Thursday, March 25, 2010

Barking up the right tree with new breed of hearing aid

Barking up the right tree with new breed of hearing aid

Emma McAuley is the first person in the Republic to benefit from the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People scheme

DUBLINER EMMA McAuley became the first person in the Republic to use a specially trained hearing dog to act as her ears when Chester came into her life last year.

Chester is a two-year-old “cockerpoo”, a cross between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle, who was bred by the UK-based Hearing Dogs for Deaf People organisation and underwent extensive training to prepare him for his life as a working dog.

McAuley explains that Chester was placed with a “socialiser” at the age of two months where he was trained in basic commands and being walked on a lead, and got used to being around people. He then passed his first assessment and proceeded to a four-month-long sound work training programme with Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.

“It was at the end of this four months that our own partnership was formed. I went over to one of their training centres in Yorkshire, the Beatrice Wright Training Centre, where I spent five days learning how to handle Chester in public and private, to give commands correctly, how to groom him and what his daily care routine consisted of. It was hard work but we bonded straight away, so this made things much easier and very enjoyable, with a lot of laughs.”

Since January 2009, Chester has been her constant companion, waking her up in the morning when the alarm clock goes off by pawing at the duvet, and he alerts her when the mobile phone, the doorbell or the cooker timer rings or when a colleague calls her in the office.

“He does this by coming and touching me with his paw and then taking me to the source of sound. He is also trained to alert me to the smoke/fire alarm and burglar alarm, both at home, in work and in public places. With these sounds he alerts me and then drops to the ground which tells me it is a danger sound.”

Chester does not moult, which is important for the office and clinical environment McAuley works in as an audiologist with the DeafHear organisation. “It is important that he does not have an effect on someone who might have an allergy to dogs,” she points out.

She has a severe hearing loss but gets a lot of benefit from the use of two hearing aids. “However, I find it very difficult to understand speech when I am not lip reading the person,” she says. “I enjoy my music, but probably more from the melodies and various instrumental sounds as opposed to the actual lyrics.”

Chester has accompanied her to the National Concert Hall and the cinema, to see Christy Moore in Vicar Street, to the Olympia, and all around the city, as well as on flights to England.

“He is loved by staff and clients alike. He is especially popular with children and he is a credit to his socialisers and trainers with how well he behaves.”

McAuley’s deafness developed as a child because of a hereditary condition which also affected her mother’s family.

“My father, being a doctor, was aware of the chance that I too might develop a hearing loss. Thankfully, he made sure that I had regular hearing tests and when tested as a nine year old it became apparent that I had developed a mild/moderate hearing loss in both ears. I was fitted with my first hearing aid when I started secondary school at the age of 12.”

When she moved from junior to senior school at Alexandra College, she found it difficult to cope in larger classes and dealing with a specific teacher for each subject. At the end of her second year she moved to a class of just eight at Pembroke School.

“All the teachers were made aware of my hearing loss and always made sure that I never fell behind in my school work. It was because of their good teaching skills and dedication in encouraging their students that I left in 1989 with my Leaving Certificate and went on to study and qualify as an accounting technician in Portobello Business College.”

When she finished college she attended a DeafHear course on coping strategies for hearing loss, her first experience of meeting other people with a similar condition.

“It made me realise that I wasn’t the only pebble on the beach when it came to hearing loss and gradually over the following years my confidence to talk about my own deafness increased. Support services have improved greatly in the past 15-20 years but there are many, many hard-of-hearing/deaf people out there who are not aware of the support services that exist.”

DeafHear provides a range of support services for deaf and hard-of-hearing people and their families, friends and colleagues.

McAuley has worked with the organisation since 1997 when she joined it as an administrator before qualifying as an audiologist five years ago, a role she now combines with being team leader for the Dublin South Resource Centre, covering south Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare.

She has seen an improvement in services for deaf people. Some cinemas are now providing subtitled films, although screenings are at unsociable times.

“Just because a film is subtitled doesn’t stop other people going to see that showing, and subtitles benefit not just deaf and hard-of-hearing people but also those whose first language is not English.

“On the plus side, places like the National Gallery of Ireland really do make an effort to include deaf and hard-of- hearing people. Once every two months they put on a tour of a selection of paintings within the gallery for sign language users, and another for hard-of-hearing people complete with handouts and individual loops for those whose hearing aids are compatible.”

The Abbey Theatre also shows performances with a sign language interpretation or with Stagetext, a captioning service for arts venues.

But she finds that the majority of communication with businesses and State bodies is by telephone, which is difficult to use even for people with mild or moderate hearing loss.

“When one tries to communicate by e-mail there are often delays of several days before one gets a response. That is, of course, if an e-mail address is provided. Banks, for instance, won’t deal with a third party making a phone call on behalf of the deaf/hard-of-hearing person, and this means in most cases that they have to take time off work to visit their local branch instead.”

According to the UK’s Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), about one in every 1,000 children is deaf at three years old, rising to two in every 1,000 children aged nine to 16. An estimated 760,000 people in Ireland have some degree of hearing loss.

“There are signs now, however, that people are presenting to their audiologists at an earlier age than previous generations and this is probably due to the increase in use of devices such as MP3 players, and listening to them at loud levels for long periods of time,” she says.

McAuley first became interested in acquiring a hearing dog when her friend and colleague, Elizabeth Ward in Derry, received hers in November 2004. “She, like me, has a severe hearing loss and through her role as a hearing therapist she encouraged me to apply for a hearing dog,” she says.

It was difficult to convince Hearing Dogs for Deaf People to extend the service to McAuley because it currently has no plans for a service in the Republic. The organisation has 14 working hearing dogs in Northern Ireland and has placed more than 1,500 dogs in the UK since 1982. It has a staff member in the Republic who sources suitable dogs for training that have been abandoned, rescued or donated.

“I took a bit of persuading to make the application, but I thought that if I was successful, it would not only benefit me, but would increase awareness of the importance of the role of a hearing dog in the life of someone who is deaf or severely hard of hearing.

“Many people have approached me to find out how to go about getting a hearing dog and are disappointed when I tell them that at the moment they are not being placed in the Republic of Ireland,” she says.

Having Chester has also been an unexpected help in her dealings with the public. Deafness is an invisible condition, but McAuley no longer needs to tell people that she is deaf and no longer gets strange looks when she fails to respond to someone talking because Chester has a burgundy-coloured coat with Hearing Dogs for Deaf People written on it.

In fact, she now finds she gets stopped in the street or in supermarkets. “I am the one at the end of the lead. People are very interested and intrigued to find out how Chester helps me. He certainly does a lot to create awareness.”


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