar with for guide dogs, although Flora being the diva that she is refuses to wear hers but seems to tolerate a bandana! Because they need to be alert whilst working, people should not pet or attempt to play with them as this would distract them – a fact that she’s finding she needs to remind some work colleagues.

We’re currently training Flora to respond to the necessary sounds that’ll help Zana. Using a ‘toy squeaker’, she is rewarded with a treat each time she nudges Zana upon hearing the sound. Now that she’s got used to this, we’re using the same principle to introduce the actual sounds we need her to respond to, such as an alarm clock or cooker timer. Each successful and correct nudge gets rewarded with a single small piece of biscuit or food.

Even in a very short space of time it’s wonderful to see the impact that Flora has had on Zana. She’s more aware of visitors coming to the door or one of us arriving back after work. She also doesn’t worry as much about oversleeping now and it brings a big smile on her face to be woken up by Flora excitedly jumping on the bed, licking her face and seeking a belly rub. She feels more aware of colleagues coming or going in the office and the visual sight of Flora serves as a reminder to others who might forget her inability to hear.

All of this enables her to feel more included and able to be more independent, reducing feelings of isolation and improving confidence.

Stuart Collins, Financial Accountant at Black Country Housing Group

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