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AVALANCHE!!!!!

Yes, my speech comprehension is snowballing now, hurtling down the mountainside (or is that the wrong metaphor for something that actually represents an upward trend? Before I dig myself in mixed metaphors so deep that not even a St. Bernard can dig me out, I shall explain. The car radio represents informal rehab in a ‘real-life’ situation, speech against background noise, viz. the engine noise, road noise and sound of the other traffic. At first I kept getting odd words, then the odd words turned up more frequently, and morphed into odd phrases: things like “source of the outbreak”. Then a wee breakthrough: hearing a couple of phrases with a slight interval between them was enough for me to identify the news item. On Friday I somehow managed to tune into and understand a complete news item.

I feel I’ve made a breakthrough, but it is immensely hard when you’ve been a lifelong lipreader and the habit is utterly ingrained. Lipreading isn’t JUST hearing through the eyes, it also becomes the medium by which you obtain and absorb information. So, for example, I might be able to understand a ten-minute speech at a function which I attended recently: I understood every single word perfectly. The speaker was polished, practised, poised, used to giving speeches and making eye contact with the audience, so everything was weighted in my favour. Yet challenged afterwards to summarise the speech, I couldn’t: I know I understood each individual word, and in fact if I had lipread the entire speech I would probably have been able to give a more adequate account of it. So physical comprehension skills of the actual words spoken are coming along nicely, my intellectual grasp of the content less so. Talking to someone today I was told that this is something hearing people sometimes have difficulty with too: one person may be able to repeat the entire conversation word for word; another may struggle to do more than get over the gist. It’s been very difficult – and it still is – listening to the radio and unless I have a transcript I might hit a few words OK, but it feels as if everyone else is speaking a foreign language. Which they are – they’re speaking sound.

I’ll just have to carry on doing the exercises then, and taking every opportunity that presents itself to do rehab somehow. This afternoon I visited a museum exhibition, one of those where they have ‘phones’ with recorded oral history testimonies. The museum had produced transcripts – full marks there – and I thought this would be an excellent chance to listen to unfamiliar speakers. These oral history archives have always left me feeling excluded: transcripts are a great thing but they don’t convey what the last native speaker of Manx sounded like, for example – if you’d like to know, click here.) On a holiday to the Isle of Man many years ago my deaf friend, who had hearing aids, listened to the Manx and said that it sounded like Greek to her. No transcripts back in those days. (My poor friend. I insisted on going Kirk Michael to see the greatest collection of Viking Age cross-slabs in the world. She settled down in a pew with a good book while I pored over the stones. But I digress.)

Today, then, was my chance to join in. BUT . . . they’d collected the audio-visual/interactive elements of the exhibition together in one area. What chance did I have of hearing the speaker on the ‘phone’ when film clips (not even subtitled) were booming out immediately to the right? Who thought that one up? How does a museum get to mount an exhibition funded by the local council and Arts Council England without thinking through accessibility issues?

I could just do the sound of my head hitting the desk repeatedly – zonka-zonka-zonka-ZONKKKKKKK. But I won’t (rest assured a letter of complaint is wending its way to said museum). But today also had its positive aspects. I spoke to my friend in Paris for the first time on Skype since the implant. She urged me to speak to her in French, and she said: “But you now have a perfect French accent! You don’t sound in the least bit British!” I’ve known her for several years so I guess you could say she now feels my French has improved just by being able to hear.

It’s a really odd feeling, this. I was chuffed to bits, of course, at her compliment, but there was a bit more to it than that. It’s almost as if having the CI has enabled me to be the person I am. I won’t say the person I should have been, because I don’t think it’s that simple, for me anyway, but rather that it’s bringing out parts of me that have been long buried by being deaf. I hate the sound of screaming children so much, it’s so visceral, that I actually mentioned it on my last visit to the hospital. It’s not the children, it’s the frequency. The answer: I’m probably one of those people who is programmed anyway to absolutely dislike that sound. But it also raises the question: how much of my progress or my difficulties, such as repeating back something I’ve heard rather than seen, can be put down to innate information processing rather than hearing? If I was a different person but had the same deafness and the same CI would I have the same successes and failures, or tell a completely different story?

Let it snowball, let it snowball . . .

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