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Guest Blog: Post-16 Phonics Changed my Life

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This is a guest blog from Jo Byrne a member of the marvelous Claire Collins team. It’s beautiful, funny and wise in it’s own right, but maybe someone else will recognise themself and book their own appointment. Over to Jo:


Way back in July 2018 I embarked on a project with Claire Collins Consultancy Ltd and the UCL Institute of Education to design and pilot phonics approaches for post-16 learners (see Bit.ly/Post16Phonics). We had a cross team residential to kick start the project and this is where my journey began.

Having never understood phonics in the past and being the only non-literacy expert in the room, I was a little scared yet straight away everyone made me feel valued and part of the team and they all decided to check potential resources out on me first as I was potentially the audience the toolkit was being designed for.

They all very quickly got used to ‘I don’t get this’ and patiently explained and adapted until I did, which worked really well until they asked me to do activities that involved listening to sounds and identifying the differences between phonemes and we all hit a wall.

I remember one colleague sitting next to me with an activity where we had to put sounds made by the grapheme /ea/ into columns and I just couldn’t understand what I had to do and my lovely colleague kept going ‘UR UR UR’ (that is what it sounded like to me anyway) whilst trying to explain the activity to me and I am just sitting there trying not to laugh thinking; ‘OMG what is she doing?’

My other colleagues were scratching their heads wondering what on earth was going on when they said; “Have you ever had your hearing tested?” followed by; “I think you need to have your hearing tested” so, being the obedient type of girl I am, I promptly took myself off to Specsavers.

Specsavers declared I had moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears, which is not in their opinion age related and that I needed to be referred to the ear nose and throat (ENT) department at the hospital so they could find out what was going on. They said that they suspected I have always had this. They also said I wouldn’t understand phonics because I don’t hear over half of the sounds.

Relief washed through me as I was beginning to worry that I wasn’t clever enough to understand phonics but I decided that I didn’t need to go ENT as, surprisingly, I was not a fan of noise anyway and their diagnosis was just fine by me.

But of course it got me thinking, and more importantly it got my family, friends and colleagues thinking: ‘This must be why you don’t hear the cooker bleeping? Or the doorbell?’ Then I had the realisation that I don’t ignore people when they ring, I just don’t hear it and also why when I do hear it, I can’t hear the person speaking very well. So I decided to get a house phone and a doorbell for the hard of hearing as I felt they would benefit me.

My life suddenly improved; I was no longer on edge waiting for deliveries, I could hear the new doorbell and I loved it! I suddenly knew when people came to the door. Throughout my life, I have had an open-door policy so, rather than knock, friends and family would just come in and the postman, bless him, knew to bang on my window and wave. However, the amount of complaints I have made to various delivery organisations over the years telling them how disgusted I was that they pushed that little card through saying I wasn’t in when I was does make me feel a little bad! As for the new phone, well what can I say, initially this did make me slightly angry because they seem to only do very basic house phones for the hard of hearing and I felt like my phone upgrade was really a relic from 20 years ago BUT I loved it and have over the last year or so become quite the chatterbox and will happily pick the phone up to ring family, friends and colleagues (much to their annoyance) because, as soon as I press the little button that makes it all 40 db higher, I can hear everything.

However, a little knowledge is rather powerful and suddenly you know why things happen and, more importantly, others around you are more aware.

I quickly used my hearing as an excuse and everyone fully accepted my excuses. I have always muddled my words up and some words I simply cannot pronounce correctly. For example, a new word entered my vocabulary some months back; ‘competencies’. My tongue gets all twisted and it cannot come out correctly. In meetings, rather than feeling dumb, I would just say; ‘I have a hearing impairment.’ In meetings and events, rather than straining to hear or pretending to hear, I would just sit back and say; ‘I have a hearing impairment.’

Family, friends and colleagues also started realising that I didn’t hear them in group conversations, and that I just pretended to and they started adapting to me. For example, my best friend brought a mic to use at events so that I could hear. I was a bit shocked and said; ‘Why do you think I want to hear, I don’t even like noise and I like my quiet life!’ but she persevered and made me hear and a bit of me enjoyed it if truth be told.

I started to feel a little guilty, everyone around me was adapting but I wasn’t. In fact, I was behaving like Lou Mycroft’s folded arms brigade (FAB)! (see https://pdnorth.org.uk/2018/08/29/fab-opening-the-arms/) So I decided maybe I would go to the doctors and visit the ENT department and see what they had to say.

Surprisingly, ENT confirmed that I did indeed have moderate to severe hearing loss in both ears and declared that I needed hearing aids. I said that I wasn’t keen on them as I didn’t like noise but could accept that they would be useful if I was at events, meetings and social gatherings. They then surprised me and said; ‘Well, actually, you need them all of the time for your own quality of life.’ They explained that there are so many sounds out there that I was missing out on.

I agreed, although secretly decided I was only wearing the hearing aids at events, meetings and social gatherings but I was curious about which sounds I wasn’t hearing. However, my ‘FAB’ side decided they obviously were not worth hearing so I wasn’t really missing out.

I reluctantly went to my appointment to have them fitted and, after a bit of impressive testing, the nurse put the hearing aids in my ears and warned me she was turning them on. Then she handed me a piece of paper with the care instructions on.

Paper… I must have stared at that piece of paper with a bewildered look on my face because the nurse got quite tearful and said; ‘Yes Jo, paper makes a noise!’ and she scrunched it up. I was in total shock. I never knew paper made a noise and such a beautiful noise at that. I decided there and then these hearing aids were never coming out and I really need them. It was at that moment Post-16 Phonics well and truly changed my life.

Teeth… My very excited granddaughter ran around Tesco’s tapping everything saying; ‘Can you hear this Grandma? Can you hear this?’ I was like; ‘Yes I can hear everything darling.’ Then, she scratched a display and I almost had a meltdown in the aisle. The noise made my teeth funny. I was like; ‘OMG. what on earth are you doing, please don’t do that again!’, in between nearly laughing and crying at the same time. It felt so weird and it was not a nice feeling (I can imagine it now) and then I realised that I had experienced what people claim blackboards and chalk does to them.

My life has become lots of moments of first-time experiences.

Water… now I knew water made a noise BUT not the noise I could now hear and my brain keeps filling up with describing words that I had been taught as a child. Crystals is how I would describe water, it is like tiny crystals hitting the surface and I find myself smiling whenever I have to flush the loo, it is such a wonderful sound.

Peeing… I went in to a communal toilet at an event and realised I could hear others having a pee. I sort of sniggered to myself like a 4-year-old and went to the cubicle for a wee. Whilst sitting there, it dawned on me that if I could hear others, that meant that they could hear me. Feeling a little bit mortified, I ran back to the room and asked my bestie if it everyone could hear people pee, she started laughing and said; ‘Yes Jo, we can hear you pee.’ 😊

Frost… it crunches under your feet. I can’t wait for it to snow and I am excited about walking on the beach.

Now don’t get me wrong, it is not all unicorns and rainbows. I have no background noise at the moment; everything is right at the front of my head swirling around and bombarding my brain. When I get tired, my fingers and toes cringe at sensations such as carpet and toilet paper as they now feel alien to me (it must be a combination of feel but with sound and my senses being overloaded) but I am sure this will all go away as I get used to them. I can also hear stuff that isn’t nice, such as people sniffing, which is very annoying yet realised I sniff away when I have a cold or hayfever so I must be also be annoying. Trains passing by or setting off in stations send my whole body into a complete shiver they are so loud. And my ears itch, boy do they itch, so whilst I am bouncing around life enjoying all these new things, there are also at least 7 or 8 times a day when I just want to rip them out of my ears.

Regrets… my poor parents are beating themselves up because they wish they had picked it up when I was young and I am like; ‘How could any of us have known 50 years ago that I didn’t hear things like paper?’ I was never going to say; ‘Mummy, Daddy did you know I can’t hear some stuff?’ I didn’t know so how could they?

On reflection, I do think my saving grace as a child may have been my brother. When he first started school, he had an American tutor on placement and she immediately picked up that he was dyslexic, and she fought really hard to get him one to one support and trained Mum how to help him, not only with spelling but with his speech as he couldn’t pronounce words correctly. (OMG, as I am writing this I wonder if he also needs to go Specsavers). I can remember having to repeat over and over ‘little’ and ‘hospital’ (I pronounced it ‘likkle’ and ‘hospikal’) with my brother and most days after school were spent practising reading and speaking with him and Mum. In hindsight, I can only think that this must have helped me immensely.

Another saving grace I think was my Grandma. Grandma was from Ireland and spoke in a thick Southern Irish County Cork accent and I never ever understood a word she said, but she demanded that I sit and listen to all of her stories and boy could she talk and Grandma would also slap me around the head if I didn’t listen to her, so I quickly learnt to be an active listener and nod and shake my head as if I was hanging on to every word she said, although I still got a wallop if I agreed to something I should have disagreed too.

Realisations…I refuse to drive anywhere without the window open, yet today in the car I realised it is noisy and distracting and actually closed the window. My poor family have had to put up with that all my driving life.

And as I am writing this, I have just realised that the clock in my living room ticks. I thought it was a silent one.

It is like seeing the world around me in a new way and it is soooooo exciting.

7 Responses

  1. Jackie rossa

    Oh Jo that is just beautiful. I knew you all these years and never knew. How brave and inspirational you are xx

  2. Steven Goodfellow

    Enjoyed reading this, Jo, and can relate to so much of it, being SSD (single sided deaf) and reduced in other ear.
    Definitely struggled in primary & secondary school, undiagnosed. Childhood mastoiditis & somewhat brutal mastoidectomies, but a new consultant has done good reconstructive work and eventually gave me a bone anchored hearing aid. What a revelation! Lost it some 18 months ago to infection, but have been re-implanted and am due a new one fitting and calibrating on 3rd Jan. Woo Hoo!
    The thing I would like to say is ‘tiredness’. How tiring it can be to be constantly straining to hear, ‘on alert’ as it were. This applies as much to social situations as it does to work/classroom scenarios. It can totally drain you, and I definitely have avoided social things like going to the pub (where it gets louder as more ale is sunk!) I think this is a thing often overlooked by others, a sort of hidden disability within a hidden disability.
    So glad you are on a new hearing adventure – best wishes with it all.

  3. Lorna Lindsay

    Wow Jo what a revelation, though not as bad as you or for such a long time, I developed Tinnitus with some hearing loss and struggle sometimes to hear people and often say sorry got a slight hearing problem. But well done for taking this by the horns, it’s funny how by doing one thing you’ve discovered your problem, education comes in different forms.

  4. Jan Meredith

    Jo – so happy you’re enjoying the sounds you missed! Your story is very moving and resonates strongly with my experience. I now have 2 aids and am enjoying hearing raindrops on the window and the cat purring! I really hope your blog inspires others to ask for a test. Poor hearing held me back in ways I didn’t realise, always thinking of myself as just not a very confident person (so FAB). I wish you well in everything you do – go girl go!

  5. Jo Byrne

    Thank you all soooooo much for your messages of love and support xxx

  6. Sue

    Jo I have only just found out that you had written this blog. It is a truly touching story. Thank yoI for sharing

  7. Tricia

    I’ll make sure Jo sees this. Brilliant, isn’t it?

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