Monday, 14 July 2014

Isolation : There's no need to fly solo!

Victoria Cross Medal
Last weekend (5th/6th July) I was very brave... For the first time in nearly ten years I went to an event on my own where I've never met any of the people involved... 

I've avoided events like this in the past mainly due to problems holding conversations in noisy places (I've not been to the pub in a social sense since 2004/5) and my associated lack of confidence in approaching people I don't know to start a conversation. I'm not too bad when I'm with someone I know but even then I take a considerable time to come out of my shell with new people. Partly this is due to having to 'tune in' to how someone talks but also due to confidence issues.

I'd spent the previous few weeks umming and ahhing about whether to turn up and the other half said that I should. I spent the Friday night in a bit of a state, not quite turmoil, but certainly enough angst to ensure that I only slept for a total iof 3 1/2 hours! I then spent pretty much all the morning plucking up the courage to go. The event started at 10am and was a mere 45 minutes drive away and yet all the dithering meant that I didn't actually arrive until about 2pm.

I had a wander around and watched one of the demos in progress at which point I got into a brief conversation with first one person and then another couple... That, as it turned out, was the limit of my interaction with people... The three I've mentioned were kind enough to open the conversation with me but others didn't sadly. I was further put off approaching people myself as there was a lot of noise, hubbub and commotion from the people attending that made the second conversation particularly difficult to follow; more so when you realise that one of the particpants was from Scandinavia with a pronounced accent. 

At this point I'd spent half an hour in the demo room and decided to give up and slunk back to the car. I spent ages in the car, 50 minutes in total, debating whether to go home or give it another go. I was feeling rather low at this point and wishing I hadn't bothered. The whole experience very much reminded me why I didn't go to events, whether social or not, any more. I couldn't hear anything meaningful over the hubbub and my confidence was through the floor. Finally I decided to give it another go and went inside for a further 10 minutes or so before giving up and then heading home in a bit of a mood and hating everyone. I'd been so looking forward to meeting people and putting names to faces of people that I'd clicked with in the forums and on Skype. The disappointment was a big blow for me.

After getting home I posted on Facebook, in the event's Facebook group and in the Skype channel that a number of the attendees frequented to let people know that I had gone (they had been expecting me) and that I'd returned home. The response was universally supportive and encouraging without exception.

Some of the best comments are quoted below:
"the fact that you summed up the courage to go in there not just once but twice is a victory in itself - proud of you mike"
"I agree with the above, don't let the negative points bring down all the positives that you have achieved today. Put that smile back on your face - you've earned it"

"well done for going in the first place! Not all of us are social bunnies. Like you, I'm fine with people I know, but hate it when I know no-one. No good with the small talk! And your hearing problem must make it even worse for you."

"Well done Mike! You got the courage and went, all by yourself. I think you should give yourself some credit and feel proud. X"

"You went that's a huge positive and you gave it a 2nd go, most never even try"

After a while of getting myself relaxed again (I watched Pointless for heaven's sake!) I thought about having another go; after all it's only 45 minutes away.... So.. Off I went back up the A14 to have another crack at it. I was being particularly bloody-minded as I'd got on so well with everyone in the forums and on Skype and really wanted to meet up properly.

I arrived back at the venue around 8.20pm and mentioned this in Skype... Sadly the mobile reception in the area is particularly dire and the messages were slow in getting through. I spent around 40 minutes hanging around waiting for someone to find me before giving up again and going home. By this time I was very down and my mood worsened with the dreadful diversions in place around Kettering and ASDAs garage being closed despite the signs being lit up. Luckily Tescos was open so I could add some fuel to my depleted tank for the journey back down the A14.

Two of the best replies that I received on the Sunday after the event had finished are below and were from two of the key organisers:
"Hi, really sorry to hear about this, if I had known we could have helped there were quieter rooms that you could have hidden in... but I totally understand that approaching me (as someone you don't know) might have been difficult. Remind me before the event next time and we shall see what we can do to make it easier for you."
The following message made me blub a bit!
"Hey Mike , absolutely mirror <post quoted above> sentiments, I got your messages but hadn't realised the background issues, I wish I had because I would have be thrilled to buy you a drink and sit down for a chat in one of the quieter rooms. I'm trying to get to Fantasticon, if you felt up to it we would ensure you had a better experience. I feel really bad because I couldn't be prouder to be part of what I consider to be the most warm, friendly and accepting community going. Hopefully we will have another chance to meet up. Thanks for making the effort Mike"

So... All this to-ing and fro-ing... Any lessons I hear you ask?

Yes... There are lessons in abundance, here are some that I've learnt during the events of last week and during the writing of this blog post.
  • Firstly, rather than simply hinting at your Deafness/Hearing loss, make it clear that you have problems, and their extent/impact, before you go to the event.
  • Arrange to meet someone beforehand in a quiet room so you're not completely on your own in the main event. Most people would be happy to do this (see the quotes above).
  • If you can, take someone you know with you to be with you until you get into the swing of things. 
  • Wear something distinctive so that you are easily located by people you're trying to meet.
  • Keep going. The more you attend the more confident you'll become and the better you'll get at dealing with these situations.
  • Finally, remember that people really DO want you to be involved and enjoy yourself. This came out to me in abundance in the days that followed from many of my friends on Facebook and from the many people who attended on the day and I had missed.

Before I continue I should mention that I was utterly humbled by the tremendous responses from the event organisers and the attendees in the past week. I already knew them to be a great bunch of people in the forums online and was touched by their concern and their offers to include me more pro-actively next time around. Thanks to their responses there will be a next time as they have given me extra incentive to attend future events and perhaps even some confidence as well. I'd like to publicly thank the members of the Elite : Dangerous community for their kindness and tolerance to me over the past few days!

So what's next?

Well I have committed myself, that may very well be the right word, to attending a similar nerd-fest in August by booking a hotel room for two nights. The event's in Yorkshire so the distance is inconveniently far enough from home to prevent me running away so easily this time around!
Flying Solo? Not next time

Several people have already asked me to remind them that I'll be there and will try to make an effort to catch up with me before the event itself so I'm not flying solo in the big bash.

I shall also need to be brave this coming weekend as we are going to the wedding of some of Michelle's friends. I won't know anyone there apart from Michelle so this could be 'fun' as well! 


Thursday, 3 July 2014

Hearing Dog : More information.... Lots of it!

This Monday (30th June) I had the pleasure to be invited to an Information Day at the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People's Princes Risborough Training Centre as part of the application process.

We were very lucky with the weather given the previous few days weather had been not so great and had a warm and pleasant drive down.

We were also exceptionally lucky with the traffic on the journey down. I'd expected the usual Monday morning mayhem around Stevenage on the A1 but we managed to get through in pretty decent time... Why can't it always be like that!? The net result was that, after negotiating the old London orbital (A405), the A41 and the back roads from Tring through Wendover to Princes Risborough, we arrived 25 minutes earlier than we'd expected and that was after my efforts to slow down by just pottering along the A41 rather than hurtling along there at warp speed as usual!

The Grange, reception
On arrival we took a few minutes to relax before wandering along to reception to announce our arrival. A few other people arrived shortly afterwards some of whom, it later turned out, were other recipients attending the information day.

We were then collected from reception by 'Freda' the Hearing Dog Applications Advisor who took us along to The Grange itself, a medium sized farmhouse looking like some of it dated to the 17th Century and possibly some of it earlier based on my experience of farmhouses that are in the family. In fact the lounge area reminded me very much of the Drawing Room at Church Farm where my Great Grandfather farmed for many years in Suffolk. The room was painted a subtle mint green with the beams picked out in a dusky grey/green colour which was very restful and yet helped keep the low ceiling light and airy.

We had coffee (or squash) and biscuits along with the other attendees. There were five recipients in all; a young lady who signed, along with her mother, an older lady who had bought her daughter and grand-daughter. The lady had come from Eastbourne and her Daughter and Grand-Daughter had travelled from Portsmouth to Eastbourne and then onto Princes Risborough that morning! That's one very long and very early drive! Another young lady and her mother and finally a retired chef who had come on his own.

Along with the recipients were also three members of the Hearing Dogs' recipients advisory team, a BSL interpreter and a lipspeaker.

After a short while we all made our way to the lecture room in a separate building and settled down for introductions and a brief run through of how the day would be run. I was intrigued by the lipspeaker but found it a rather novel experience trying to follow as usually when I lip-read I hear half, see half and then put the two together and hope to God the result makes some kind of sense. With the lipspeaker there is a slight delay between the presenter's words and the lipspeaker's mouth movements something akin to those times when a DVD or TV programme has the audio out of sync with the video. Luckily there was also a superb induction loop system which meant I could hear the presenter's voice much louder than I could without the loop system; I was very impressed by the quality and clarity and this made life much much easier for me although I did still have to concentrate.

Meanwhile while all this was going on Michelle was watching the BSL interpreter to see if she could recognise any signs or learn new ones while listening (one of the joys of being able to hear is being able to listen to one person while looking elsewhere at another but I digress). She did, over the course of the day, manage to learn the signs for slobber/drool and ringing phone among others.

Following the introductions we were given some information on the various facets of having a Hearing Dog including the need for exercise, both physical and mental, keeping the dog practised with obedience and soundwork skills and some basic information on caring for the dog and the responsibilities that come with looking after a dog.

One of the things we learnt was that not picking up after your dog can result in a fine of £1000 for the owner. The Hearing Dogs people were keen to emphasise, and I agree, that as ambassadors in a way for the charity it would be pretty poor form for a Hearing Dog owner to not pick up after their Dog. I often wonder why some people just do not pick up at all... Yes, it's gross but it's even less fun treading in the leftovers or worse... There's no excuse these days with Dog bins being plentiful and there are plenty of methods to scoop without too much hassle.

Following the first presentation we were then given a demonstration of the dogs in action. Our demonstrators were Katherine (the 'handler') and Bruce who was a lovely 7/8 year old Labrador. We were told about how the training is structured and that the puppies are selected based on personality and reactions to people and sounds while still in the litter. At 8 weeks of age the puppies are paired with a Puppy Socialiser who they spend the next 11 months of their life with getting used to many different environments and experiences. The puppies are continually assessed during their development to ensure their personality and abilities fit in and match with the requirements to be a Hearing Dog.

When the puppy reaches a year they are then bought to one of the two Hearing Dogs training centres where they spend the next 18 weeks learning obedience and soundwork. The dogs spend the week at the centre and at the weekends they spend time with a 'foster' family to give them a break from the centre but also to provide them with further new experiences and surroundings.

The dogs start off their obedience training with their socialisers and learn the sit, lie down and stay commands as well as walking to heel. This training is continued and expanded on when they move to the training centre. Soundwork involves training the dogs to react to different sounds such as an alarm clock which is the first sound they are taught to react to. The dogs find this activity very rewarding as it's often rewarded with a hug which pleases them no end.

Once the dogs have mastered the early shift they are then taught to alert the recipient to telephone, doorbell and cooker timer sounds. The doorbell sounds they are trained to are of the traditional ringing doorbell rather than musical or two-tone doorbells. The cooker timer is probably the most flexible of the sounds they are trained to alert their owner to as it can be used in many situations.

When alerting the recipient the dog, depending on their size, either nudges the recipient or touches them with their paw. The recipient then asks 'where is it' or 'what is it' and puts their hands out showing the BSL sign for 'where'. The dog then takes the recipient to the timer or to the door depending on which alert has rung. Rather than use the timer on the cooker itself the dogs are trained to respond to a portable timer for several reasons. Firstly the issue of safety, the last thing you want is for the Dog to respond to the timer on the cooker and then take you to the cooker and possibly burn themselves. Secondly training them to respond to a portable timer means that the timer can be used for many more alerts without the dog needing to be trained to respond to several different alarms. Typically the cooker timer has been used for timing the cooker, microwave, running the bath and other activities that need to be timed. One recipient used to commute to London on the train and set the timer to go off shortly before his scheduled arrival and take the chance to sleep with the dog waking him when the alarm went off.

The next alert the dog is trained to respond to is the 'call' alert where someone can call the dog and ask the dog to go and 'call' the recipient. This is useful where the recipient is in one room or in the garden and a husband or wife needs to call them. The 'call' alert has been used in life critical situations an example of which was a recipients spouse was on Kidney Dialysis but one day the tube came loose which meant that they were having difficulties. They asked the dog to call the recipient who then raised the alarm.

Finally the dog is taught the fire alarm or smoke alarm alert. The dog's response in this instance is different. Rather than taking the recipient TO the source of the alert the dog is taught to alert the recipient and then lie down.

The demonstration introduced us to Bruce and walked us through the various alerts and actions, as described above, that the dogs are trained to respond to. Bruce seemed rather bored and kept lying down to the extent that Katherine had to walk him around so she could demonstrate the fire alarm alert properly.

You can see a demonstration similar to the one we watched in the video shown here. You will see Katherine and Bruce in the video as well. If you need a transcript you can find one here. As always the dog was the centre of attention and was very well behaved and enjoyed the work he was doing.

Following the thoroughly enjoyable demonstration we were then given a tour of the kennels on the site. These are spacious and well equipped with a veterinary area for treatment and raised waist height shower trays for cleaning the dogs off after a wet and muddy walk. The dogs were very varied in their attitude to us. Some chose to curry favour and seek attention while others couldn't be bothered at all and just lounged around being relaxed. We saw the larger dogs in their kennels first (the Labradors and a solitary Golden Retriever) and then visited the smaller dogs (Poodles, Cocker Spaniels and Cockerpoos) in their separate kennels. I learnt that that were two distinct Cocker Spaniel breeds being used; the Show Cocker Spaniel and the Working Cocker Spaniel. One of the of the Show Cocker Spaniels, a lovely tan and white mix, was particularly vocal and attention seeking while we visited  while the others tended to mind their own business generally. The lady who took us around the kennels had a fabulous, and very apt, description of the Labrador as being a 'Life support system for a stomach'!

We learnt how the dogs are bought in during the week and how they are walked daily by a large team of volunteer walkers who give the dogs their exercise while not being formally trained.

We then visited one of the training houses where the dogs are trained in their soundwork in a close to life home. Each dog undergoes 40 minutes of soundwork training each day to avoid over-stretching them. The houses each have a lounge, bathroom, bedroom, kitchen and dining room as you would expect in any normal house. They typically have a bathroom and bedroom on the ground floor to simulate single-level homes such as bungalows and flats. The walls of the training houses are festooned with pictures of Hearing Dogs and the pictures are of the dogs that were actually trained in the particular house which is a nice touch.

Finally we were shown the overnight accommodation used by recipients when visiting the centre for training or assessment. There are six converted stables in all and all were in use at the time so we didn't get to see inside but they are apparently very pleasant and comfortable.

After a break for a light lunch in the farmhouse we had a final presentation on how the process will develop from this point on.

Once the GP and Audiological response forms have been completed by the GP and Audiology Department the process moves to the next stage. My forms have been returned so this is where I am at in the process.

The next step is for a visit (another visit) to the training centre to spend a couple of days there where the recipient gets the opportunity to work with a variety of dogs in training to experience what it is like to handle and work with a Hearing Dog. The visit also provides the Hearing Dogs team the chance to assess the recipient (it's emphatically not a test) for personality type, walking pace and general lifestyle and other aspects that would have an impact on the choice of dog and matching. At present they anticipate that they would be looking to do this in the next 4 to 6 weeks which is much quicker than I'd imagined and apparently they have managed to speed things up significantly this year which is both amazing and brilliant!

Following the on-site assessment there will be a home assessment where a Hearing Dogs staff member visits the potential recipient in their own home where they will ask about the recipient's lifestyle in greater detail so they can further determine if a Hearing Dog is right for the recipient and, if so, what sort of dog would suit the recipient. They also take the opportunity to take a look at the area the recipient would normally walk the dog to assess its suitability.

A visit to the recipient's place of work is also undertaken to ensure the working environment is suitable for bringing a Hearing Dog into and also to chat with colleagues and managers about the Hearing Dogs scheme and answer any questions that they might have.

When all these stages have been completed the recipient is then informed whether having a Hearing Dog is going to be beneficial for them based on all the lifestyle factors that have been assessed.

The next stage, if the recipient is considered suitable, is the matching process which is done in great detail and is based on the recipient's and dog's personality and fit. When a potential match is made the recipient is invited to the training centre to meet the dog and see whether the recipient and dog get on well and gel. If this meeting is successful then the dog completes its training with any additional requirements that may be required for the recipient.

At present the waiting time from first applying to finally receiving a Hearing Dog is now a maximum of three years and, in some very lucky cases, this can be as little as twelve months in the right circumstances.

Finally, before we left we saw a video of some Hearing Dog recipients explaining the change it has made to their lives.

All in all we found it a thoroughly enjoyable, interesting and above all informative day.

Thank you to all of the Hearing Dogs staff we met that day, you bought some hope and fun into our day.

If you would like to donate and help Hearing Dogs for Deaf people, please do visit their site. It costs £43,000 to train each dog and support it during its 10 year working life and every contribution helps immensely.